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Complexities of Coalition Building: Leaders' Successes, Strategies, Struggles, and Solutions.

Government and private funding initiatives are promoting coalitions, collaborations, and other interorganizational approaches to address complex community, social services, and health issues. Social work organizers and administrators are increasingly leading coalitions themselves or representing their organizations in collaborative planning and problem solving, often without understanding how to manage the complexities involved in interorganizational relationships. This article reports on aspects of a larger quantitative and qualitative research project that studied coalition dynamics, operations, and outcomes. Coalition leaders interviewed defined success in multiple ways. Competent leadership was the factor most often identified with coalition success.

Key words: coalitions; collaboration; community organizing; interorganizational programs; social change

There has been a growing recognition of the importance and usefulness of coalitions in Improving community conditions and solving social problems. Federal, state, and private funding initiatives are mandating coalitions, collaborations, and other interorganizational approaches to address complex community, social services, and health issues (Abramson & Rosenthal, 1995; Rosenthal, 1998). Social workers and other human services leaders increasingly are leading or representing their organizations on coalitions and need to better understand the complexities involved in managing these interorganizational mechanisms (Mizrahi & Rosenthal, 1993). This article examines data resulting from interviews with coalition leaders to address the following research questions: (1) How do coalition leaders define and evaluate success? (2) Which factors do they believe contribute to coalition effectiveness? (3) What are the common attributes or traits that make for successful leaders? (4) How do coalition leaders handle condition s, commitment, and contributions that affect coalition success?

This article concentrates on the social change type of coalition that we characterize as an organization of organizations whose members commit to an agreed-on purpose and shared decision making to influence an external institution or target, while these member organizations maintain their own autonomy. It is time limited, but not necessarily synonymous with short term or ad hoc. It has built in dynamic tensions, and is operated as a conflict management mechanism (Mizrahi & Rosenthal, 1986; see also, Alicea, 1978; Gamson, 1961; Miller & Tomaskovic-Devey, 1983; Whitaker, 1982; Zeitz, 1980). This type of coalition is part of the social change tradition, labeled by others as "advocacy" (Dluhy, 1990; Galaskiewicz, 1985; Roberts-DeGennaro, 1986), "action" (Frey, 1974), or "progressive" (Sink & Stowers, 1989) coalitions.

Although coalitions overlap with collaborations, the latter are usually more task specific, focus on coordination and specific problem solving, are mandatory, have fewer organizational actors, and are short term. Our coalition model is reflected in Schopler's (1994) broader typology of collaborations, those that are voluntary, with an external focus.

Coalition Theory Building

The theoretical foundation for our coalition research is informed principally by both the sociology of social movements and interorganizational relations. Coalitions, as forms of political behavior, can be categorized as social movement organizations (McAdam, McCarthy, & Zald, 1988). They are also forms of interorganizational relations related to "action sets"--purposive networks of interacting organizations (Whetten, 1981)--and "organizational fields"--set of organizations oriented toward some collective end (Aldrich & Marsden, 1988; Galaskiewicz, 1979; Grusky, 1992; Marsden, 1992), and exchange theory (Levine & White, 1961). This study builds on research in these two fields and attempts to apply aspects of both schools' approaches to the real world of coalition building.

Political sociology and political science also contribute to coalition theory through analyses of European political coalitions (Groennings, Kelley, & Leiserson, 1970) and American electoral politics (Axelrod, 1986). These theorists have concentrated on factors affecting coalition formation with an emphasis on a calculated cost-benefit model of coalition behavior, that is, the conditions necessary to form a "winning" coalition (Adrian & Press, 1968; Gamson, 1961; Hinckley, 1981; Lawler & Youngs, 1975). Others include situational factors that affect coalition formation (Browne & Franklin, 1986; Reisinger, 1986).

There have been only a few empirically based comparative studies of large numbers of social movement organizations (Gamson, 1975; Mondros & Wilson, 1994). Applied social science researchers, social workers, and human services professionals generally have used a case study/qualitative or small sample approach (Alicea, 1978; Cromwell, Howe, & O'Rear, 1988; Frey, 1974; Roberts-DeGennaro, 1986, 1987, 1988; Sink & Stowers, 1989; Weisner, 1983). Moreover, most of the recent studies of interorganizational mechanisms have focused more on collaborations (Bailey & Koney, 1995, 1996; Rosenthal, 1998; Schopler, 1987, 1994) than on the social change coalition model.

Efforts to examine coalition behavior empirically and to distill what is known about building effective collaborations and related interorganizational mechanisms are increasing (Chavis, Speer, Resnick, & Zippay, 1993; Francisco, Paine, & Fawcett, 1993; Lasker, 1997; Sink, 1987). Mattessich and Monsey (1992), who reviewed the literature on collaborations, identified several factors influencing successful collaborations: environment, membership characteristics, process and structure, communication, purpose, and resources. Leadership itself was not identified as an independent variable but rather incorporated, along with funds, under resources. Those authors did not define what is meant by success, nor did they identify who defines it and by which criteria, as we have.


Selection of Coalitions

Forty-one diverse social change coalitions in the metropolitan New York/New Jersey area were identified that met key criteria--namely, organizations with organizational memberships that sought to influence an external target. We used a combination of availability and purposive and reputational sampling procedures to guide our selection of coalitions of different sizes, geographic locations, longevity, membership, constituency, and goals. Our professional involvement and leadership in coalitions helped us identify and gain access to this nonrandom, voluntary sample. We stopped building our universe when "saturation" was reached; after polling dozens of community leaders and organizers, no new coalitions in our geographic region were identified. Forty of the 41 contacted agreed to participate.

Study Design

We held three focus groups involving 70 past and current coalition organizers and leaders. Integrating those preliminary data with existing theory and concepts drawn from our own coalition experiences, we developed a 600-item survey instrument. Although most of the questions were original, several were adapted from studies of social change organizations (Mondros & Wilson, 1994) and advocacy organizations (Reisch, 1986). Administered as an interview, the mostly closed-ended questions included information on goals, strategies and tactics, membership and constituency, commitment, resources, leadership, decision making, structure and operations, and success and failure. Additional open-ended questions were asked about mistakes the leaders made, their advice to other coalition leaders, and lessons they learned. This article focuses predominantly on how the leaders defined and evaluated success and reflections on their leadership style, strategies, struggles, and solutions.

Data Collection and Analysis

The data were coded and analyzed by computer using SPSS 9.0. Cross-tabulations and some correlations were calculated. Factor analysis for clusters of variables was done, but none of the findings produced clear distinctions or patterns. Qualitative data were analyzed using a grounded theory methodology (Abramson & Mizrahi, 1993; Strauss & Corbin, 1990).

Conceptual Framework for Coalition Building

To make the disparate coalition research accessible to the practitioner, we created a conceptual framework for successful coalition building that includes four components: (1) conditions, (2) commitment, (3) contributions, and (4) competence. First, political, economic, and community conditions must be right for a coalition to form and develop. Second, there must be a core group of people representing different organizations with a commitment to achieve both a common goal and a commitment to the coalition model as a way to achieve the goal. Third, a coalition must be able to obtain the necessary contributions (ideology, power, and resources) from among the members to reach the goal. Fourth, a coalition must have, at the same time, the competence to move toward the social change goal, maintain the coalition leadership core, and sustain its membership base. We focus here on how coalition leaders understand and use these components.


Among the conditions that affect coalition formation and development are political and economic realities; the type and level of resources possessed by organizations; community climate and past experiences with alliances; the salience and urgency of the social change goal; the timing of coalescence and actions; and the feasibility of "winning." Aspects of the environment that affect the alignment of political and economic forces within networks include money, authority, and distribution of resources and power (Benson, 1975). Group origin, auspice, and tasks are also factors that govern coalition formation, behavior, and outcomes (Gentry, 1987; Schopler, 1987).


Commitment usually is conceptualized as part of the dichotomy between self-interest and altruism, or between pragmatism and ideology.

The pragmatic bases of coalition formation usually are categorized as a quest for resources and power, whereas the ideological bases of coalition formation usually include some specific value-based commitment--that is, to a cause or to a general concept of the "public interest" or the "common good." From our perspective, coalitions need to understand and address issues related to both ideology and utility; organizations' stakes in joining a social change coalition are related to both motivational factors (Bacharach & Lawler, 1980).


A variety of contributions are needed from participating organizations and other sources to form and maintain a social change coalition. Three types of contributions benefit coalitions: resources, ideology, and power.

Resources. We define resources as broader than the tangible sources of supply and support that include staffing and funding. Resources also include such intangible sources as expertise, information, and contacts. As coalitions endure, the needs for various resources change at the same time that the incorporation of these resources alters coalition dynamics.

Ideology. Organizations with an ideological purpose contribute a broader framework within which to pursue specific coalition goals, set a tone for the process of interaction and decision making, and usually are willing to invest time and energy for a longer duration. However, the image of the coalition must be considered in accepting the contributions from ideologically extreme members, who may not adjust well to a negotiated coalition structure (Brown, 1984; Dluhy, 1981).

Power. Coalitions form to attain the collective power necessary to influence an external target and achieve their goals. Coalitions need some autonomy to take independent action, but by definition also are accountable to the member organizations. The actual power of coalitions still resides with collective power derived from the member organizations. From a social movement perspective, power is wielded by the coalition because organizations have given or delegated their power to it (Mauss, 1975).


Leadership, by which we mean the analytical and interactional skills needed to make a coalition work, is an independent factor in coalition building. The complexity of social change coalition leadership is based on having to manage three critical levels simultaneously: (1) sustaining movement toward external goals by influencing social change targets; (2) maintaining internal relations among the core organizational representatives; and (3) developing trust with, accountability to, and contributions from, the coalition membership base (Rosenthal & Mizrahi, 1994).


Respondents: Coalition Leaders

Almost all of the respondents had been leaders in their coalitions since their inception. About half held the title of director or coordinator; the rest were chairpersons or members of their coalition's steering committee. Thirty of the coalition leaders were white; four were African American; and three each were Latino and Asian American. Twenty-four were female, and 16 were male. They were an educated group, with almost all holding a college degree; many had graduate or professional credentials. Almost 90 percent reported being "professional" in contrast to moving "up from the ranks," the latter meaning someone who came from the community or constituency affected by the issue. This was similar to the leadership patterns found among social action organizations by Mondros and Wilson (1994).

Coalition Characteristics

Longevity. At the time the interviews were conducted, 20 percent of the coalitions had been in existence for at least 10 years, 40 percent were between five and 10 years old, and 40 percent had been in existence from one to five years. All but four of the 40 coalitions were still in existence at the time of the interview. The longevity displayed in our sample belies the common perception of coalitions as only ad hoc, short-term structures. At the same time, they remain as coalitions rather than a permanent federated organization because of continued decision-making roles, contributions, and involvement of and accountability to the members.

Organizational Membership. The number of organizational members ranged from six to several hundred. Membership was diverse, with no more than 25 percent from any one type of organization; "religious organizations," "advocacy organizations," "social services agencies," and "grassroots groups" were present in most coalitions to varying degrees. (Terms in quotes indicate actual names of variables in the questionnaire.) Moreover, organizational membership was relatively stable over time for almost two-thirds of the coalitions; the 36 percent whose membership did change over the years did so "to attract a different constituency" (67 percent) or "to diversify representation" (58 percent). This constancy also contradicts the notion of coalitions as unstable, erratic interorganizational mechanisms.

Coalition Goals. As social change coalitions, most were formed with more than one goal related to improving social, economic, or community conditions controlled by systems or forces outside themselves. "Empowerment of a constituent group" was the most frequently identified purpose (60.0 percent), with "social and economic justice" issues a close second (57.5 percent). Next in frequency were expansion of "health, education, and social services" (42.5 percent) and "housing and neighborhood improvement" (40.0 percent). Additional goals included "women's issues" (35.0 percent), "environmental preservation/protection" (22.5 percent), and "electoral work" (12.5 percent). These coalitions formed more for proactive than defensive reasons. The most frequently cited reason for coalition formation was because "members shared common interests and hoped to affect a larger agenda" (80.0 percent), although defensive reasons for formation, such as "reaction to a crisis" (57.5 percent) or "reaction to a threat" (35.0 percent ), also were common.

These coalitions frequently addressed more than one social change goal, which they pursued over time. Consistent with their reasons for formation, proactive goals were overwhelmingly more prevalent than were defensive goals. More coalitions attempted to create new policies (82.5 percent) and influence public opinion (72.5 percent) than to oppose policy decisions (52.0 percent). Efforts to pass legislation (95.0 percent) and to gain funding (65.0 percent) outnumbered those to defeat legislation (60.0 percent) and oppose funding cuts (30.0 percent).

In defining their coalition as successful, most identified specific accomplishments. Collectively, they changed educational policies, improved conditions in housing court, increased banking reinvestment in their neighborhoods, initiated the creation of credit unions, created new funding streams for domestic violence programs, saved a hospital, and demonstrably changed public awareness about nuclear weapons, immigration policy, and racism, among many others.

Defining and Analyzing Coalition Success

During our focus groups, we discovered that coalition leaders defined success in a variety of ways, beyond the obvious one of "achieving their goal." Using their multiple and complex discussions of goal achievement and success, we identified six additional definitions of success. Respondents were asked to rank the importance of these different definitions of success to their coalition (on a scale of 1 to 5, with 1 = of great importance to 5 = of little or no importance).

Definitions of Success. Respondents first were asked whether they considered their coalitions a success or a failure. No coalition was characterized as a total failure. The overwhelming majority (80.0 percent) characterized their coalition as a success; the rest (20.0 percent) said they had some elements of success and failure. Table 1 presents these definitions of success ranked as "of great or considerable importance" by all 40 coalition leaders in order of importance: "achieving goal" (85.0 percent); "gaining recognition from (social change) target" (77.5 percent); "gaining community support" (67.5 percent); "gaining new consciousness of issues" (65 percent); "creating lasting networks" (60 percent); "attaining longevity" (52.5 percent); and acquiring new skills" (47.5 percent). The majority of respondents identified several definitions of success to be of great or considerable importance. Not surprisingly, "achieving goal" was the most frequently chosen definition overall; however, all but one of the oth er definitions were regarded as very important by a majority of the coalition leaders.

In their elaboration of reasons for the unqualified or limited success of their coalition, multiple factors related to the different definitions were emphasized. Although some external factors played a critical role, the leaders emphasized the internal factors even more in keeping their coalitions going. Despite the complexity of internal factors, the leaders still had more control over those as the following comments reflect:

[The coalition is successful because] it has been able over time to continuously raise an issue that in the beginning had all the political leadership at all levels and the media against it, and put it on the political agenda. It's a success also in the process. We developed a network of relationships among the peace groups over time ... and with labor unions, third world political representatives, and others.

Achieving goals--Winning issues [although important] is not the whole thing. It's only of some importance in my book. You've got to win enough occasionally to keep going, but it's not the only or even the most important factor.... We recruited people to build an organization and then we asked, "What are your issues?"

Redefining Success. The reluctance to admit defeat or characterize a coalition as a failure was one important finding, not only in the participants' perceptions, but also in attempting to identify failed coalitions for purposes of comparison. Coalition leaders redefined major problems as important lessons learned for the future. Termination (in four instances) and not attaining its goal, did not necessarily mean failure. On the other hand, neither longevity nor goal achievement alone meant success in their terms. Overall, neither lasting over time ("longevity") nor dormancy (terminating but maintaining "lasting networks") was sufficient in examining success or failure:

You don't have to last forever. It's not bad to say you could separate. It was okay after a time, not such a bad thing after all [to terminate].

I'd like to reflect on the difficulties...the fears and panic that go on especially in the beginning when you think the coalition can't make it because there's so much tension and conflict....As a leader, you wonder whether you can help people begin to recognize that it isn't failure if you don't get everything your organization wants, because that's not the purpose of a coalition. There's a win and a loss. You can't get everything you want, but you can get something everyone can agree on.

[Our coalition] was a failure in terms of longevity and achieving our goals, but the success was getting into white male corporate meetings and becoming accepted there.

Elements of Success. The leaders were asked to rank the importance of a list of internal and external elements that contributed to their coalition's success given their multiple definitions of success. (Table 2 presents a list of six external and 17 internal elements that they ranked in terms of their importance to their coalition's success). Internal factors relate to the coalition's ability to sustain participation and maintain the effort and structure. The internal elements that ranked high relate to process, structure, strategies, resources, decision making, commitment, and leadership. Coalition leadership and membership can exercise some control over these elements. External factors are those largely beyond the direct control of the coalition leadership--such as the issue, the climate, the targets, and the timing. In reality, however, internal and external conditions appear to be intertwined.

Overall, certain elements were consistently considered to have a great or considerable impact on coalition success, regardless of how success was defined. "Commitment to goal/cause/issue" (95.0 percent) and "competent leadership" (92.5 percent) were the top two elements regardless of definitions of success, followed by "commitment to coalition unity/work" (87.5 percent), "equitable decision-making structure! process" (80.0 percent), and "mutual respect! tolerance" (77.5 percent). Additional important elements of success were having "a broad-based constituency" (75.0 percent), "achieving interim victories" (72.5 percent), "members continued contributing resources" (67.5 percent), and "shared responsibility and ownership" (65.0 percent). Note that the tangible elements relating to resources (staffing and funding) were given much less import overall. Only three external factors were deemed important by most coalition leaders: "the right timing" and selecting a "critical issue" (at 87.5 percent each), and "appro priate target" (71.5 percent). Whereas coalition leaders cannot control these factors as much, it is clear that these factor into the decision-making processes with respect to the framing of goals and strategies:

The resources amassed by our coalition are valued and respected. They [the members] all possessed tremendous knowledge about their subject areas and about the political process. Being recognized as experts gives the coalition leverage and clout with the target.

The Exchange Factor in Success. The concept of exchange came through consistently in identifying what made a coalition successful (Roberts-DeGennaro, 1987). Many leaders emphasized the need to give to members to receive something from them. Contributions, which we defined broadly as resources, ideology, and power, were recognized as critical elements for coalition success. To ensure these contributions, reciprocity had to be engendered, as the next comment portrays:

[First] what [in our coalition] works is the hammering out ideas that they [members] can't do elsewhere ... because they have a limited perspective. The coalition provides a place for a broader perspective and [offers a chance] to learn something in the process. Second [we allow for] the flexibility of their participation. They don't have to do a lot if they don't want to.

Leaders recognize the need for and value of providing resources to member organizations. Organizations participated in our coalition because they received a great deal of information, expertise, and contacts:

Practical things contribute to our success--the fact that it was a new issue, and also the excitement that goes along with new relationships. People felt they were given something--and it's still happening.

You have to give member agencies a reason to join--provide a service they need; for example, access to the schools....The coalition was a vehicle/umbrella for widely divergent groups who wouldn't ordinarily come together, and it promoted a linkage between interrelated groups who might not otherwise have seen the connections.

Many leaders identified the coalition's success in strengthening and supporting member organizations that, in turn, provided the coalition with its strength and legitimacy. This can be translated into their understanding and utilization of the ideology and power as contributions:

We play to the diversity of [members'] interests rather than to the unity needed for coalition action....Our ability to incorporate a whole series of perspectives has created our ability to respond on a whole set of issues. It goes back to the fact that the effectiveness of the coalition is ... based on the individual action of as many groups as possible. We direct ourselves to what's happening to an individual group for the purpose of enhancing their ability to have an impact on the external goal.

You can't be successful as a coalition if you take either money or press or access away from any of your members. Your job is to increase their access. Collectively, we are strong because all of our groups did their jobs well. We most often take our political stances in support of member organizations and not our own stances. When our members are working on something, we bring the resources of the coalition. It's mutually dependent.

As a coalition amasses power, it becomes a place where organizations want to be--which, in turn, contributes to its power base and its legitimacy. Understanding the complexity of this dynamic is critical in analyzing the importance given by the coalition leaders to the concept of "mutual respect and trust" as an element of success. Here is how a few leaders link these concepts--bringing powerful, but competing groups into their coalitions:

[Mutual respect and trust] is of considerable importance. We had so many organizations that wouldn't talk to each other, but within the context of the coalition were fine. They trusted the coalition.

People had been talking for a long time about the need for a unified voice on immigration issues. I think our success so far is due to the fact that it was timely. [Also] it fulfills a need for small organizations to get knowledge and legitimacy, and for the large more powerful groups to be more in touch with what's going on.

Coalition Leadership: Competencies, Values, and Attributes

Professional and Personal Attributes. The list of attributes found in Table 3 was developed in response to open-ended questions posed to the focus group participants. The 40 respondents were asked to describe several qualities needed to be an effective coalition leader. They then selected from the list those characteristics that best described both themselves and a second important leader from their coalition.

The characteristics chosen by the coalition leaders included those to know and do associated with specific knowledge, skills, and values--that is, they believed that coalition leaders needed to know and do certain things and be a certain way to have a successful coalition. Almost all of the respondents saw themselves and the significant other leader in their coalition as having a combination of traits and behaviors in all three realms:

I'd say that I have persistence, dogged persistence, and stick-to-it-ness....

Persistence and commitment seem to go together. You care deeply about an issue and are able to survive and withstand external and internal changes related to the coalition's agenda to do something about the problem or condition.

Leadership is critical--for the vision and to see the commonalities; to be able to follow through, to get funds and resources for the community, and to demonstrate that you're not in it for yourself.

Particular emphasis was placed on the skills of facilitation and negotiation as this leader explains:

My role as chairperson is looking for the commonalities. Often they're there; it's just the way people have of saying something that makes it sounds different. I rephrase, clarify, and fine-tune disagreements so they're down to a 50 percent difference.

Other Leaders' Qualities. Overall, the coalition leaders most frequently chose their second important leader on the basis of similar rather than complementary characteristics (for example, persuasiveness on the coalition's issue, good strategic/political skills, credibility, dedication, and trustworthiness). Differences between them and the other leaders appeared only in their respective backgrounds. Most of the respondents were trained professionals, whereas the other leaders selected moved "up from the ranks," although many of the latter often became "trained professionals" somewhere along the way. The usual dichotomy made between professional and grassroots leaders with respect to the skills and values each brings to an organization did not emerge here. What is interesting is that many of the indigenous leaders pursued higher education as a result of their political involvement in social change coalitions.

A combination of relationship-building, competence-based skills, and personal attributes clearly emerged:

[What made for our success was] good charismatic leaders. None of them were out for themselves. There was a lot of experience and modesty--a willingness to share--a lot of respect. And the leadership gave the time and energy.

Building Relationships: Complexity of the "Process" Factor. Coalition leaders recognize the critical need for coalition members to build personal relationships. Because coalition theory is based primarily on sociological, political, and organizational constructs, this emphasis on interpersonal dynamics makes an important contribution to understanding additional foundational skills necessary for successful coalition building. The respondents recognized the importance of emotional and affective as well as intellectual and political components in building successful coalitions:

Here's the thing I learned: There's a need for personal and professional commitment--the need to create a feeling of sisterhood--to work closely with the members; and to give up something so other people can have it [give more than you get].

Coalitions are relationship building. Even if the issue is a good issue that people are concerned about, you need to build relationships.

Relationship building was related to the concept of "process" in additional complex and subtle ways. The leaders revealed two components of process skills. The first was to establish good relationships among the leadership core, and between that core and its member organizations. This included factoring in an affective or caring component:

[What we do is] create a comfortable they want to be with one another and work together. They have to respect each other and be able to count on each other. They should enjoy being there and feel that they are getting something out of it.

The second component was related to developing the mechanisms for communication and creating a structure that enabled and encouraged participation:

[My advice is] do as much one-to-one as possible. Know the issue; be able to listen to people. Part of it is to understand that you just don't scream and people fall into line.

A proactive, conscious use of self is clearly integral to the enabling-facilitating leadership role in coalition building. A process orientation is not viewed as structureless, or amorphous, but rather as proactive and strategic, as noted in some detail here:

The focus of the ongoing [coalition] work group was what I call "acephalous leadership"--which is "work" leadership. In other words, you work, and people work along side you.... I'm not obviously the leader, but if someone had to stop and think about who was getting things done, who was keeping things moving--it was me. I call it "acephalous leadership." I worked out a "circular dialogue." We continued to dialogue with the community and ensure that the proposal we were developing was what they wanted. We had a structure... but we had a philosophy that people who did the work made the decisions.... That [principle] maintained an egalitarian thing....It was a feminist structure.


Our findings demonstrate that coalitions share certain common structures, processes, beliefs, and behaviors according to their leaders.

Value of the Conceptual Framework

Overall, the 40 coalition leaders confirmed the relevance of much of our conceptual framework for successful coalition functioning (Mizrahi & Rosenthal, 1986). Competence to handle the complex set of tasks and relationships was highly valued by the coalition leaders. They recognized that leadership requires a unique constellation of knowledge, skill, and attributes that include creating a respectful and equitable structure and process for deliberations and decision making, as well as obtaining and allocating resources and other benefits to members.

On Conditions. Whereas political, economic, and community conditions were viewed as important to forming and maintaining coalitions, other external factors, such as the issue, the right timing, and the social target, were seen as more critical. These surpassed the more pragmatic factors such as whether the target was responsive, or if the coalition had the correct connections. Although the literature suggests that previous history of working relationships was a condition for coalition formation, we found that it was not viewed as an important element related to success.

On Commitment. There was overwhelming agreement that sufficient commitment both to the goal and to the coalition model must be in place. The importance of longevity and creating lasting networks as definitions of success was evident; staying together and the ability to come back together are related to the concept of commitment to the coalition model. Commitment to coalition unity! work was ranked almost as high as commitment to the issue/cause/goal, both critical elements to successful coalition building. In previous studies we suggested that one of the tensions inherent in coalitions is between those who view coalitions as the means to achieve a specific goal versus those who see coalitions as models of inter-group cooperation (Mizrahi & Rosenthal, 1993). The data suggest that both foci are significant factors in building successful coalitions--another feature that may distinguish coalitions from collaborations, which are usually short term and focused.

On Contributions. A variety of member contributions were deemed necessary and indeed were obtained to keep coalitions going. The more resources members gave and received, the more they stayed committed; and the longer they stayed together, the more likely they were to amass the power to influence the social change target and achieve their goals. Our data support the necessity of defining resources broadly to include a variety of personal and organizational assets that members contribute to coalitions. Most respondents asserted that coalition success was related to the fact that members continued to commit resources, and indicated that they consciously sought members with different attributes and assets. More than funding and tangible in-kind resources, such as office space, coalitions require such contributions as expertise, legitimacy, consistent participation, and access to a constituency. These data verified that, in fact, fewer than half of the respondents considered adequate funding to be an element rel ated to coalition success, and, in fact, financial support was selected as the least important resource coalitions obtained from members. In practice, many coalitions operated successfully without significant external funding and staffing, although their finances varied. Initially, all the coalitions were able to access in-kind contributions from their leadership core and membership, and several existed over time with relatively little external financing.

On Competence. Second only to commitment to goal/cause/issue, competent leadership was the factor most often mentioned as critical to coalition success. Perhaps they were biased because all the respondents were holding or had held key paid or unpaid leadership positions in their coalition. However, they all described other important leaders in their coalition who also were invested both in achieving specific social change goals and in developing their coalition as a model of intergroup cooperation. The high frequency of responses related to internal elements of success, such as equitable decision making, mutual trust, and shared responsibility, indicated that they understood the importance of the process as well as products in successful coalition building. Clearly, cultivating a safe, participatory team environment and structure is a skill required for successful coalitions.

On Definitions and Elements of Success. These coalition leaders used multiple definitions of success and, indeed, identified many factors that contributed to their coalition's success. Coalition leaders were creative and strategic in how they defined and analyzed success. Given the difficult and, at times, controversial nature of their goals (for example, to end hunger, to achieve tenant equity, to combat domestic violence, and so forth), they used criteria for success that included, but went beyond, attaining a specific goal. Indeed, achieving interim victories was noted by most of them as a very important element of success.

The most important definitions of success were achieving goals and gaining recognition from the social change target, thereby corroborating Gamson's (1975) finding that attaining legitimacy was as critical for social change organizations as, and independent of, the accomplishment of a specific goal. Mondros and Wilson (1994) also found this. Creating lasting networks, although not as important, was still a valued component of success. They understood that having worked together to achieve some specific goal meant that they could build on those relationships in the future, when external conditions are right. This is consistent with several leaders' observations that termination is not failure. (As one leader put it: "We are dormant, not dead.") Of the four coalitions that terminated, their leaders all defined themselves as total successes, even the one that did not achieve its social change goal.

On Goals and Effectiveness. The study reinforced the importance and complexity in defining goals in coalition work. The respondents' answers to the question--" Did your coalition achieve its goals?"--turned out to be much more complex than a simple "yes" or "no." Achieving their goals was the top definition of success, and commitment to goal/cause/issue was the top-ranked element related to coalition success and the top factor considered in sustaining commitment to the coalition. In reality, most coalition leaders believed their coalitions were actually successful in terms of achieving tangible goals such as improving social conditions for their communities or constituencies.

However, despite the primary importance of goal achievement, most coalition leaders said their coalitions were successful, regardless of whether they actually achieved their stated goals. Because many social change goals are difficult to attain, simply continuing to stay together and addressing a related goal was recognized as achieving considerable success. The professional skill involved in selecting, addressing, redefining, and evaluating goals is often underestimated in coalition building.

Most coalitions continued pursuing their original goals over time and made various adjustments to sustain the effort. Some coalitions changed structure, altered membership, pursued additional goals, and cultivated new resources. Over time, most coalitions made creative and strategic changes in coalition structure, membership, and functioning, and many continued to address the same goal as they took on additional social change goals. However, survival of the coalition never seemed to displace some externally relevant goal.

Coalitions had long-term and short-term goals, process and product goals, general and specific goals, instrumental and end goals, as well as multiple and changing goals. Careful attention paid to the complexity of goal selection and analysis makes it easier for coalitions to agree on measures of success.

These findings illustrate why coalitions often are characterized as ad hoc and unstable mechanisms. The negative connotation associated with adapting and adjusting to internal and external changes over time appears to be inaccurate. Rather, those dynamics seem to be indications of resilience, creativity, and fortitude.


There were several limitations in this study related to the sample, methodology, and analysis. This study was limited to coalitions with external social change targets and, therefore, cannot automatically be generalized to other types of coalitions or collaborations, such as those related to service integration or coordination.

Respondents provided a retrospective view, informed by hindsight; hence, over time they may have revised, if not distorted, reality. Moreover, study data were based on the perceptions of one representative per coalition. Resources did not permit verification or corroboration from other insiders. Although there was no formal external validation, the use of the reputational method to identify coalition participants provided additional confidence that these people were indeed the key leaders of successful coalitions. Most of them were identified by more than one external contact, in addition to our own independent knowledge of their existence prior to this study. Moreover, when searching for "failed" or terminated coalitions, no one mentioned any of the coalitions participating in this study.

There were also limitations due to methodology. Leaders could select more than one answer in response to most of our questions, and in many cases ranked variables on a five-point Likert scale. We asked them to rate the importance of various factors that had already been named in the literature or in focus groups. Thus, we did not need to start from scratch to identify the critical factors in coalition development; rather we sought to determine the relative importance of these factors. Although this scaling is useful in clarifying subtle differences, it was difficult to analyze the data quantitatively because there were rarely mutually exclusive groupings for purposes of comparison.


Given the conservative economic and political climate of the late 1990s, now is the time for organizations and agencies to join forces to revitalize their communities and create opportunities to influence larger social agendas. In between single-issue organizations and social movements stand social change coalitions and the possibilities of cultivating and deepening working relationships among diverse groups. For this to occur, coalition building must be viewed as increasing the possibilities--an investment of time and effort well worth the costs in terms of organizational benefits and external outcomes (Rosenthal & Mizrahi, 1993).

More research needs to be done on significant differences between coalitions and collaborations (Beatrice, 1990; Bruner, 1991), and on the similarities and differences between mandated and voluntary, and between internally and externally focused, collaborations (Schopler, 1994). As it turned out, there were three mandated coalitions in our study that were no different on any significant dimension from the remainder that had formed voluntarily.

The findings in this study affirm that sophisticated and experienced leaders are necessary for sustaining and using coalitions as vehicles for community improvement and social change. Many social workers have the opportunities and experiences to lead coalitions and represent their organizations on coalitions. Our study has attempted to deepen the knowledge about coalition success and to contribute to the informed use of coalitions and related interorganizational mechanisms. Coalitions are dynamic, not static; their life comes from the sustained commitment and contributions of people, the strategic use of relationships, and competent leadership. As such, success depends as much on creating an inclusive and flexible process as on a fixed structure or realistic goals. The 40 coalition leaders in this study demonstrated more similarities than differences in their views of success, their approaches to sustaining commitment, their understanding and use of contributions, and their recognition of the knowledge, skil ls, and values needed by leaders of this complex model of organizing.

Terry Mizrahi, PhD, is professor and director, Education Center for Community Organizing, Hunter College School of Social Work, 129 East 79th Street, New York, NY 10021; e-mail: Beth B. Rosenthal, MS, is a consultant. She lives in New York City; An earlier version of this article was presented at the Community Organizing and Social Administration Symposium of the Annual Program Meeting of the Council on Social Work Education, March 1998, Orlando, FL.


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 Leaders' Definition of Successful Coalitions
 Ranked Importance
 of Definitions
 (N = 40)
Definition of Success n % [a]
Achieving goal 34 85.0
Gaining recognition from social change target 31 77.5
Gaining community support 27 67.5
Gaining new consciousness of issues 26 65.0
Creating lasting networks 24 60.0
Attaining longevity 21 52.5
Acquiring new skills 19 47.5
(a.)Percentages reflect respondents who selected each
definition to be of great or considerable importance.
 Elements Contributing to Successful Coalitions
 Ranked Importance
Elements of Success of Elements (N=39) % [a]
 Commitment to goal/cause/issue 95.0
 Competent leadership 92.5
 Commitment to coalition unity 87.5
 Equitable decision-making
 structure/process 80.0
 Mutual trust and respect/tolerance 77.5
 Broad-based constituency of members 75.0
 Achieving interim victories 72.5
 Members continued
 contributing resources 67.5
 Shared responsibility/ownership 66.0
 Providing benefits
 to coalition members 52.0
 Adequate staffing 42.5
 Adequate time to address issues 42.5
 Right connections/contacts 40.0
 Good operating structure 40.0
 Adequate funding 40.0
 Appropriate division of labor 35.0
 Previous history of
 working relationships 27.5
 The right thing 87.5
 Critical issue 82.5
 Appropriate target 71.5
 Community climate of
 openness and flexibility 45.0
 Responsive target 42.5
 No opposing coalition
 or organization 27.5
(a.)Percentages reflect respondents who determined each
element to be of great or considerable importance.
 Professional and Personal Attributes of
 Coalition Leaders (in Rank Order by Self)
Attribute Self (N = 39) Other (N = 33)
 % %
Credible, dedicated, proven 97 97
Trustworthy 95 91
Articulate/persuasive, expert on issue 92 91
Trained/educated professional 90 73
Good strategic/political skills 85 70
Organized, good manager 77 70
Good group development/facilitation skills 72 73
Visionary 72 73
Representative of coalition's constituency 46 61
Charismatic, inspirational 44 39
Well-connected to external power structure 31 42
Controlling large constituency 28 42
Up from the ranks 25 55
Persistent 21 12
Uses coalitions for own ends 10 9
Opportunistic 3 6
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Author:Mizrahi, Terry; Rosenthal, Beth B.
Publication:Social Work
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Jan 1, 2001
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