Creative Coalitions: A Handbook for Change
Component 4: The Power of Exceptional Networks
Your role as the strategic convenor is like wiring an electrical circuit: you make the connection between diverse elements into a circuit that maximises the voltage surging through them. As well as having the savvy strategic sense to design the most efficient, powerful circuit, you also need to have access to the right elements to make the circuit work.
For instance, if you need to build a coalition of doctors, you will need to have connections to the medical world. If legal or military voices will have influence, then you will need connections with people in those sectors. The greater the size, diversity, and commitment of your network, the more impact you will have.
Creating a Network of Trust
Organisations from your network that opt in to a specific coalition will be involved in its success, building their commitment to this model of organising for impact. By the very nature of clever coalitions, though, not every member of the wider ecosystem needs to or will opt in to every tactic or even strategy you work on. Some may not opt in because their priorities lie elsewhere at that moment. Others may not opt in because they do not agree with the approach you’re proposing: that is inevitable and perfectly legitimate. People have different views on how to make change happen, and your goal is not to get everyone to agree but to have impact.
Left untended, relationships can sour due to a sense of exclusion or being ignored. Yet at some point down the line, you may need to work together because your collective impact will be less if you don’t. So you must constantly nurture relationships so they can endure periods of disconnection and withstand specific disagreements.
Here’s How Crisis Action Does it
Crucially, we seek buy-in. Literally. Crisis Action’s partners – the foremost human rights, humanitarian, and peacebuilding organisations in the world, sharing the goal of civilians in war zones being safe from harm – pay a small contribution to Crisis Action as their partnership fee (we do not seek any contribution from organisations from the Global South). The total partnership contributions from all our partners come to less than 10% of Crisis Action’s income: the value is more about securing commitment to collaboration than it is a source of revenue.
The partnership must be win-win. In our case, on top of the impact partners contribute to in any specific coalition, the benefits they gain include:
- Closer relationships with distant peers and new allies around the world through the Crisis Action network
- Access to decision-makers, policy-makers, creatives, journalists, or other useful contacts through discussions that Crisis Action convenes
- Regular intel updates, based on information entrusted by decision-makers to Crisis Action as a behind-the-scenes connector
- Being able to influence which conflicts Crisis Action works on, and so multiply the impact that one organisation would otherwise have.
Going Beyond the Usual Suspects
As the Syria Case Study shows, the usual good people saying the usual good things is not usually enough to change hard political calculus, especially in matters of war and peace. Think of a school playground: when the goody-two-shoes says, ‘play nicely’, or even shouts it, or even writes it in a strongly-worded letter, the bully won’t necessarily put the stick down.
To have impact, the strategy will probably need complementary coalitions. And to build those coalitions means being able to activate connections beyond the usual voices. This can be tricky when you’ve got a big public brand behind you; it might sound impossible when you’re behind the scenes (see Component 3). But far from it. In fact, being behind the scenes means you can build relationships in a way that others may find harder. Below are some more pointers for building relations with three categories of potential allies. These should give you a sense of how to approach others you might need to engage.
One overall tip for building a fantastic network: be generous with your connections. Link people together, suggest potential allies. By being helpful to your allies you will become important glue that connects distant people and organisations together. You will create new, powerful collaborations but also goodwill, so new recruits become connectors for you, introducing you to new people. Be helpful in turn to them, and they can become allies and connectors, too. And so your network grows.
Although you shouldn’t be quoted in the media or be quoted in political debates, you have a lot to offer journalists and politicians. Some of them will be surprised or confused about you saying, ‘We are seeking no public profile’. ‘Why don’t you want credit for what you’re doing?’, they may ask. ‘What are you hiding?’ But...
You can build trusting collaborations with journalists because you:
- Are not pushing an organisational profile: rather than always pitching the same voice and the same angle, you can find voices from your network – the interesting, often unheard stories delivered by powerful voices that journalists can’t find alone and that will serve your mission.
- Can connect them with leading experts, voices from ‘the ground’, and other spokespeople.
- Are a one-stop shop to connect them with briefings, analysis, and recommendations sourced from your network, as well as the latest intelligence on private political discussions.
- Will build bespoke media products with them, giving them advance notice, and bringing together quotes, opinion pieces, data, and images to suit the outlet.
Each time you provide another authentic story to journalists they will be reminded: you are valuable because you do not seek public profile for yourself.
To get a sense of political opportunities and moments, to inform what coalitions would be most influential, and to learn from what approaches have or haven’t worked in the past, connections with policy-makers are invaluable.
You can build trusting relationships with policy-makers because you offer:
- Efficiency: you can bring together partners into one meeting or briefing, streamlining the process for policy-makers.
- Quality: it won’t always be the same organisation or individual who is best informed or the most creative. You can link them with the most appropriate voices for the conversation they want to have, while making sure it also serves the coalition’s goal.
- Political space: through campaigns, media, and lobbying work that you coordinate, you can create political space – public or Parliamentary support, for instance – for ideas policy-makers want to pursue. You can strategise with political allies on what will build most energy around your shared goals.
You should be up front, though: you don't work for governments.
There may well be times when you coordinate approaches that criticise the Government when they are acting counter to the goals of the coalitions you organise. You will triangulate the information they give you. You can be useful; but you will not be used.
Most likely, you’ll need some financial support to sustain your role as a strategic convenor. You can be an attractive partner for donors because supporting you means they are:
- Leveraging greater impact from their existing portfolios: donors may already fund some members of your network. The model of organising for impact leverages greater impact by enhancing the effectiveness of the broader sector.
- Catalysing a whole network, not just one organisation.
- Facilitating nimble work: in response to new opportunities or threats, you will organise bespoke coalitions that can move quickly, rather than waiting for everyone to agree to a course of action.
- Encouraging efficiency: as the strategic convenor, you ensure that coalitions complement one another, enhancing the overall impact.
- Supporting campaigning that is informed by the best political and situational analysis: through your network of well-placed partners and policy-makers, you are helping the coalition make savvy judgements about what will have the greatest impact.