Ohio State University Extension Fact Sheet

Ohio State University Fact Sheet

Structure - Construction of a Coalition


Penne Smith
Charles H. Bell

Structure may refer to the form by which the collaboration accomplishes its mission. The people who lead, participate in and eventually implement the activities of interagency initiatives, affect the growth and development of joint efforts.

The coalition is essentially a mechanism for increasing the power or leverage of groups or individuals. The object is to get more out of the coalition than is put into it.

Situations, although difficult or impossible for the individual to overcome alone, can be dealt with simply and rapidly by acquiring the right allies. This is coalition building.

Begin by analyzing the problem: What do you want to achieve? Who can help (or hurt) your efforts? What are the rewards for becoming part of a coalition? What action is needed to meet the objectives?

A coalition should be structured to:

Who Should Initiate a Coalition?

The initiating organization will experience success in effecting collaboration if it can show the credibility of the employees and their commitment to collaborative efforts. Those who form the coalition must develop a loyalty to the core group that is strong enough to cope with competing pressures from their organizations.

Obviously, no collaborative experience is identical with any other. The greater the functions complement (as contrasted to being similar) the collaborative venture and the individual members, the greater the likelihood of cooperative action.

Support for the Coalition

The social and political climate in a neighborhood or community is the first factor likely to influence an interagency initiative.

Bringing key decision makers into the coalition at the beginning gets them interested in the issue. It also helps keep it alive through constant visibility with community leadership and the press. Involving key decision makers gives credibility to the project.

Three fundamental items are needed by coalitions to develop enough political power to influence change- unless, of course, one has a lot of money with which to buy access and influence. The key ingredients are information, numbers of people and widespread coordinated activity. Coalitions need information- about what is or ought to be proposed, its implications, the alternatives, the forces on both sides of the issue, and so forth.

Ask policy-making boards locally or statewide to support your coalition efforts. You may want to:

Who Should Belong to the Coalition?

Collaboration begins with the selection of resource people who have experience in dealing with the particular issue and understand the common goal. They have the authority and power to influence change and the energy and enthusiasm for keeping the momentum alive.

Initial contacts usually work best if they are between agency administrators. This follows protocol and allows the administrator to delegate the responsibility. It avoids the administrator hearing about the contact from someone lower in the agency, becoming suspicious and defensive, and scuttling the effort before it begins or initially putting it on bad footing.

Broad-based representation- including youth -is critical. Failure to establish mutual goals and objectives is a major reason collaborations fail. Collaboration rests upon the principle that each person has something to offer.

Traits like patience, persistence, initiative, flexibility, risk-taking, empathy, self- assurance and self-realization are critical to working in a collaborative relationship with others.

Begin by determining all the natural allies- individuals or groups who share the concern and support a similar position. Continue by seeking all types of persons, groups and social structures likely to be affected by the issue or position taken both affirmatively or negatively. Do not forget to include all potentially interested and civic-minded groups who might stand to gain indirectly by supporting the issue or constituents.

How to Recruit Members

The first thing one must know to work with another agency is what it is and does. Face-to-face meetings can address the initial unknowns and allow staff from both agencies to get as much detailed information as necessary.

Building upon existing efforts saves time, resources and creates strong working relationships.

Develop a strategy for selling potential members on the idea of organizing a coalition around issues. The organizer must be clear about how the members of other organizations, their public image, their organizational goals, and so on will be enhanced by involvement in the coalition.

One must be prepared to discuss with each potential member organization the following issues:

If you are not familiar with or have a negative impression of another agency, the first step is to become acquainted. The main objective of an initial contact is to open communication.

Finally, another way of identifying groups is by administering a community information questionnaire. This also gathers data about the political, social, economic and power bases in the district. This information could serve as a starting point for determining the constituencies from which coalition members will be recruited.

Keeping the Momentum Alive

Formally-organized coalitions have a governing board that establishes policy and generates funds. To maintain credibility, the board's composition should represent all community segments the coalition wishes to embrace.

Once the board is established, a common practice is to form committees to oversee the coalition's projects. Tasks can be allocated among committees that enlist the help of additional participants.

There is yet to be a collaborative effort that functions perfectly, but there is encouragement. Collaboration is a new growth area that is stimulated the more it is practiced.

Formal Versus Informal Coalitions

Once agencies decide to work together, they also must agree on whether their coalition will be primarily cooperative or collaborative in nature.

A collaborative strategy is where the need and intent is to change the way services are designed and delivered throughout the system. In communities not yet ready for collaborative partnerships, initiatives to coordinate existing services offer a reasonable starting point for change.

Three types of collaborative missions exist: service-oriented, where direct services are provided; system-oriented, where efforts are targeted at improvement of the service delivery systems; and dual mission, which encompasses both service and system initiatives. Service and system collaborations differ radically.

Designed to address immediate needs and to improve tangible services, service collaborations chart more circumscribed, easily-accomplished tasks than those generally undertaken by system collaborations. Feedback is more immediate, gratification quicker and impact more visible. Conversely, the accomplishments of system collaborations' tend to be longer in process, more abstract and less visible. Thus, evaluation needs to discern carefully among service, system and dual mission efforts, with attention to their differing challenges, timeliness, processes and outcomes.

Maintaining the Coalition

Flexibility is the essential condition of a successful collaboration. No matter how carefully goals are defined at the outset, they are routinely challenged, making goal reassessment an ongoing necessity. Early "fiascos" or "aborted efforts" demand flexibility in responding to failure and the recontouring of collaborative activities. The most effective collaborations appear to be strengthened, not defeated, by disappointments and challenges.

Coalitions need to exist only as long as it is useful to its members. But, when it disintegrates before achieving its goal, it usually has fallen victim to one of these defects:

Recording Meetings

A decision should be made early in the planning to set up a mechanism for sending out notices of meetings and recording and distributing meeting minutes. Keeping meeting minutes is important to communicate key ideas that have been discussed, document resolutions and record other important actions.

It is not always possible for everyone to attend all the meetings, so minutes should always be sent to the members. Keeping everyone informed about how the coalition is developing will do a great deal to keep communication channels open.

Use of Volunteers

The greatest pool of unused resources for meeting human service needs is the pool of untapped volunteer time and energy. The Gallup Poll shows that the majority of Americans above the age of 14 are ready and willing to give volunteer time for community service.

Every day volunteers and other social practitioners and people-helpers develop innovative, creative and experimental ways to help their clients. Usually, however, they have no way to document their new practices. They simply exchange them verbally and informally, and many get lost. It is estimated that thousands of inventive social practices are lost each year for lack of a good way to share them.

Organizations using volunteers need to develop methods for bringing these social inventions to light. A cross-agency conference could bring together volunteers in a particular field, such as those working with 16 to 21 year-olds. They can share what they have found to be successful in working with this age group. Someone can record each respondent's name and address and his or her successful practice, so it can be used by others. Such a conference is also a good way to begin or strengthen collaboration between agencies, as it demonstrates their interdependence and enriches them both.


The people or groups recruited into the coalition, the support for and where this support comes from in the community, and the design form the structure of the coalition. These need to be planned with purpose so the coalition can be a successful venture.


Hart, Thomas. Building Coalitions for Support of Schools, Oregon School Study Council, vol. 32, no. 1, September 1988.

Kagan, Sharon L., Ann Marie Rivera and Faith Lamb Parker. Collaborations in Action: Reshaping Services to Young Children and Their Families. Executive Summary, The Bush Center in Child Development and Social Policy, Yale University, January 1991.

Levin, Edward and R. V. Denenberg. Alliances and Coalitions- How to Gain Influence and Power by Working With People. McGraw-Hill Book Co., 1984.

Linking Schools and Community Services, A Practical Guide. Center for Community Education School of Social Work. The State University of New Jersey, Rutgers.

Lippitt, Ronald and Jon Van Till. "Can We Achieve a Collaborative Community? Issues, Imperatives, Potentials," Journal of Voluntary Action, Research Vol. 10 (July-December 1981) 717.

Rodriguez, Esther, Patrick McQuaid and Ruth Rosauer. Community of Purpose: Promoting Collaborations Through State Action. Education Commission of the States, February 1988.

Rossi, Robert J., Kevin J. Gilmartin and Charles W. Dayton. Agencies Working Together, A Guide to Coordination and Planning. Sage Publications.

All educational programs conducted by Ohio State University Extension are available to clientele on a nondiscriminatory basis without regard to race, color, creed, religion, sexual orientation, national origin, gender, age, disability or Vietnam-era veteran status.

Keith L. Smith, Associate Vice President for Ag. Adm. and Director, OSU Extension.

TDD No. 800-589-8292 (Ohio only) or 614-292-6181

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