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date: 18 September 2021

Coalitions and Coalition Buildingfree

Coalitions and Coalition Buildingfree

  • Jessica Greenawalt, Jessica GreenawaltThe Arthur Project
  • Jan Ivery, Jan IveryGeorgia State University
  • Terry MizrahiTerry MizrahiHunter College, City University of New York
  •  and Beth Rosenthal

Summary

Coalitions are mechanisms to bring organizations and individuals together for collective efforts ranging from short-term crisis responses to longer-term problem-solving for social change. Coalitions create a specific type of collaboration that is dynamic and responsive to current events in the social, political, economic, and physical environments. In addition to addressing diverse issues, coalitions can be structured to position those most impacted by the issues to have greater influence in addressing them. This article frames an understanding of coalitions within the context of equity and power and suggests aligned language and approaches. Coalition-specific challenges and opportunities are presented to illustrate how coalition building is both a process and an outcome for developing equitable and inclusive practices in macro social work.

Subjects

  • Macro Practice

Coalitions: Essential Tools for Equity

Coalitions have emerged as powerful tools for organizations and communities in efforts to achieve social justice and equity. Where power is unequally distributed or there is insufficient organizational infrastructure, coalitions are a way to bridge the gap between people and resources and facilitate the development of social capital (Lardier et al., 2018). This article provides a basic framework for understanding and applying coalitions as mechanisms for people and organizations to effect change within the context of their community’s social and economic conditions and power disparities (Mizrahi et al., 2013). It updates conceptions of coalitions with examples from studies and practice over the last decade, including the role of coalitions during the historic events of 2020. By framing coalition-specific challenges and opportunities, this article illustrates how—within 21st-century and historical contexts—coalitions can operate as vehicles for equity (Christens et al., 2019).

Key Terms and Assumptions

This article takes an overarching view that coalitions have the potential to embody decolonized approaches that confront and create alternatives to entrenched oppressive beliefs, traditions, institutions, and practices that often exist in interorganizational work. The framework for discussing the processes and outcomes associated with equity in coalitions uses the following concepts and definitions, adapted from the Center for the Study of Social Policy (CSSP, 2019), and other sources:

Equality: The effort to treat everyone the same or to ensure that everyone has access to the same opportunities. It is important to note that only working to achieve equality ignores historical and structural factors that benefit some social groups and disadvantages other social groups in ways that create differential starting points.

Equity: The effort to provide different levels of support based on an individual’s or group’s needs to achieve fairness in outcomes. Working to achieve equity acknowledges unequal starting places and the need to correct the imbalance.

Diversity: A synonym for variety. A sole focus on diversity emphasizes “how many of these” there are in the room, organization, and so on. Diversity programs and cultural celebrations or education programs are not equivalent to racial justice or inclusion. It is possible to name, acknowledge, and celebrate diversity without doing anything to transform the institutional or structural systems that produce—and maintain—racialized injustices in communities. A central assumption of the framework is that coalition diversity refers to ethnicity/culture/national origin, class, gender, ability, age, and sexual identity. This is important to note because for coalitions in areas with little diversity in terms of race and ethnicity, other facets of diversity may be the central focus.

Lived Experience: The unique life experiences of individuals, shaped by the many facets of their personal identity and historical, social, and other contexts. Honoring lived experience implies both self-reflection and deeper understanding of others. Among varieties of diversity, lived experience is a personal dimension to be valued and explored with sensitivity and respect in coalition building.

Dominant Group: Not necessarily the majority, but the group within a society with the power, privilege, and social status to control and define societal resources and social, political, and economic systems and norms. In the United States, white persons comprise the dominant group and culture.

Inclusion: A state of belonging, when persons of different backgrounds and identities are valued, integrated, and welcomed equitably as decision-makers and collaborators. Inclusion involves people being given the opportunity to grow and belong. Diversity efforts alone do not create inclusive environments. Inclusion involves cultivating a norm of “coming as you are” and being accepted, rather than feeling the need to assimilate.

Power: The ability to define, set, or change situations. Power can manifest as personal or collective self-determination. Power is the ability to influence others to believe, behave, or adopt values as those in power desire.

Decolonization: The 21st-century use of this term conveys the need to undo the violence and the structural and psychological impacts of colonialism and imperialism. Decolonizing also means actively working to dismantle the persistent mentality that plays out today through forces such as white supremacy and institutionalized inequities of privilege and powerlessness. This concept of decolonization draws from liberation and Indigenous struggles in Africa, Latin America, and the Caribbean and embodies the powerful perspective of the oppressed fighting for independence and self-determination, fueled by the reaffirmation of their authentic values and cultural expressions (Betts, 2012). The term was articulated in the 1950s and 1960s by Martinique poet, Aimé Césaire (1955/2001) and psychologist, Franz Fanon (1961/1968), whose seminal writings connected the personal and the political, and inspired later civil rights and black power movements.

Developed amid the historical context of The Movement for Black Lives (M4BL, 2020), this article recognizes the damaging impact of structural racism on Black people, not only for that group alone, but as emblematic for others. While “Black” is the predominant term used and Black lives are central, there is no intention to exclude or minimize the oppression experienced by Indigenous or Latino/a/x people, or other people of color. While using the term “Black” through the article, the authors recognize the multiple and varied experiences of persons of color and the myriad ways that race intersects with other facets of identity.

Coalition Models and Applications

From health and mental health concerns, to short-term crisis responses, to long-term civic planning and problem-solving, coalitions have been effective tools in addressing a wide range of societal issues (Rosenthal et al., 2016). Community coalitions may originate as grassroots and place-based efforts that focus on increasing resources, improving service delivery, or advocating for social change. They may unite and strengthen disparate efforts to tackle comprehensive community issues. With increased public–private subcontracting, nonprofit coalitions have sometimes come to serve as major service delivery vehicles for health promotion, ranging from changing individual behaviors (Simpson & Hass, 2019), to coordinating interagency healthcare efforts (Simpson, 2020), to honing best practices by testing evidence-based prevention interventions (Johnson et al., 2017). The commonality is multiple partners engaged in strategies to address pervasive and complex problems that are larger than any one entity can solve.

Advocacy coalitions pursuing public policy and legislative change can achieve a more equitable distribution of resources and community engagement (Reisch, 2019). Coalitions may also evolve as strategic partnerships to address service gaps and limited resources. For example, a new organization that wants to assist incarcerated individuals to transition back to their community may partner with a larger economic development organization to leverage their experience and connections to employers and job training programs that will be a resource for the program participants (Reisch, 2019). Coalition models and applications have also evolved to incorporate advances in technology and social media, expanding to include a broader group of stakeholders, and opening membership to identity, issue-based, and geographic communities, with the capacity for more complex and widespread forms of collaboration (Greenawalt, 2017).

Coalitions occupy a unique space in relationship to organizations, other interorganizational collaborations, and social movements. Coalitions are more complex than organizations, more stable than collective action vehicles, but less encompassing than social movements. Coalitions over time may be formalized as organizations or transition to a permanent federation or serve as vehicles for collective action toward a larger social movement (Greenawalt, 2017). The coalition model itself has unique strengths and challenges. It is wonderfully flexible and can strategically adapt to internal and external changes over time (DeBray et al., 2014; Sotirov & Winkel, 2016). However, because of this flexibility, it is an inherently sensitive mechanism, vulnerable to competing pulls, and requires constant adjustments and attention to remain on course.

Coalitions were once defined as an “organization of autonomous organizations with an agreed upon purpose, engaged in influencing an external change target” (Mizrahi & Rosenthal, 1993, 2001). As studies over the last decade have shown, this definition does not fully encompass all components of coalitions as they operate in practice. Coalitions are not necessarily composed solely of discrete organizations but are often a mix of individuals and informal groups as well as formal organizations (Greenawalt, 2017; Sotirov & Winkel, 2016).

The more nuanced definition operationalizes coalitions as “networks of autonomous entities who, through collective action, exchange social capital in their mutual pursuit of internal and/or external goals” (Greenawalt, 2017, p. 135). Key here is the concept of social capital, defined as the “features of social organization, such as networks, norms, and trust that facilitate coordination and cooperation for mutual benefit” (Putnam, 1993, p. 67).

Coalitions today may include loose, variable forms of interaction, with qualities of networks, in which relationships characterized as “weak ties” (Granovetter, 1973) serve as unique conduits for the exchange of social capital. Coalitions may create an environment for social support and connection and provide access to resources—both actual and potential—to develop the social capital necessary for their collective change efforts (Carpiano, 2006). By harnessing social capital, they can generate the power necessary to address gaps in service delivery, provide opportunities for civic participation and community engagement, and increase access to opportunities for economic growth (Ivery, 2014). Their “weak ties” offer an extraordinary opportunity to cultivate otherwise unobtainable relationships with a variety of community partners and funding sources. Coalitions intent on striving for equity can create processes to ensure equitable access to these contacts and resources, and position groups who are often excluded or allowed only token roles to leverage those relationships and join in developing shared power.

Context for 21st-Century-Coalition Building

The understanding of coalitions as tools for equity is shaped within the political and historical climate of the early 21st-century. Events in 2020—including the uprising for racial equity triggered by the publicly viewed murders of George Floyd and other targeted Black persons—have renewed mainstream interest in M4BL (2020). As such, the movement has developed a much wider constituent base (i.e., businesses, universities, sports, and other cultural entities), prompting many to consider—for the first time—how their actions may have contributed to persistent structural racism and ethnic disparities.

The mass mobilization for racial justice in 2020 highlighted long-standing economic and social inequities and spawned new intersectional coalitions to address injustice. One example of the many coalitions within M4BL, “The Rising Majority” is “a multiracial coalition that seeks to develop a collective strategy and shared practice that involves labor, youth, immigrant rights, climate justice, feminist, anti-war/anti-imperialist, and economic-justice forces in order to amplify our collective power and to build alignment across our movements” (M4BL, 2020). This coalition is creating a decentralized “ecosystem” of efforts toward the winning of “rights, resources, and recognition for Black people” (M4BL, 2020) and working for racial and economic equity.

The COVID-19 pandemic of 2020 is another signal event that not only changed the way people interact and engage with each other, but also illuminated long-standing health and economic inequities. The communities most affected by and at risk for COVID-19 are the same marginalized and disempowered ones that have disproportionately suffered from social, health, educational, and environmental disparities due to their race, ethnicity, socioeconomic status, gender, and country of origin (Chowkwanyun & Reed, 2020; Hooper et al., 2020).

The pandemic has revealed additional disparities. As governments issued stay-at-home orders to slow the spread of the virus, many people were required to work remotely from home and pursue education through virtual instruction. This major transition revealed myriad differences in capacity and choice, reflecting privilege inherent in the ability to limit exposure to COVID-19 by staying home. Meanwhile, women of color were disproportionally holding “frontline” positions where their exposure to the virus is higher. Coalitions have emerged to support people and groups with fewer options, and advocate for and implement social change in the context of the new “normal” that reimagines the relationships between work, home, institutions, and communities (Santiago & Smith, 2020).

COVID-19 also exacerbated long-standing inequities—such as environmental injustices—compelling coalitions addressing those issues to ramp up action with renewed urgency. As one example, in 2014 the Detroit Water and Sewage Department shut off water service to residents in the city who were unable to pay, terminating access to over 20,000 homes in that year alone. Ten years prior, a coalition of community, labor, environmental, legal, and faith-based organizations in Michigan had alerted politicians about the public health risk posed by thousands of households without running water, warning that this would be especially problematic if a pandemic occurred. When COVID-19 emerged, this coalition and their partner sent a letter to the Governor of Michigan to request restoration of water services to the shutoff households. The request was initially denied until the first COVID-19 case was confirmed in the state. The threat of increased community spread generated a surge of attention to the shutoffs, and the combined issues resulted in an order to restore water service. The coalition then pivoted from advocacy to becoming a local command center that provided information on water restoration and coordinated emergency water delivery to families (Santiago & Smith, 2020). This example highlights the power of coalitions to be a force for equity.

Challenges and Opportunities for Coalitions

This section discusses four key challenges and opportunities for success in coalition building, also incorporating a focus on equity. These four foci include: cultivating leadership, attending to both process and goals, enhancing communication and the use of technology, and defining and measuring success.

Challenge #1: Cultivating Equity in Leadership

Many coalitions are founded or led by people with privilege and power who have the access, means, and connections to launch such complex endeavors. While there are, of course, notable exceptions, all too often grassroots community members from the affected communities are not involved at the start, or stakeholders’ lived experiences in relation to the issue are not considered; therefore, those most impacted by injustice and inequality may remain sidelined or marginalized. In all cases, coalition leaders and members are challenged to consider how their community is defined and the assets (and disadvantages) of various “insider–outsider” positions within that defined community (Staples, 2016).

Coalitions often include dominant group representatives from powerful institutions, who typically play an outsized role in decision-making. While their power and resources can be an asset to the overall effort, their leadership may not be reflective of, nor viewed as legitimate by, the broader stakeholder community (Wolff et al., 2017). Recognizing the importance of community accountability and control, some coalitions attempt to build a diverse leadership cohort from the outset, including leaders with different backgrounds, status, power, and roots. However, increasing diversity, especially when the leaders are unfamiliar with each other, also increases the time needed to gain trust and develop a shared culture. When leaders bring different concepts, approaches, and goals to the table, there is the potential for conflict and disorder, unless equitable processes are facilitated. Creating appropriate coalition structure, work plans, and processes for implementation and monitoring are complicated. However, it is essential to engage diverse components and actors that may need to adapt to changing circumstances over time (Hohman et al., 2018).

Opportunities to develop grassroots leadership are limited if coalitions do not develop structures that facilitate shared power and development of the next generation of community leaders. Similar issues emerge around planning for leadership succession (Butterfoss, 2007). Coalition success and continuity may be jeopardized if sufficient attention is not paid to building support and preparing emerging leaders for larger roles.

Opportunity #1: Develop Leaders with Multidimensional Qualities and Skills

Coalitions are strengthened when they are led by a cadre of respectful, responsive, representative, and qualified individuals who can move the efforts of the group forward by keeping members engaged, evaluating and reporting the group’s successes, and effectively using collective power for sustainable change.

Leaders of social change coalitions simultaneously manage three critical levels of interaction: (a) sustaining movement toward external goals by influencing social change targets; (b) maintaining internal relations among the core organizational representatives; and (c) developing trust with, accountability to, and contributions from the coalition membership base (Mizrahi & Rosenthal, 2001). Coalition leaders are most effective when they identify and apply a multidimensional skill set. The competency to “transform individual interests into a dynamic collective force” (Foster-Fishman et al., 2001, p. 253) entails additional qualities. Effective coalition leaders possess special capabilities, including the capacity to work with complexity, ambiguity, and uncertainty; to be nimble and adaptive in reframing goals and sustaining member engagement through conflict and change; to track both the whole and its parts; and to keep the effort in forward motion (Mizrahi & Rosenthal, 2001). Respectful treatment of others, integrity, and humility were also found to be major traits held in high esteem by coalition leaders (Mizrahi & Rosenthal, 2001).

Paying attention to who assumes leadership, based on their identity, lived experience, and positionality in relation to coalition goals and scope, is an important dimension in cultivating equity. At the same time, it is important for those forming a coalition to identify and acknowledge the privilege that may be associated with their background and status as appropriate. This may include a critical examination of how their socialized attitudes and behaviors affect their self-interests and sustain their positions of power and influence, especially when working with diverse and less powerful groups (Reisch, 2019).

Coalitions are encouraged to take a proactive approach to leadership development and succession planning, to ensure that authentic community representatives are prepared to assume larger leadership roles. Practice wisdom suggests that coalitions should develop a structure to create a pool of individuals who will be ready to lead when the current leadership transitions to other roles or leaves the coalition. Efforts to “groom” and mentor new leaders by giving them increased exposure and opportunities to manage smaller projects will support their growth (Butterfoss, 2007).

If a coalition is not led by a leadership team that includes community representatives, cultivating or supporting authentic leaders should become part of ongoing process goals. Ultimately, a primary goal of any coalition is to ensure that no one group of leaders becomes entrenched. One promising strategy to use is “empowerment-oriented leadership development,” which cultivates local leadership by working with individuals to promote their unique expertise based on their lived experience, and then leveraging those experiences to build capacity to lead change in the larger social and political environment (Ortega & Rodriguez Jenkins, 2021). Facilitating opportunities to improve individual capacity builds collective skills, strengths, and confidence, ultimately producing coalitions that can have a larger impact on society (Powell & Peterson, 2014).

Challenge #2: Promoting Equity While Working toward Goal Achievement

The complexity of building a diverse and unified coalition takes on additional layers when equity and social justice are priorities (Mizrahi & Rosenthal, 1993; Rosenthal et al., 2016). Coalitions addressing issues critical to communities that have traditionally been marginalized face notable challenges. There may be an us/them dichotomy dividing privileged outsiders and grassroots community members. There is danger that a coalition will not know or value authentic community networks and Indigenous leaders, or that historic power difference, experiences, and beliefs cannot be breached. As a result, prospective partners can begin by exploring their respective values and concerns to decide to work together, and then engage in sharing their respective goals for involvement and the outcomes they are seeking. Without a history of relationship, shared experience, and trust, such candid discussions can be daunting. Creating the time, space, and capacity to organize within the coalition itself is of the utmost importance.

Unequal power dynamics have a cascading effect on several coalition facets, including member selection, articulation of roles and responsibilities, and expectations around expected contributions (Hart, 2011; Jabbar, 2011). A challenge thus arises in organizing truly inclusive coalitions with processes for incorporating diverse inputs unless such coalitions intentionally take the time to develop equitable processes around power and decision-making. However, because of the urgency in taking on complex policy or community change goals, some coalitions—either explicitly or unintentionally—may decide to forgo the time and energy to organize and manage diverse inputs in favor of implementing strategies to achieve their goals (Bayne-Smith et al., 2008; Greenawalt, 2017; Raynor, 2011).

The more diverse the stakeholders, the longer it will take to build consensus on appropriate goals and strategies and ultimately to achieve even greater influence because of the breadth and depth of the coalition’s allies and supporters. Conversely, the more compatible the stakeholders are, the easier it will be to find common ground to move ahead on the coalition’s targets and goals, albeit with potentially less innovation and legitimacy. Hence, there can be a continuing struggle between unity and diversity on many fronts (Mizrahi & Rosenthal, 1993). The challenge is to build capacity and synergy, and to move ahead on shared goals.

Opportunity #2: Use Diversity as a Springboard for Equity

Whatever their target issue, coalitions that intend to build community power need to create processes and structures that engage their community in its fullest sense. This focus on inclusion and representation compels conscious choices for coalition operations at every stage and level.

Membership recruitment is the first step in establishing equitable relationships. Exploratory conversations with potential members can result in clear expectations, interests, and potential benefits for both the coalition and the intended individual members and organizations. These initial conversations need to be explicit about mutual self-interest—why the prospective member organization or constituency is strategically needed by the coalition as well as the advantages and benefits that may accrue to the prospective recruitee of coalition participation. Absent this clarity, important potential members may be reluctant to join, or else join and encounter misunderstandings upon further negotiating terms for the partnership (Rosenthal et al., 2016; Sowa, 2009).

From inception, coalition leaders need to reinforce “weak ties” at both the organizational and individual membership level, to build linkages through which social capital can be shared (Greenawalt, 2017; Macke & Dilly, 2010). Commitment is strengthened by bolstering equitable relationships among members, including organizations or constituencies that participate via representatives. Initially, the role of the convening leadership group needs to be clearly defined and delimited to prevent creating an unnecessary hierarchy (Wolff et al., 2017). Once the group is convened, coalitions need to articulate their values, agree on principles, clarify expectations about what they affirm and will do, and identify shared outcomes. For example, the Jemez Principles for Democratic Organizing offer a foundation for racial and economic equity and shared distribution of power. Having such principles can provide a solid framework to ground coalition functioning (Wolff et al., 2017).

When coalitions include formal organizations or constituencies represented by particular individuals, the representative role and function needs to be articulated, valued, and understood. Representatives need to be recognized as legitimate spokespersons for a larger organization or constituency. Coalitions reinforce inclusion of and connection to the constituency or organization by identifying the pivotal role the representative plays as intermediaries and two-way communicators with accountability to their constituents (Dunlap & Angell, 2001; Tesdahl & Speer, 2015). Acknowledging the representatives’ roles within a coalition’s structure allows for the coalition to be aware of and reflect the views and priorities of its broader base (Nissen, 2004).

It is useful for coalitions and their members to spell out terms for coalition involvement via representatives, ideally having it written into members’ organizational job description so that the terms of their coalition participation are codified. This both reinforces the organization’s membership and clarifies mutual expectations and commitments. It is important to establish the coalition relationship as organizational rather than personal. Should a representative leave the coalition for whatever reason, the organizational connection needs to be reaffirmed and preserved through the designation of a new representative.

Weak ties between individual members—especially those who require more tangible support or flexibility—can be strengthened by incentivizing their participation. This could include offering leadership development opportunities, financial compensation, flexible meeting times and locations, and varied opportunities for engaging in the coalition’s work.

Over time, a coalition’s circumstances or its goals may likely change. This turning point may trigger a turnover in membership, as members may not be willing or able to stay involved or actively participate. It becomes important to find ways they can withdraw while retaining their connection and support. Additionally, at such points when ties are broken, coalition leaders need to pivot to membership replenishment, reaching out to new stakeholders aligned with the changed circumstances or goals, and cultivating new members.

After recruiting and engaging members, achieving a consensus around coalition mission, goals, and strategies becomes a high priority (Ruggiano et al., 2013). Building equity into decision-making processes around these formative choices can strengthen unity and enhance the soundness of those decisions. Coalition leaders can foster shared power among stakeholders in setting the agenda, voicing ideas, and deciding on the coalition’s purpose and direction, again ensuring that those most affected by the issue are involved. Exploring disparate views on strategic decisions is another opening to learn from and about each other, to address root causes of conflict and to strengthen integrative relationships.

Coalitions that value diversity recognize that deepening relationships and equitable partnerships requires continued nurturance and support throughout. Ongoing tasks and meetings need to be structured to provide time and space for members to explain their work, values, and priorities so that these can inform and be reflected in the coalition’s vision and priorities (Rosenthal et al., 2016). Structuring dialogue, sharing stories, cultural events, and comparing past experiences can change perceptions and increase mutual awareness, respect, and trust.

Opening coalitions to the diversity of lived experiences and ideologies can also generate tensions over definitions of the problem and strategic interests. If anticipated and sensitively handled, conflict in all its forms—tensions, disagreements, strong differences of opinion—can be a tool to understand individual differences as part of the collective perspective. Rather than viewing conflict as something to be avoided, it is useful to consider conflict as an opportunity to examine issues, learn more about different values and assumptions, and create inclusive solutions. Coalition leadership valuing diversity need to acknowledge constructive disagreement, search for intersections, and reach for broader interpretations that may ultimately reshape and enlarge a coalition’s vision. In this way, creative use of conflict can strengthen relationships and allow people to appreciate diversity. Accepting conflict as a resource implies that its value is stated from the outset, and that strategies and processes are developed for productive conflict management, recognizing that, in doing so, it may take longer to reach consensus and move forward (Greenawalt, 2017; Suter et al., 2009).

Challenge #3: Generating Inclusive Technology Practices

Social media, a general term used to describe technology that fosters network communication in digital spaces, has emerged as an indispensable strategy to facilitate interaction within and between coalitions. Social media tools also allow a unique opportunity for information gathering and participation. Coalitions can quickly survey the landscape around a particular issue, assessing both needs and interests, and take action through virtual organizing strategies. Moreover, individuals can participate in the work of a coalition from any space with a cellular or broadband connection, allowing coalitions to drastically expand their network of supporters (Danley et al., 2017; Harlow & Guo, 2014; Mitchell et al., 2017).

A common, yet incorrect, assumption in 2020 was that everyone is connected to the digital world and has access to laptops, cell phones, and tablets. It is estimated by Connect Americans Now (CAN) that as of 2020, 34 million Americans do not have a broadband internet connection. Household access to the Internet is increasingly becoming an issue of inequity, as the COVID pandemic has illustrated. Without a broadband connection, students are unable to complete homework assignments and parents are unable to meaningfully participate in several important transactions—from paying bills to continuing education and securing employment. Additionally, how internet-lacking households receive information is slowed since the most recent news updates tend to be online before a print edition is published. This unequal access to information and technology exacerbates already existing disparities. This increasingly significant “digital divide” is an important issue for coalitions to rectify in their efforts toward inclusivity. Subsequently, coalitions need to continue to use personal outreach through various networks in order to inform and engage those who may not be getting information online.

This changing role of technology compels coalitions to make use of the many free platforms in developing powerful and efficient media strategies. However, while online or social media technology allow for quicker and broader outreach and engagement, these do not by themselves guarantee the level and type of sustained commitment and contributions to make lasting and transformative change (see also Gladwell, 2010; Smithson et al., 2012).

Opportunity #3: Create a Diverse Portfolio of Technological Tools to Manage Communications

Advocacy is a central activity of coalitions and coalition efforts over the last decade have increasingly integrated technology into their outreach and engagement efforts in a variety of digital methods. Digital advocacy refers to “the tools, techniques, and strategies of traditional advocacy-focused community organizing, which combines a variety of social media and web-based technologies within the context of community organizing” (Young et al., 2015, p. 259). Instagram, Facebook, and Twitter are recognized social media tools along with video conference calls (i.e., Zoom), email, and data storage clouds as examples of web-based technologies that are used to connect coalitions with their constituents and other stakeholder groups. Digital advocacy has become more widely used by coalitions in 2020 as was illustrated during the COVID-19 pandemic and social protests (Hu, 2020).

Coalitions should consider the availability and use of various technology without losing sight of opportunities for in-person community-building efforts. A challenge for the use of digital advocacy primarily or exclusively is keeping people invested and engaged when personal bonds and relationships, typically developed in shared physical spaces, are less able to occur (Young et al., 2015). Coalitions need to be strategic in developing inclusive practices—including face-to-face and telephone interactions—using technology as a complement these more traditional tactics instead of relying on it as the primary strategy for long-term sustainability whenever possible.

Coalitions should consider how these technological tools will be used and by whom when deciding how they plan to engage their members. Digital actions and advocacy allow for flexibility, addressing a wide audience, and generating rapid responses to emerging issues, but it is not a replacement for the type of in-person and voice engagement through telephone and teleconferencing necessary to sustain the effort.

Challenge #4: The Complexity of Defining Coalition Success

Traditionally, an oversimplified definition of coalition success has focused on coalition results and outcomes in order to demonstrate that joint efforts have achieved intended goals (Greenawalt, 2017; Johnson et al., 2017). Over time, while making progress toward their goals or in the absence of specific goal achievement, coalition success has been expanded and measured using multiple dimensions both internal and external to the coalition itself. Coalitions are challenged not only to define and measure their success internally, but also to communicate their impact to stakeholders and funders that they are making a difference by achieving other desired outcomes, whether intentional or unanticipated (Shapiro et al., 2013).

This multidimensional dynamic related to defining success includes the complexity in answering the question, “Has your coalition been successful?” As studies have shown, participants and their member organizations will usually respond, “It depends on your definition of success” (Greenawalt, 2017; Mizrahi & Rosenthal, 2001). Long-term coalitions are especially challenged to identify multiple definitions of success before or in addition to achieving their ostensible goals to avoid members losing interest or dropping out.

This “success challenge” is also complicated by whether its current and would-be participants view the coalition as a “means or a model” (Mizrahi & Rosenthal, 1993). Those who view it as a means to achieve an external goal (e.g., obtain a policy win or increase funding for their constituents) will be more likely to focus on the product and outcome and less on its internal dynamics in defining success. With increased attention being paid to practices within coalitions such as building equitable participation and managing conflicts, those who view the coalition as working toward a model of interorganizational cooperation and community building may focus as much if not more on the process of inclusion in evaluating its success. The challenge for coalitions is to incorporate elements of both the product (means) and process (model) into their goal setting from the formation stage on (Hohman et al., 2018).

Additional defining characteristics complicate the coalition assessment process. For example, achieving recognition from the intended target, which demonstrates that the coalition is a legitimate and necessary player in making change, may be identified as a measure of success in itself since it is not always a given when a coalition first forms. Getting “to the decision-making table” to negotiate change often becomes a major accomplishment, especially when it takes time and effort to achieve it. As another example, given the resistance to change by those in power, a coalition’s ability to sustain itself—that is, achieving longevity—in order to engage in a lengthy process of change, can be another definition of success by itself. This is especially accurate when a coalition continues to function over time against formidable odds and opponents (Johnson et al., 2017). Furthermore, success may also be measured by a coalition’s legacy—the degree to which coalition processes, teachings, and results live on and are incorporated into other contexts, policies, and programs beyond its tenure.

Opportunity #4: Define and Evaluate Success Multidimensionally

Successful coalitions incorporate a multidimensional perspective in assessing their accomplishments from the outset. Those who include equity and inclusion in their assessment of success may also identify additional measures of success. Such measures may include the development of lasting relationships and enhancement of members’ personal and professional networks, as well as the accrual of capital and benefits such as increasing one’s status, making new contacts, gaining knowledge and skills, and acquiring needed resources (Greenawalt, 2017; Rosenthal et al., 2016). Coalitions may also consider, as elements of success, the capital and benefits specifically accrued by those who have historically held less power. Those benefits might include identifying heightened public awareness about the particular problem or issue or heightened awareness of additional issues beyond the specific goal or stated priority of the coalition.

Especially for coalitions with long-term or complex goals (e.g., ending hunger; reducing infant mortality) it is important to identify “interim victories” or “proximal outcomes,” that is, to include short-term accomplishments that sustain continued buy-in from the membership as successes. These interim achievements may include holding conferences, media events, celebrations, and other community-building activities (Butterfoss, 2007; Lardier et al., 2018; Weissm et al., 2010).

Increasingly, attention has been paid to the capacity for coalitions to navigate their internal mechanisms and relationships as determinant factors that influence coalition results (Ospina & Foldy, 2010). Measuring the success in terms of capacity building may include indicators along different dimensions such as the development of effective structures, roles, and procedures that promote information sharing, problem-solving, and continuous learning (Powell & Peterson, 2014). Additionally, successful capacity building may also be reflected through the development of specific program capacity to address needs with innovative effective solutions (Bayne et al., 2012; Marek et al., 2015).

Many successful coalitions attempt to build their capacity in order to strengthen points of intersection—to improve interagency and multisectoral communication—and to harness creative conflict so that they can maximize coordination, synergy, and innovation (Simpson, 2020; Weiss et al., 2010). These are deep and difficult tasks to accomplish while also working toward external social justice goals and keeping a diverse membership base involved. As a result, methods and tools to increase coalition capacity that have evolved to assist coalitions include formal technical assistance, training, and coaching, along with peer support, learning collectives, and online practice communities (Community Tool Box, 2020; Raynor, 2011; Simpson, 2020).

Especially when coalitions aim to address injustice and inequity, they are tasked to “walk the talk.” Success for them includes addressing root causes of inequity and reflecting community priorities as well as operating with internal structures and processes that embody desired principles and practice (Wolff et al., 2017. Hence, increasing coalition diversity and reducing leadership disparities will themselves be indicators of success and may be considered as intermediate milestones and preconditions while the coalition works toward achieving their desired external successes. Additional indicators of success often include attaining tangible community improvement (Brown et al., 2017); building community power, leadership, and control; addressing systems of oppression (Christens et al., 2019); reducing economic, health, and other disparities; and altering laws and policies to dismantle structural racism and discrimination (LeBron et al., 2018). Extending the notion of coalitions as both a means and model for achieving desired changes, some coalitions now explicitly address equity and justice both in targeting external goals and in shaping their own internal coalition processes (Christens et al., 2019).

The question of whether a coalition has been successful resurfaces again at the point when it is nearing its ending phase. Coalitions that pursue visionary long-term goals such as eradicating hunger or achieving racial equity may never fully achieve their ultimate aims before they decide to terminate. In such cases, falling short of full goal achievement need not indicate that the coalition is a failure (Greenawalt, 2017). Instead, coalitions often reframe their success in terms of their internal progress, interim victories, legitimacy, longevity, or legacy.

Alternately, coalitions that have achieved one or more of their goals often continue their collaboration by identifying different goals, or they may move on to a new phase in advancing their long-term goals. In these cases, initial goal achievement does not necessarily constitute the ultimate success. Rather, these achievements may be repositioned as interim victories, as coalitions adjust their goals to changing conditions and opportunities, or pursue higher, more complex marks of success. For example, public health coalitions may evolve over time to expand to scale or hone their approach after extensive scrutiny and evaluations (Bayne et al., 2012; Hargreaves et al., 2017). Those which produce a replicable model for intervention might then shift to new roles in monitoring implementation or positioning themselves as policy advisors and issue influencers. Similarly, for coalitions that view themselves as models (rather than means to an end), success, whatever their goals, may include building a diverse and equitable coalition process.

Conclusion

Coalitions have multiple applications in macro social work practice and have been studied extensively in the literature. Although their core functions, structure, and focus on social change have been consistent in the literature, the theory and practice of coalition building have evolved to incorporate considerations of equity in their purpose, membership, leadership, and internal processes. Given the social and political context in the early 21st century, coalitions are less likely to ignore the dynamics within their structure that may limit equitable power, leadership, and representation.

Instead, coalitions are compelled to be intentional about leadership and to take the time to recruit, mentor, and support diverse leaders from the community to provide a pipeline for future leadership and stability for the coalition’s efforts. Further, coalitions are encouraged to develop diversity within the coalition and use that diversity as a lever for equity. Additionally, coalitions are more likely to effectively use technology, such as social media, to communicate with members and widely disseminate information while being mindful of who or what entities may be left out of the most up-to-date technological advances. Ultimately, coalitions need to define and communicate their success and are encouraged to do so using a multidimensional approach.

Events in the early 21st century—including the global pandemic and events triggering renewed attention to the M4BL—have returned the spotlight to persistent issues of racial, social, and economic inequities. Coalitions are mechanisms that have the potential to dismantle these disparities as part of intentional organizational and policy efforts to build a more equitable society.

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