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Section 6. Coalition Building II: Maintaining a Coalition

Example 1: Maintaining a coalition by cultivating and nurturing relationships

There are numerous strategies that can be used to maintain a coalition. The North Quabbin Community Coalition, which had been formed to improve health and human services in the North Quabbin region of central Massachusetts, chose to hire a coordinator. She, in turn, rather than establishing a formal maintenance schedule, used relationships - both those that existed between and among coalition members and those that she herself established and sustained - to do the work of keeping the Coalition going.


The North Quabbin Community Coalition had a successful first year, but it was clear that its maintenance required staffing. Tom Wolff, the outside facilitator who functioned as coordinator, was paid for only eight hours a week of service to the Coalition, and that barely allowed him enough time to keep abreast of what was going on.

In the Coalition's second year, Tom found a grant to hire Barbara Corey as a 20-hour-a-week coordinator. Barbara was a long-time resident of Petersham, one of the nine towns comprising the North Quabbin region, the area the Coalition served. She thus had local credentials and credibility, familiarity with the region and its issues, and a large circle of friends and acquaintances. She stayed in the position for more than ten years, becoming full-time in the fourth.

Starting with a desk at the Chamber of Commerce, Barbara soon found office space at the YMCA in Athol, the largest of the nine towns. The Athol Y is a true community center, located in the middle of downtown, and affordable enough to be used by nearly everyone in the region. It is packed from 6:00 in the morning to 9:00 or 10:00 in the evening with everyone from babies to seniors, participating in day care, individual work-outs, exercise classes, after-school programs, sports, meetings, and special events. Because Barbara was now so accessible to everyone in the North Quabbin community, she was constantly sought out, by phone and in person, by Coalition members and others who had concerns or ideas about the issues in the area. "The office at the Y really made us part of the community," Barbara says.

Maintaining the coalition.

From her first day on the job, Barbara also did what she describes as the "nitty gritty work" of maintaining the Coalition. She went to every meeting of every task force, and acted as staff for them all. She took and distributed minutes, got out meeting notices, called people to make sure they would be at meetings, reminded them of what they had said they would do, and kept reminding them until they did it. She published a monthly newsletter, and wrote profiles of agencies for a regular column in the local paper. She represented the Coalition at community meetings, at legislative hearings, and in discussions with local officials. "I was the face of the Coalition in the area," Barbara recalls.

From the beginning, however, Barbara was more than just a presence. In addition to what she was actually doing, she understood what the members of the Coalition needed most. "They needed a safe place to share ideas, and we were not threatening to them. We weren't trying to become another agency and compete for their funding. So they could come to the Coalition and feel comfortable. They [the local agencies] knew that if they were to do their job, they had to do it collectively and collaboratively because the needs of the people they all served were so intertwined. The Coalition gave them a safe place to collaborate."

Barbara cultivated that comfort. For years, she brought flowers and food to set on a table before Coalition meetings. "I knew some people were coming from a good distance, and the meetings were early in the day, so I thought they might need breakfast." Barbara brought coffee and tea, juice, fruit, and home-baked muffins to Coalition meetings, creating a relaxed atmosphere where people felt they were among friends. It's much easier to think about collaborating with someone you have breakfast with than with someone you don't know.

One of the initial problems that the Coalition had to face was that so few agencies worked together, or knew of the work, or even the existence, of others. A major step in fostering the Coalition's work was to link them, and to make sure that their directors and staffs made personal connections. One of Barbara's great talents was as a broker of introductions. She was constantly bringing people together, saying "You two should know each other. You have a lot in common." Many enduring collaborations and partnerships among agencies started with one of Barbara's introductions before or after a Coalition meeting, or, just as often, on the street or at a community event.

Barbara also made sure that task forces, once formed, actually did their jobs - that they met, strategized, formulated action plans and carried them out. She provided task force members with information, reminders, and enough good-natured nagging to make their jobs as easy as possible. And she continually held out the goals of the Coalition in general and of the task forces in particular, so that people would remember why they were doing this in the first place. Those are all important elements of maintaining a Coalition's membership and momentum.

People-centered maintenance.

While she was extremely well organized, Barbara didn't have a formal plan for Coalition maintenance. "I relied on people. I knew who the people were that I could count on, and I asked for their help. I needed it! I never had any trouble asking people for help, and they always came through, because I knew who I could count on."

In this sense, Barbara herself was the Coalition's plan for maintenance. The group's members realized the need for a dedicated coordinator, and Barbara defined and created the position over the years. The Coalition's members placed their trust in her skills, understanding of the mission, and commitment to the shared purpose.

There are any number of ways to maintain a coalition, and different ways to go about each of them. Barbara's way was to focus on the people involved. She oversaw mechanisms to accomplish the goals of the Coalition; the Steering Committee, which functioned as the Coalition's governing body (and which remained open to anyone who cared to join) provided a sounding board for what was possible. The direction of the Coalition, for instance, was set by three criteria:

  • Need: How great was the need in the community, and how accurate was the perception of that need among agencies and others?
  • Feasibility: Could something substantive be accomplished, or was the job too big, or too multi-faceted, or too political for the Coalition to tackle right now?
  • Resources: Was there enough money, time, etc. to have an effect?

While sometimes - as in the cases of child sexual assault and domestic violence - the need was so compelling that it outweighed the other considerations, usually these three criteria together determined the issues that the Coalition would address.

To address those issues, however, Barbara relied not on mechanisms, but on relationships. "I knew who the people were who had that belief in the community. None of them were one-issue - just a core of people who cared about the community, were competent, knew a lot of people themselves, and who could follow through and get things done. And I'd ask them, and they would do it."

Barbara cultivated relationships. She attended meetings of the Clergy association regularly, for instance, and enlisted several of the local clergy in Coalition projects. One persuaded his parishioners to start a food bank, and, later, an AIDS support center in their church. Another convinced his congregation to turn the basement of their parish house into a homeless shelter in the winter months.

"A lot of maintaining things was in my choice of people to ask to chair committees or task forces, or to start the wheels turning for a particular project. I knew who I could count on, and whose support would be important in order for something to succeed." By carefully choosing those best suited to the task, Barbara made sure that efforts and momentum were sustained.

The magic of relationships and recognition as maintenance tools.

As a result of her focus on relationships and people, Barbara's conscious maintenance activities centered around keeping people feeling connected and appreciated. She kept a store of plain postcards in her desk, and whenever she had a spare moment - even when she was on hold on a phone call - she'd dash off a note to a Coalition member, saying, "Thanks for your hard work," or "I really enjoyed our meeting the other day." She was on the phone constantly, asking, cajoling, bolstering, supporting, and - most of all -thanking people.

"I never thought of maintenance as a precise item. We had the newsletter, we had our monthly meetings, we had the annual meeting, where you could recognize people for what they did. I just thought that was so important. These people needed to hear that someone noticed what they were doing - everyone needs that. Everyone likes to get thanked. And it has repercussions - it fosters others' productivity.

"What we're talking about is people. It's such a personal - such an emotional thing. You can't do this work unless you feel there's something special about people. And that has spillover - when you see someone else's enthusiasm, you get inspired. So I tried to let people know they were needed. They respond to that."

Barbara's own enthusiasm - she characteristically speaks in sentences that end with exclamation points - inspired many. It was difficult to resist her energy...and difficult not to believe that whatever she was suggesting was not only possible, but overwhelmingly worth doing.

Although Barbara and the other coalition members did not establish a formal plan for maintenance, they practiced maintenance regularly through restatement of the mission, goal-setting, communication among members and with the community, follow-up, and constant reevaluation of the Coalition's goals and direction. This "upkeep" took place in a context that put people and relationships at the core of the whole idea of coalition.

Since Barbara loved the annual meetings where people were recognized for their hard work, it's fitting to end with a description of the similar luncheon that was held for Barbara when she retired as Coalition coordinator. It took place in the large room at the YMCA where she had convened so many Coalition meetings on so many Friday mornings. Person after person rose with testimony to her hard work and effectiveness. But, more to the point, most of them made reference to a post card she had written or a phone call she had made to them. (Barbara's phone calls were so numerous and recognizable that one of the running themes of the luncheon was the interruption of the proceedings by one or another of her close associates bursting in with an impression of her on the phone.)

If it had not been clear beforehand, it was certainly clear by the end of the luncheon that Barbara's enduring legacy had been in her understanding of the human elements of the Coalition. She had helped to create and sustain the safe haven that people needed to air their concerns and discuss the important and difficult issues in the community. She had carefully assessed the skills and abilities of particular people and persuaded them to take on exactly the tasks they could accomplish better than anyone else available, and thus assured that Coalition actions were appropriate and successful. And she had forged a web of relationships, with herself at the hub, that served to maintain the mission and the momentum and the spirit of the Coalition.


Example 2: Summary report - PATCH Core Committee Assessment Meeting

Summary Report
PATCH Core Committee Assessment Meeting

Mark Edgar, MPH
Senior Research Associate
Heartland Centers for Public Health
St. Louis University School of Public Health

The members of the PATCH Core Committee met to discuss issues related to the functioning of the coalition and future directions. The members completed three activities in the meeting: 1) Group discussion of issues; 2) Completion of a survey regarding possible activities for the future; 3) completion of a survey designed to evaluate the "health" of the coalition. Following is a brief summary of the results of those activities.

I. Group Discussion
The following list of issues is comprised of items raised in a previous meeting and additional items added during the group discussion. Following the group discussion, committee members were asked to cast votes for the items they felt were most relevant to the work of the PATCH committee in the coming year. Each member had 5 votes and could distribute them across items in any manner. Issues are listed in the order of the final vote count.

Item Votes
1. Improved plan of action 10
2. Enhanced evaluation components/progress reporting 6
3. Taking a positive approach 6
4. Interaction with/reporting from/clarification of what core committee wants from subcommittees 5
5. Expanded resources 4
6. Expanded membership/participation/improved attendance 3
7. Revision of the structure of meetings 3
8. Improved methods for community input 2
9. Improved coordination with community groups 2
10. Improved reporting to the community 2
11. Expanded geographic scope 1
12. Name change 0
13. New interventions 0

The first two items above could be addressed through a strategic planning process that would result in a specific program or action plan that would include evaluation measures. By endorsing item 3, members seem to be suggesting that a positive approach should be the "overarching" theme of all activities undertaken by PATCH. While this type of philosophical shift is very subtle, support and training for Core Committee and sub-committee members could help facilitate such a shift. In addition, tasking each subcommittee (and the Core Committee) with exploring the possibilities for positive approaches in every effort or intervention could institutionalize this method. The fourth item may best be addressed through the strategic planning process mentioned above and in conjunction with item 6.

The expansion of participation in subcommittees by persons other than Core Committee members could enhance the efforts of the group in general. The fifth item, expanded funding, seemed to deal with the idea of pursuing funding specifically for the functioning of PATCH as an entity in addition to funding for various intervention efforts. This is in concordance with other discussions that concerned making a "meta-leap" that would position PATCH with increased funding, influence, activity and responsibility in the community. Ideas related to this issue, raised during the meeting, included pursuit of a Network grant from the Office of Rural Health Policy and the coordination of a "Summit on Health" type conference.

II. Possible Activities
The committee members completed a survey entitled Possible Activities/Focus Areas for the Coalition in the Near Future. The items were adapted from the Community Toolbox. Members assigned a score to each item according to the following scale: 1 to 5 with 1 meaning Not Important and 5 meaning Very Important. Table 1 provides the descriptive statistics from the survey. Items are displayed in descending order of the mean score. The results show that committee members endorse items related to planning, evaluation, obtaining feedback and creating objectives, reinforcing the results from the discussion of issues above.

Item Mean SD
Table 1: Descriptive Statistics for Possible Activities Survey
1. Developing an action plan 4.75 .46
2. Evaluation of current efforts 4.75 .46
3. Developing successful strategies: planning to win 4.63 .74
4. Identifying action steps in bringing about community and systems change 4.50 .53
5. Obtaining feedback from constituents: what changes are important and feasible? 4.50 .76
6. Overview of strategic planning 4.38 .92
7. Proclaiming your dream: developing vision and mission statements 4.25 .88
8. Creating objectives 4.13 .99
9. Collaborative leadership 4.00 1.07
10. Overivew of opposition tactics 3.75 1.16
11. Identifying opponents 3.75 1.04
12. Promoting internal communication 3.75 1.16
13. Developing a plan for building leadership 3.75 .89
14. Developing multi-sector task forces for action committees in the initiative 3.75 .71
15. Sharing positions and other resources 3.63 1.06
16. How to respond to opposition tactics 3.63 1.06
17. Conducting effective meetings 3.50 1.07
18. Methods of contacting potential participants 3.25 1.39
19. Understanding and writing contracts and memoranda of agreement 3.13 .64
20. Organizing a retreat 3.00 1.07

III. Health of the Coalition
The committee members completed a survey entitled Diagnosing the Health of Your Coalition adapted from the Community Tool Box. The survey was comprised of 10 areas each with 5 associated items that could be rated on the following scale: 1 to 5 with 1 meaning Weak or Never and 5 meaning Strong or Always. The authors suggest the results of the survey be evaluated on the following scale

  • 5-15: Watch out! You may need an overhaul in this area.
  • 15-20: Checkup time! It's time for tune up to get everything in good working order.
  • 20-25: Congratulations! You're running smoothly and all systems are go. Keep up the good work.
Item Mean SD
Table 2: Descriptive statistics for each area included in the survey.
1. The clarity of your coalition's vision, mission and goals 11.75 2.71
2. The effectiveness of your coalition structure 14.25 3.06
3. The effectiveness of your outreach & communication 11.25 2.76
4. The effectiveness of coalition meetings 15.88 3.44
5. Opportunities for member responsibility and growth 11.63 2.33
6. The coalition's effectiveness at planning, implementing and evaluating projects 11.50 4.38
7. Your coalition's use of research and/or external resources 13.75 4.56
8. The coalition's sense of community 14.13 4.16
9. How well the coalition meets needs and provides benefits 11.38 2.92
10. Your coalition's relationship with elected officials, institutional leaders and other power players 12.00 4.31

The results displayed in Table 2 and Figure 1 suggests that the "health" of the coalition is relatively low based on the scale provided by the authors of the survey. The results are similar to those obtained in the group discussion and the Possible Activities survey with the item related to planning and evaluation showing the second lowest score and the item relating to how well the coalition meets needs showing the lowest score.

Bill Berkowitz