Creative Coalitions: A Handbook for Change
Component 3: Staying Behind the Scenes
One of your most important contributions to changing the world is for the general public to have no idea who you are. Yup, you read that right.
The convenor must be modest for themselves, committed to working behind the scenes at the service of the network’s goals.
Specifically, you must explicitly avoid:
- Adopting policy positions that are independent of those recommended by coalition members
- Recruiting and registering your own supporters from the general public, either as donors or as your own constituency of activists who will campaign in your name
- Any namechecks in the media.
This is nonsense, you might think. How can we contribute to change without people knowing who we are? (Well, some people will know who you are – see Going Beyond The Usual Suspects in Component 4 for more on that.)
This humility is invaluable. Being behind the scenes will dramatically increase the trust potential allies put in you.
Remember: it is the voice of the coalition that matters. The members of the coalition bring the expertise and the credibility. Your role is to make them more powerful by ensuring they serve a robust coalition strategy. You can best play that role when you maximise the trust and power the coalition puts in you.
When publicly-known organisations create coalitions, even with the best will in the world, there is often some doubt: are they co-opting the network to serve their own vision of change, or advancing their own position, or seeking funding for themselves? At best, the perception of mixed incentives creates friction. At worst, the coalition is not serving the mission but serving a narrower, selfish goal.
If you seek public attention as the convenor, you undermine the trust that your partners put in you. By being behind the scenes, you make it clear:
- You are organising for impact, not for ego.
- You can remain a neutral mediator, an honest broker whose only concern is for impact.
- You are not competing with partners.
- You devote your energies to the voice and impact of the coalition – not yours.
So you've seen the case for why you should rule out having a public profile. But there’s still the question of what this looks like in practice.
The first point is that while the strategic convenor must be behind the scenes, the coalition needn’t be. Influencing people in power will often require public work. That makes strategic sense, but doesn’t affect your strategic role.
- Media: if, for instance, vested interests stand in the way of the change that’s needed, you might want to use the media to expose them. You can compile and send the media materials to journalists; you can be the contact person to link them up with spokespeople, but be explicit: your organisation must not be named in any media reports.
- Popular engagement: if politicians haven’t yet felt that there’s public support for a particular policy change, you may look at organising public demonstrations or mobilisation online. You will need to:
- Agree with partners what the branding is: for greatest impact the mobilisation could be in the name of all the coalition partners; or under a new umbrella identity; or both. It should not be in your name, as the convenor.
- Convene and guide those organisations that can reach supporters directly. You should not be engaging with the general public directly. This is a coalition partner role.
- Direct advocacy: You learn that a major player - let’s say the Prime Minister - may be making decisions based on partial information, lacking some key piece of the puzzle that members of your coalition can provide. So, you draft a letter or talking points for a meeting with the Prime Minister that you help set up, you negotiate with the coalition on the text to minimise how much the messaging is watered down, and then you ask for organisations in the coalition to opt in: to sign on to the letter or agree to use the talking points in the meeting.
Obviously, you cannot be completely invisible. It is who you know that forms your network, from which you will build coalitions: that is your greatest asset. The strategic connections that you make across your network are essential to your added value. So some people will need to know who you are: the organisations and individuals that will form your coalitions, journalists, politicians, donors and more. Component 4 gives guidance on how you can build these connections without the need for a public profile: new relationships will open up to you, and existing ones will reach new strengths, specifically because you’re not seeking public profile.