Dear Laurin,

How do you engage diverse stakeholders fully in a coalition? There are some groups based in communities of color in our coalition, but they don’t have the staffing to participate consistently. Sometimes decision-making is held up because representatives aren’t at the meetings when decisions need to be made. Any advice?

—Michelle

Dear Michelle,

Thanks for bringing up an important concern. Though you raise the topic in the context of work with coalitions, it is also relevant to other organizations seeking to engage diverse participants. An underlying issue at play is the historical marginalization of communities of color and other groups from civic discourse and decision-making. Many communities have experienced both institutional neglect and intentional efforts to undermine community power. As a result, many communities lack developed infrastructures or resources to participate in coalitions or initiatives. They are often sought out by numerous coalitions and initiatives to “represent” their communities. We offer the following principles, questions and pitfalls to avoid.

1. Be clear about what you want to achieve by engaging diverse stakeholders. Some of the reasons for including diverse communities may be to:

  • Gain support and increase the impact and reach of the coalition
  • Learn from diverse perspectives on the issues the coalition is set up to address
  • Strengthen the voices of diverse communities in the community or policy change
  • Build mutually beneficial relationships that can be sustained over time
  • Strengthen leadership within the coalition so that it is more reflective of/responsive to diverse communities

It is useful to distinguish between the short-term goals of the coalition and long-term movement building goals. Long-term, the coalition may be interested in building a sustainable base of community power so that policies and decisions are community-responsive. Short-term, there may be a focus on a particular campaign or issue that requires involvement of as many communities as possible in order to achieve a “win”.

Questions to explore:

  • How does engaging diverse stakeholders fit into your goals?
  • What do you hope to achieve in the short-term and long-term?

Pitfalls to avoid:

  • Trying to engage people without clarity about why you want to engage them
  • A tokenistic approach where you focus on “getting people to the table” without commitment to authentic partnership and learning

2. Invest in building relationships and trust. Recognize that long-term relationship building may be ultimately more important than the short-term goals of the coalition. Without building trust and shared ownership, community groups may feel used by the coalition to gain legitimacy or connections. Invest the time to talk with the groups you want to engage, understand them and learn about what they are committed to. Understand their strengths and what they bring to the community with their work. Explore how the coalition priorities intersect with their interests. Find out the best ways to engage them. For those who are already involved in the coalition, there may be opportunities to strengthen relationships based on common interests, authentic communication and mutual support. Be intentional about this relationship building in addition to the immediate tasks at hand.

Questions to explore:

  • What types of relationships exists with and among the different stakeholders?
  • What are different ways to strengthen those relationships and build trust?

Pitfalls to avoid:

  • A narrow focus on “getting people to the table”, rather than partnership building
  • A paternalistic approach that doesn’t recognize strengths
  • Unwillingness to hear any feedback that isn’t positive
  • Overlooking the importance of relationship-building and focusing only on tasks
  • Focusing prematurely on the formal structure of the relationships

3. Recognize and work with different agendas and interests. Part of authenticity in partnerships is being transparent about interests. Usually, the organizations involved at a core level of a coalition have chosen to be involved because it helps them further their own goals. They may already be working on the issue and find added value in coming together with others. It is important for the core groups in the organization to be honest about their interests and how much they are willing to share power, resources and control.

The coalition agenda may or may not be a priority for the organizations you seek to engage. In other words, they may or may not have a stake in what the coalition is doing. Smaller organizations may be supportive of the coalition, but have other priorities, such as building their basic infrastructure and constituency. Recognize where the interests coalesce and where there is a common agenda. Recognize also the different agendas that drive participation/non-participation in the coalition.

Questions to explore:

  • What are the priorities of the different stakeholders you wish to engage?
  • What are the common interests?
  • Can involvement in the coalition add value for their work or help them achieve their goals?
  • Do the agendas of the dominant groups within the coalition get in the way?

Pitfalls to avoid:

  • Assuming that the coalition issue should be a priority for everyone or that people who don’t engage are apathetic.
  • Allowing agendas of one or a few groups to dominate the coalition.

4. Explore different strategies for engaging communities. There are different ways to engage people and membership in the coalition may not be the best approach. Explore ways to involve people, depending upon your goals. Some coalitions have different levels of membership or ways for non-members to participate. If your goal is to be more informed by different perspectives, consider engaging people who don’t have time to come to regular meetings as advisors. Key informant interviews could be a way to elicit their input. You may want to start with networking and gradually build towards more formal relationships, sharing of resources and decision-making. If your goal is to build community leadership, consider a community organizing approach. You may also want to consider a hybrid between coalition building and community organizing.

Questions to explore:

  • What are the best strategies and structures to reach your goals for engaging different stakeholders?
  • Are there other strategies, beyond coalition-building that might meet your needs?

Pitfalls to avoid:

  • Structuring the coalition in a way the makes it difficult for groups with fewer resources to participate
  • Restricting engagement strategies to coalition building

5. Build an inclusive coalition culture.As you’re working towards bringing new leadership into the coalition, recognize that capacity building may be in order for the existing leadership. The coalition may have developed a culture or way of doing things that is not welcoming or inclusive to people from different backgrounds or with different languages. Get past the habitual ways that the dominant culture runs meetings and normalize diversity in how meetings are run. The best way to determine what would work is by learning from the communities you wish to engage. Consider the way the agenda is structured, as well as the timing and location of meetings. Training in cultural humility and/or multicultural communication may help participants understand their own cultural lens for viewing the work and be able to listen and engage with people with different perspectives and experiences.

Questions to explore:

  • Are there barriers to participation built in to the way the coalition is structured or how it conducts business?
  • What type of coalition culture would be most welcoming and inclusive to diverse groups?

Pitfalls to avoid:

  • Making assumptions about how to be inclusive without talking to the people you want to engage
  • Attachment to the “right” way to do things, leaving no room for exploration

6. Acknowledge and address differences in power and resources. Effective work across difference requires acknowledging and addressing power dynamics and differences in resources. The more “mainstream” organizations with more resources may dominate the process by default because they are the ones with staff time and resources to contribute. There may also be an insider/outsider dynamic if there are groups that have a long history of working together and new groups that don’t share that history. Sometimes the actual substantive discussions happen informally, outside of meetings and the result is disenfranchisement of the newcomers. Groups who are used to calling the shots and doing most of the work may be reluctant to share power or resources with others.

Smaller, less resourced groups are not without power. For example, organizations based in particular communities may have the power to legitimize the coalition or leverage relationships to a particular base of people. They may also hold the power to hold up the process, by being absent when key decisions are made.

Building trust, and being explicit about how decisions will be made and how resources will be used can be one way to address these dynamics. There may also be an option of allocating some resources to “level the playing field” such as supporting smaller organizations to build their infrastructures or providing them with funding and technical assistance to support their participation. Local and national coalitions and initiatives have used this strategy successfully, particularly when there are grant funds available to support coalition work.

Questions to explore:

  • How do differences in power and resources impact the coalition and the partnerships between groups?
  • What are workable ways to navigate those differences and share power?
  • How can different groups in the coalition share their resources and strengths in a way that will benefit everyone?
  • Are there ways to invest resources to build infrastructure and support the participation of groups that have fewer resources?

Pitfalls to avoid:

  • Ignoring differences in power and resources and operating as if they don’t exist.
  • Undervaluing the strengths of groups that have fewer resources
  • Bringing people to the table without sharing power
  • Allowing any group or clique to dominate the coalition

In conclusion, effective coalition building is strongly rooted in an understanding of and sensitivity to the dynamics of power and the practice of cultural humility. We offer these insights and tips with the full recognition that building collaborative partnerships that truly honor diversity can be both challenging and rewarding. It calls organizations and individual staff to reflect honestly and communicate authentically about interests and commitments, culture and difference. These discussions are essential to building effective coalitions, powerful partnerships and responsive and inclusive policies and systems.

Laurin Mayeno, Mayeno Consulting
Galen Ellis, El-Askari Consulting

More Resources

Here are a few resources on coalition building that you might find helpful:

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