Skip to content
On this page
🔥 Join our campaign to train 350 million activists!

Coalition building: the pros and cons

The potential benefits and limitations of coalition building
4 min read
Last update: Jul 1, 2023

In this guide, we outline the pros and cons of coalition building. First, we explain why coalition building might help your activist campaign. Secondly, we show the limitations of coalition building, and why it might not work for your organisation.

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

Potential benefits

Many coalitions come together to achieve a specific policy goal and develop a shared plan to achieve it. On the other hand, members of a networked coalition unite around a broader cause or purpose. For example, the Halt the Harm network brings together groups across the United States under the banner of “halting the harms of fracking” in their communities. The Environmental Law Reform Coalition is another example. This coalition built a lot of power by coming together behind a "Let's Get it Right" frame. The frame is clear, succinct and broad enough to include a bunch of environmental laws. On the other hand, networked coalitions can come together around a shared commitment to social change. We see this in Sydney Alliance’s commitment to community organising, or Lock the Gate’s commitment to literally “locking the gate” - a form of civil disobedience that prevents mining companies from accessing the land.

Focusing on broader missions like this make networked coalitions more suited to working on longer-term, systemic change, while also making it easier for larger diversity of members to get behind the cause (sometimes leading to unlikely alliances).

Networked coalitions start from the premise that within every coalition there is a network of people (staff, members of groups, activists, supporters, etc.), and this network can either be functional or dysfunctional. How functional this network is in practice is not necessarily dependent on the strength or degree of organisational alignment - coalitions can achieve high degrees of alignment at the organisational level but fail to foster connections and synergies among their members at the individual level. Networked coalitions therefore focus on building and strengthening the relationships between the people that belong to them. This is why, for instance, the Industrial Areas Foundation network focuses on the practice of relational meetings: when coalitions are not building trusted 1-1 connections, then those networks are dying.

Networked coalitions can operate at a variety of scales - but importantly they include the local neighbourhood scale. There is a recognition that power comes from the ownership, meaningful activity and participation of people - and that the most accessible space for this is locally. That said, networked coalitions can operate across multiple scales from the local to the global. The most powerful are multi-scaled, capable of simultaneous activity in multiple sites. This is why the Sydney Alliance has both a local structure of districts in neighborhoods alongside a citywide structure. Similarly the Ontario Health Coalition has dozens of local health chapters alongside a provincial structure.

Members of networked coalitions (at both the individual and organisational / group level) have higher degrees of autonomy to implement their own campaign tactics - there does not have to be consensus among all of the coalition’s members for one to pursue a particular strategy to advance the coalition’s cause. Distributed leadership and decision-making is thus a key feature of networked coalitions, leading to local actions that are initiated and implemented by members and new grassroots leaders (Check out our guide on distributed organizing.)

However, another crucial feature is that members’ self-initiated actions are supported and amplified by the network, allowing them to achieve greater impact than they otherwise could have accomplished. The stronger the network becomes, the more iterations of self-initiated actions appear, and the more powerful these individual actions become as they are supported and amplified by the network. Localised actions are also complemented by larger moments of convergence, during which all network members coordinate their actions over a set period of time (for example, through distributed events, big days of action or through coordinated tactical campaigning on a single target or to achieve a more tightly focused objective) in order to focus community power and scale impact. In these ways, the coalition provides tangible value and concrete services to its members.

The Gasfield Free Northern Rivers (GFNR) provides a good illustration of this kind of distributed structure in which members also receive support from across the network. The alliance functions as a system of distributed leadership, comprised of around 20 location-based action groups. While these groups have autonomy, they collaborate by sending a representative to regular GFNR meetings, where a high degree of cooperation ensures that vulnerable districts are supported by the whole region (for more on this listen to ChangeMakers Series 1, Ep 2).

Similarly, Re-Amp focused on designing a network with decentralized structures, many hubs, shared leadership, and multiple platforms for connecting and communicating. But it also holds an annual conference that brings the entire network together to build relationships and develop collective strategy.

By giving their members greater degrees of autonomy and the freedom to self-organise, networked coalitions can liberate the creativity of their members, facilitating a larger diversity of campaigning tactics and actions on the ground. This makes them ideal spaces to foster experimentation and innovation, which, if successful, can then be quickly spread across the network for other members to learn from.

When this might not work for you

More traditional coalitions may be more beneficial when the objective is to achieve a very concrete policy or legislative change, which requires a high degree of coordination and harmonisation among partners to drive lobbying and awareness-raising activities.

Big-brand NGOs can face difficulties participating in networked coalitions as their desire to promote and maintain control of their brands can find itself at odds with a networked coalition’s decentralised and distributed structure, in which no single member has control over all of the tactics and messaging that are utilised across the network. Networked coalitions may therefore not work for organisations that do not like the idea of participating in spaces where fellow members can implement campaigning actions or disseminate messages that they may not fully agree with.

Similarly, networked coalitions’ focus on facilitating broad, inclusive alliances can lead to NGOs having to participate in shared spaces with organisations that they may not agree with on other issues.

We're building the Wikipedia for activists

And you can help us. Join our our international team, or start a local group of writers.

Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike logo
You can reuse this content!
Just make sure to give attribution to Activist Handbook and read our licence for the details. Want to use our logo? Read our design guide.
All our work is available under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International Licence, unless otherwise noted.
Improve this page!