Public Policy Coalition Building: Lessons Learned from 10 Years Leading Coalition Strategy

By Darin Broton, senior consultant, Tunheim

Whether you’re in Washington, D.C., Minneapolis or somewhere in-between, unique new campaign names start appearing almost every January in news stories, direct mail pieces, and radio and digital ads. Building America’s Future, Fix the Debt and Minnesotans Against Higher Insurance Costs are just some of the hundreds of coalitions around the country with engaging campaign brands focused on educating the public about important public policy topics. More importantly, coalitions are created to influence decisions.

Coalitions can be one of the most effective strategies in any public affairs campaign. The pooling of resources, talent and strategy can foster an impressive campaign to influence public opinion or policy decisions. But coalitions are not for the faint of heart. In fact, coalitions can sometimes be complicated and messy.

For more than 10 years, Tunheim has been developing, managing and consulting coalitions on numerous topic areas. While each coalition and its membership are unique, here are a few insights we have learned:

Without trust, a coalition is destined to fail.

The more complicated the policy or industry issue, the more complicated the relationships between stakeholders and advocates. If coalition members do not trust each other, the group will at some point collapse upon itself. Strong leadership and a fair decision-making process can foster or reaffirm trust within the coalition, but it also requires individual organizations to wait put differences aside and work together.

Steadfast leadership is always required.

Diverse coalitions require committed leadership to accomplish its goals and keep its membership united. The larger and more diverse the coalition, the more essential for leadership to inspire confidence and trust within the coalition. It is also important for leadership to speak for the entire coalition, not just the company or industry that he or she represents within the coalition.

Recognize (and embrace) everyone’s assets.

One of the benefits of creating a coalition is sharing the variety of assets each organization or company brings to the table. Coalition members may bring one or several assets, including financial resources, reputation, influence, issue expertise and an engaged membership. For many coalition members these assets will be seen as unequal, but coalition leadership needs to recognize each as a valuable contribution to the cause.

Decision-making becomes more complicated and important in large coalitions.

Coalitions with diverse interests require consistent communications from coalition leadership. It also requires a well-defined, trusted decision-making process. Whether it is an executive committee, board or co-chairs, the decision-making structure must ensure every coalition member’s interests are represented and supported throughout the campaign. That doesn’t mean every decision needs to have consensus, but the process needs to be fair and unbiased to ensure the coalition can maintain cohesiveness.

There is not a cookie cutter approach to creating and leading a coalition. Effective coalitions require shared sacrifice within the group and an understanding that each member does not need to see their organization in every coalition activity. By following these insights and providing clear and consistent internal communications, your coalition can be successful.

Do you work on an issue that can benefit from pooling of resources, talent and strategy? Reach out to the expert coalition builders on Tunheim’s Public Affairs team.

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