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Improving Advocacy Coalition Support and Effectiveness

Like it or not, policy advocacy is a large group project.  Different advocacy organizations supporting the same policy bring different insights, resources, skills, and abilities to do the work. The form of these advocacy group projects is often advocacy coalitions.  More than 10 years ago, we first started examining advocacy coalitions. We identified ways to look at their capacity and how to evaluate them, among other things. TCC Group recently had the chance to revisit that work through the lens of new questions and a changed political environment. We wondered what new insights there might be for effective coalitions. Through an opportunity afforded by The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, we researched and published our findings in a recent report: Coalitions as a Tool for Advocacy: Evidence and Lessons Learned.

At first blush, the 50-page report may seem overwhelming or excessive. However, rather than reading it as a report, it is best consumed as a resource guide helping readers navigate nuanced questions related to coalitions. Inside the guide is a set of 22 distinct learning questions, organized into four domains of coalition effectiveness: capacity and structure, context, strategy, and support. There are research questions we addressed related to different coalition models, incorporating diverse stakeholders that might be in opposition on other issues, and navigating power dynamics as a funder when supporting coalitions.

A handful of findings include:

  • Building trust takes time and resources. Anyone who has heard the common saying “moving at the speed of trust” probably knows it takes effort to generate trust. However, some coalition organizers and funders forget to invest real resources—the necessary amount of dollars and time—as they navigate pressing policy needs.  Such underinvestment is both short-sighted and can have negative repercussions, such as tokenized and alienated coalition member groups.
  • Coalitions need transition support across the policy lifecycle. Coalitions can play effective roles at every stage of the policy lifecycle, but each stage does require strength on different capacity dimensions.  Often, coalitions are supported through initial stages, such as legislative policy engagement but are ineffective at transitioning to policy implementation—what one advocate called, “winning the win”.  Transition points require both advocates and funders to consider how to effectively pivot to the next stage so hard-won progress is not rolled back.
  • Coalitions need the capacity to do micro-targeting in order to generate influence. Previous research has described a number of important capacities unique to coalitions.  This research builds on that literature, adding some capacities that are critical to reaching very targeted groups with specific messages.  These capacities include narrative change skills to adapt to different audiences; power analysis in order to identify and pursue pathways of influence; and a mission that allows is broad enough to allow different groups to see themselves as being relevant to its pursuit.
  • Funder-instigated coalitions face obstacles. Funder-instigated coalitions face challenges around reputation, branding, and authenticity.  As a remedy to these challenges, funders can consider seeding the conversation across potential participants in a new coalition and then giving space to organizations within the ecosystem. Once they have done their job of seeding a conversation, they can see if a new coalition emerges organically or if organizations come up with alternative tactics for advocacy and policy change that are more aligned with field needs.

There are no magic solutions in this new round of research, but there is direction towards providing more effective support.  We encourage you to dig in to the various questions that fit your current learning needs.

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