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Coalition building: common challenges

How to overcome these common obstacles building a coalition
6 min read
Last update: Jul 1, 2023

In this guide, we discuss a few common challenges that activist coalitions face. We help you address these challenges in an effective way.

📚 This guide is part of our series on coalition building.

Avoiding common pitfalls

As a networked coalition grows, it is important to anticipate common pitfalls that can cause a network to become dysfunctional. Below we list four particularly important pitfalls:

  1. Navigation becomes impossible - This occurs when network leaders or members can no longer fathom the network that they are a part of. They don’t know who the members are; where they stand on the issue; what they are doing to further the network’s purpose; or how to contact them. Investing in navigation by ensuring the network’s communication grid addresses these issues is essential. Members should be able to see who else is a member of the network; where they are located; what campaigning actions they are implementing; and how they can get in touch with them. They should also be able to access resources developed by other members and be able to share their own actions and resources across the network.

  2. Value flows stop - One of the reasons why networked coalitions are effective at taking campaigns to scale is that they offer concrete benefits to their members. When members implement campaign actions to further the network’s cause, these actions are given support and increased visibility by the network, allowing them to achieve greater impact than they would have done if they had been implemented on their own. If these value flows stop, then members will no longer feel as incentivised and motivated to continue actively participating in the network and it can therefore quickly lose momentum. Investing in a networked coalitions’ membership is essential for avoiding this pitfall - members need to be able to reach out to the network and garner support from others when they are leading campaign actions.

  3. Individual actions are not aggregated to create collective impact - Distributed leadership and decision-making are one of the key characteristics of networked coalitions. But there is a risk that decentralisation can go too far, leading to lots of self-initiated actions by individual members that do not add up to broader movement for structural/systemic change beyond the local level, limiting the ability of the network to transform its community power into the political power needed to achieve more systemic changes. Overcoming this challenge required integrating a certain degree of centralisation into the network’s structure and carefully balancing this with the need for autonomy and distributed ways of working. In the following section, we explore how to achieve this balance in more detail.

  4. Misalignment around why it's important to center race, what it means to center race and how to do it. This can lead to painful divides related to the ways power and privilege in our coalitions operate at the systemic, institutional and individual levels. These divides are harmful and can stop us from engaging fully to achieve our goals and win. We specifically mention race here because it is a place progressive organizations can often get stuck, and we want to acknowledge that this can apply to other identities and the intersections among them such as class, gender and so much more. As mentioned previously in the guide it's important to center IDEL principles at the values and principles level of the coalition work and to take that into all other aspects of the coalition work. It helps to be explicit about power dynamics, privilege and normalize talking about and unpacking the ways these show up in our work and impact us.

Scaling up

Coalitions always play a difficult dance when it comes to scale - that is - how the coalition traverses large geographies and generates people power across them. Traditional coalitions are often “centralised” with little activity at the base or local level. Yet “localised” coalitions often don’t have the political power to move a political agenda at a state or national level.

One way to think about this is to understand that all coalitions negotiate a tension between ‘autonomy’ and ‘control’ - and that each has value. Coalitions need an element of control - a (loose) central plan - it is the reason for working together but it is also the way in which coalitions are able to achieve influence over a wide scale. But too much control turns everyday people with autonomy into a group that just receives, and is expected to follow, orders from the top. The extreme of control is ‘totalitarianism’ - not very desirable.

Conversely autonomy is wonderful, to a point. It’s where leaders can come together and make meaningful decisions about social change strategy. But pure autonomy is anarchy - it provides no basis for coordinated action.

Coalitions operate across this continuum - verging between being more coordinated and more autonomous depending on the strategic challenges they face at any given moment. The Sydney Alliance went through a phase of “going deep”: focusing on building leadership following its 2000 person founding assembly (they wanted to engage all those people in local groups). But then, in the lead up to the State Election, they shifted and focused on coordination to win specific objectives.

There is no “correct” form of coordination - it is a tension that teams need to negotiate based on their purpose.

Pressures from funders

When a networked coalition starts out, its activities and infrastructure can often be self-funded by its members. However, as the network grows in membership, scale and complexity it will most likely be necessary to secure its own sources of funding. This can be achieved by securing external funding through grants exclusively for the network.

However, funders often exert pressures on their grantees for increased centralisation, control and bureaucratisation, under the pretext of ensuring that their funding is managed in an efficient and accountable manner. This can be problematic for networked coalitions, as their strength and effectiveness lies in their loose, decentralised structure in which no single person or organisation has control over the entire network’s operations. It can also create power imbalances that often go unaddressed directly with the funders, which can lead to fractures, unhelpful communication backchannels that only part of the coalition is part of and unnecessary tensions between groups who are perceived to have more or less funding and therefore more or less power in a coalition.

Re-Amp’s strategy for addressing this tension was to involve both funders and NGOs as equals from the outset of the establishment of the network. They both worked together to agree on collective priorities and then they aligned their campaigning strategies and funding accordingly. This created an opportunity for funders and NGOs to engage as equals in setting shared strategies, even if their roles differed.

Additionally, there is a growing recognition in the funders’ community of the potential of networked approaches to campaigns and of their need for different funding mechanisms that are more suited to their distinct characteristics. There are several guides that have been published for funders on how they can more effectively support networks, including Engage: How Funders Can Leverage Networks for Social Impact and Catalysing Networks for Social Change (Connecting to Change the World also has a chapter on funders’ roles in networks) so we encourage help to get these widely disseminated!

Data management and privacy

Rich and open flows of data and information are essential for a networked coalition to operate well. Due to their large number of members and campaigning actions being implemented on the ground, networked coalitions generate a lot of information that needs to be managed effectively and responsibly. Doing so requires establishing clear protocols that set out what information will be gathered from members, how it will be gathered and with whom it will be shared. Specific tools can then be developed in order to manage data collection and dissemination according to these protocols.

An important first step towards developing specific protocols and tools for data collection and sharing is setting out an initial privacy policy for the network, which will provide boundaries and inform subsequent protocols. For example, the Halt the Harm Network’s privacy policy clearly states what information will be used, what it will be used for, and with whom it will be shared. See Annex 2 of a Field Guide for Network Managers for the full text which you can use as an inspiration when developing your own policy.

Another important step is to have intentional conversations about security, risk, vulnerability and threat modeling with coalition partners. Have these conversations within the political context you’re operating in and bring in experts when needed. Keep in mind that this is another place where power and privilege play out in our work. People of color, women, queer and trans folks are much more likely to face vitriolic online attacks. Campaigns combating white supremacy will likely attract trolls, harassers and worse. Loose data, privacy and security practices in a coalition can lead to real harm for coalition partners and their members.

Principles to begin thinking about and guiding our digital security in coalitions include communication, storage, access and controls.

Please review the Blueprints for Change Digital Security Basics for Campaigners guide for more in-depth information.

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