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Tool #1: Logistics of the first meeting

1. Find a space that is comfortable, easily accessible, and big enough to hold all the people you expect. Some possibilities are agency or business meeting rooms; the public library; the YMCA; the town hall; service clubs (Elks, Rotary); a church or synagogue; a community center; the high school; or a local college or university.

Depending upon the reason for the coalition, you may want to try to hold the meeting in a place that is significant to the issue. A coalition on homelessness might meet at a shelter, for example; one on education might meet at a school. This might give members a chance to look at the issue firsthand, and might also help to set the tone.

If there are divisions in the community, holding the meeting in a place that is seen as neutral - a neighborhood other than those of any competing factions or groups, a building or institution that isn't identified with a particular organization or group. It's important to be aware of what people identify as "enemy turf," and to be aware that the people in question can be human service workers or local government officials, not just gang members.

2. At the same time, decide when and how long the meeting will be. The time of the meeting should be geared to the needs of the people who most need to be there. The length of the meeting depends on what its goals are. If there's substantive work to be done, it should be long enough to accomplish it, or at least to get a good start.

In general, it's a good idea for a first meeting to have a practical goal of some sort. It doesn't have to be huge - deciding who else should be in the room, for instance, or naming a group to draft a statement of the issue for others to edit at the next meeting - but people should leave with some sense that the meeting had a real point.

3. Think about how to arrange the space. Will chairs be in a circle? In rows, with the core group at the front? In small groups? Each of these arrangements makes a statement about how the coalition will operate. Our suggestion is that a circle is much more in keeping with the nature of a coalition, in that it implies no one leader, but assumes equality among members. It leaves open the possibility of different individuals or organizations taking leadership in different circumstances, and encourages a democratic process.

An important element is the availability of food and drink. The presence of food changes the climate of a meeting, making it more informal and encouraging interaction among those present. In addition, if the meeting is going to be long, food and drink will help people remain alert and make them more likely to stay till the end.

4. Decide who will run the meeting.

  • A member of the core group
  • A community official or community leader
  • Someone connected very closely with the issue (the director of the agency most directly responsible for it, for instance)
  • A coalition member with particularly good facilitation skills
  • An outside facilitator

Whoever is chosen should have good facilitation skills. She has to be able to make sure everyone is heard, that the discussion moves along, that the group addresses agenda items, and that the meeting is kept civil and productive. Perhaps most important, she should be flexible enough to change direction when it's necessary, and savvy enough to know when it's necessary.

The first meeting of a new coalition is always uncharted territory, and can be dangerous if the coalition doesn't have a competent facilitator. The meeting can be pulled from its course to pursue the concerns of a determined or single-minded individual, or can become bogged down in procedural issues or in unnecessary conflict. A good facilitator - particularly one who also has credibility among coalition members - can keep the meeting on the right track and help to assure the eventual success of the coalition.

And don't forget to make sure that someone takes minutes. The ideal is to ask someone beforehand to do it specifically for the first meeting, with the understanding that the group will then either appoint a secretary, or create some other procedure to assure that meetings are properly recorded.

5. Arrange for child care, transportation, or other services that some people may need in order to attend the meeting. This may be especially important if you're trying to attract young parents or low income community or target group members.

6. Finally, make sure that everyone knows about the time and place of the meeting. Even if people were told when they were first contacted about the coalition, send a reminder, or call again, or both. For most busy people, until something is in their appointment books, it doesn't exist. If the time and place are already written down, a reminder will help to cement the idea of the meeting in people's minds.

Tool 2: Defining Your Coalition's Membership

Contributed by Tom Wolff

The definition of coalition membership varies widely. Often the mission or funding of a coalition predetermines who the membership will be. Generally in AHEC/Community Partners coalitions, the mission is defined as improving the quality of life in the community. Under this broad statement, anyone in the community who is willing to work on improving the quality of life in that community is considered eligible to be a member.

You can consider the following issues to clarify the limitations and opportunities created by certain definitions of membership.

Address the issues of inclusion and exclusion

The group development literature informs us that inclusion and exclusion are key variables in the start-up of any group. Coalition start-ups are no exception. Initial coalition discussions about who should be invited, and who should not, are often among the coalition's first decisions.

If the goal of the coalition is to mobilize as many resources from as many sectors of the community as possible to work on community issues, then one needs to make initial membership decisions that would create a sense of equal access to the coalition. Developing and maintaining the open membership system requires a constant examination of coalition practices. Do new members get introduced when they arrive? Do they feel welcome? How does one bring new members up-to-date on what's happening?

If coalitions limit who can be members, who can be on steering committees, whose resources they are interested in tapping, then by definition they are excluding people from the community and the coalition will not be able to tap into those people's capacities and resources to solve the community's problems.

Decide how money relates to membership

Many coalitions ask people who are members to show their support by paying a fee to cover coalition expenses. How the issue of money and membership is constructed will have a large impact on the coalition. If the coalition sets the fee as a membership fee, then it says a member is one who pays the fee. An alternate approach is to say that anyone who supports the mission of the coalition and signs up as a member is a member, and those who are able to provide financial support become sponsors of the coalition. This separates the issue of membership from financial support.

By setting a fee as a membership criteria, one potentially eliminates low-income citizens, even if one establishes a scholarship or sliding fee scale, since having to make requests for that can be a humiliating experience.

Clarify expectations about members' activity levels

Although membership can be claimed by those who sign up as members or those who send financial support, the key component of coalition membership is activity. Without coalition members providing their time and their efforts, there is no coalition. Thus, a key factor in the success of any coalition is the amount of energy and time invested by its members in the community. No matter how many people have paid their dues, if you cannot get members to sign up for activities and task forces, the projects that the coalition takes on will fail.

Strive for a multi-sectoral, multi-cultural coalition

How well the coalition membership represents the various sectors and subcultures of a community is another key variable in membership. For membership to be truly representative, efforts have to be made to reach those who don't easily come to coalition activities.

The hardest to reach individuals tend to be those at the very top of the power structure--the heads of corporations, police chiefs, superintendents of schools--and those at the very bottom of the power scale--the disenfranchised, the citizens. Specific efforts involving individual, personalized outreach need to be focused on those groups not well represented, so the coalition can be both multi-sectoral and multicultural

Engage citizens

Although coalitions proclaim themselves as empowering institutions, giving voice to the members of the community, they often fail at involving citizens in their efforts. Coalitions are often quite successful at engaging certain components of a community to interact in daytime meetings, in formal settings. But this approach presents enormous barriers to involving grassroots citizens, barriers including: time, money, language, family responsibilities, transportation, etc.

There are no simple answers as to how to best engage citizens in coalition activities. To change the meetings to evenings and provide interpreters and day care may be ways of enticing citizens to a meeting, but one is likely to lose many human service providers with after-work events.

The strength of a coalition is really the sum of the capacities of its members. Seeking a broad representation of active members and maintaining an open door are critical to coalition success.

Tool # 3: Including Diverse Participants

Effective community collaborations must identify the diversity of the community (racial, ethnic, gender, class, etc.) and find ways to celebrate this diversity. Effective coalition action requires engaging and understanding the whole community.

Collaborations often declare that their goals include:

  • Celebrating the diversity within a community,
  • Being inclusive of all members of the community,
  • Encouraging the participation of all the sectors in a community.

Yet many collaborations struggle to bring this diversity into their midst. Although they declare themselves to be open to all members of the community, in practice they represent the majority, the formal structure, and established power brokers, rather than the community at large.

For other collaborations, the issue of diversity and inclusivity may not be high on their priority list, but may be brought to them by members of sub-groups in the community who feel excluded.


Inclusivity Checklist by Beth Rosenthal, M.S

The Inclusivity Checklist developed by Beth Rosenthal (1997) is an instrument that assists collaboration members in analyzing the issues of inclusivity and diversity across a wide range of their collaboration activities. The easiest and most obvious way to gauge your group's success in this area is to look around a room at a collaboration or a steering committee meeting. Is the diversity of the community represented in terms of race, gender, ethnicity, age, etc.

Instructions: Use this Inclusivity Checklist to measure how prepared your coalition is for drawing strength from diversity, and to identify areas for improvement. Place a check mark in the box next to each statement that applies to your group. If you cannot put a check in the box, this may indicate an area for change.

____ The leadership of our coalition is multiracial and multicultural.

____ We make special efforts to cultivate new leaders, particularly women and people of color.

____ Our mission, operations and products reflect the contributions of diverse cultural and social groups.

____ We are committed to fighting social oppression within the coalition and in our work with the community.

____ Members of diverse cultural and social groups are full participants in all aspects of our coalition's work.

____ Meetings are not dominated by speakers from any one group.

____ All segments of our community are represented in decision making.

____ There is sensitivity and awareness regarding different religious and cultural holidays, customs, recreation and food preferences.

____ We communicate clearly, and people of different cultures feel comfortable sharing their opinions and participating in meetings.

____ We prohibit the use of stereotypes and prejudicial comments.

____ Ethnic, racial and sexual slurs or jokes are not welcome.

If the assessment indicates that, although the coalition has declared itself to be inclusive, it is falling short on that goal, there are many steps that can be taken. One obvious way to proceed is to commit resources to increasing the engagement of various community groups with the coalition. We have seen four very effective ways for this to happen:

  • Provide mini-grants to community groups
  • Hire community outreach workers from the community you wish to engage
  • Provide a community organizer to the community
  • Develop leadership training programs for community leaders

Tool # 4: Principles for Coalition Success

Contributed by Tom Wolff

Identifying one set of principles for successful coalitions is quite a challenge because of the great variety in what is called a "coalition." Not only do the definitions of coalition vary (from two agencies joining together in a grant submission, to a broad community group with representatives from every sector), but definitions of coalition success vary as well (i.e., we have succeeded if we get the Chief of Police to join our coalition vs. we have succeeded if we get the Chief of Police fired).

That said, there are a few general principles that can be adapted for most coalitions and partnerships.

Clearly define your shared mission and goals

Coalition members should clearly define their shared mission and goals to make sure that the identified goals incorporate the self-interests of the various constituencies. Coalition building requires both a willingness to set aside personal agendas for a common good, and a realistic understanding that addressing the self-interests of participants is crucial. Walking the tight rope between these agendas is critical to coalition success.

Include diverse members

Membership in coalitions needs to be inclusive, allowing all members of a community who endorse the coalition' mission to join in its efforts. Inclusive membership will occur only through active recruiting of the two power extremes in the community-the most powerful (business, clergy, city hall representatives, etc.) and the least powerful (members of neighborhood groups, youth, people of color, the poor, etc.). The geographic boundaries of the coalition will also be decided by those directly involved.

Plan for organizational competence

The coalition's organizational functioning and structure must be clear and competent enough so that the coalition can perform basic tasks effectively. This includes:

  • Effective leadership. Coalitions need to have clearly identified leadership structures, but also need to share leadership as broadly as possible. Building new leadership is a crucial role for coalitions, especially among community groups which have been disenfranchised.
  • A clear, democratic decision making process, which allows for broad input into decisions and for conflict and disagreement to occur and be resolved.
  • Most broad coalition efforts require experienced staff. The staff must have group and organizational process skills and community development philosophy and skills.
  • Coalitions must develop at least a rudimentary ongoing system of planning.
  • Active and effective communication is critical. This should occur both among members of the coalition and between the coalition and both the community and outside systems (i.e., the State).
  • Mobilization and effective use of resources from within the coalition (as well as from outside) is essential.

Focus on "doable" actions

Successful coalitions plan and carry out actions that are doable and thus prove their effectiveness to themselves and their communities through concrete results. Early achievements or victories will illustrate to the members and the community that change can occur. A short agenda of doable tasks also prevents a coalition from spreading itself too thin.

Affirm and celebrate!

Coalition activities need to include fun and must affirm the strengths and joys of the community. Indeed, one of the great gifts of effective coalitions to their members and to their communities is the gift of hope. This emerges from an optimistic coalition approach, one that says most problems can be effectively addressed. Leaders will help emphasize the hope and accomplishments of the coalition, as well as its process.

Be realistic about time, and persist

The agendas of broad coalitions that address the quality of life in communities can be overwhelming. The members need to take a long-range view, understanding that the coalition's agenda will take time and persistence. Although some single-issue coalitions are defined as short-term efforts, most coalitions require longer time frames to create the needed societal changes. Tackling big issues in manageable pieces holds for both long- and short-term efforts.

Monitor and assess

The process of developing a coalition to address quality of life issues in a community is very complex. The literature can provide us with some direction, but each coalition effort must be guided by its own internal review and evaluation process. Whether this review is done at an annual meeting discussion of the coalition's process and outcomes or through a more rigorous evaluation scheme, an effective coalition will have the capacity to learn from its successes and its disappointments, for it surely will have both.

Phil Rabinowitz