As indicated in earlier posts for several days this week the PCDNetwork team is attending the annual Interaction Forum, one of the key convenings of the global humanitarian and development community. See our earlier posts on the first day's morning plenary here and here.
One of the sessions I attended in the afternoon was a panel on “Coalitions, The Good, the Bad and the Effective”
This was a fascinating and honest discussion about the benefits and challenges of building effective coalitions from a diverse group of speakers who have significant experience in a range of areas. Having been involved in numerous efforts much of the rich discussion about what works, open questions and the difficulties of convening and inspiring for change range very true for me.
The speakers included representatives from several networks including
Key lessons from the session include the following
1) Coalitions can have various functions.- Some coalitions might focus more on building a field, research, etc. Others might focus more on achieving scale. There is no one size fits all approach to develop the right approach, as much is context specific.
2) Coalition or network building takes sustained effort – Collaboration is hard but worth it. As one of the speakers said, it is really messy and complicated at times, there are personalities, ambitions, budgets and much more. Building a strong coalition takes a lot of work.
3) There are joiners and doers - Coalitions need both people who join to show the strength in numbers and those who do the work (it would be ideal if all joiners contribute effort or resources but this usually isn’t the case). It is important to have different ways to engage people or organizations in the process. Tailoring what you’re asking from your coalition members to get the biggest bank for the buck. A key challenge that was discussed in the session is how do you get busy people to pay attention when they are busy (as most people have hit information and network overload).
4) Coalitions of Coalitions - One of the important things is also how the speakers discussed how they are linked and embedded in other networks or coalitions. This helps to facilitate learning and sharing across sectors. One of the questions that I would have liked to ask is are there a meta-network that links all the key coalitions across diverse sectoral areas?. I know for PCDNetwork one of our favorite orgs playing a key role in building the ecosystem of convening for change is Conveners.org
5) Who represents whom? This was one of the challenges. Do coalitions or networks speak for their field or members, or only play a convening role. Moreover, there are often power imbalances between members in the global north and global south (perhaps due to access or financial differences). Another challenge that was discussed is if a funder is directly involved in the network how to not let the particular financial support dictate the directions that a coalition moves in regarding their activities.
6) Finding your voice can be challenging - For some coalitions (particularly emergent ones) it can be very difficult to define boundaries of what a field is, what may be appropriate language.
7) Business planning is key - It does take human and financial resources to keep networks functioning. Ensuring how one’s work fits with the sectors’ needs, with partners and ways of generating funding is something that is needed. There was significant discussion of the challenges in developing sustainable revenue and most of the panelists talked about the importance of having diversified funding that might include membership fees, grants, donations, in-kind support and more. An obstacle orgs face is that many donors don’t want to support this type of systems building and instead prefer more direct support. But it is the creation of systems that is key to facilitating improved practice, impact and much more.
8) Finding Common Ground - Members need to see benefit from participating in coalitions. A headquarters needs to do a careful balance between advancing the larger field, but also making sure work fits the goals of their members (regularly engaging and listening to members is key. But even with this finding the right process or steps can still be difficult). This can be particularly challenging if an organization is speaking on potentially politically sensitive topics. Should the network take a position? Does it speak for all members?
A particularly challenging issue can be if there is limited funding and the network staff might be competing for funding with its members. In particular effort should be taken to avoid this and seek to ensure that a network expands funding opportunities for their members.
9) Coalition building is a double-edged sword - It helps to advance a field, expertise, etc. If there are multiple Coalitions for the same problem it can be duplicative. Nowadays there is a coalition for every problem. People need to ask themselves, does this problem need an official structure or can collaboration suffice? Creating a new formal structure isn't always the right option and it is important to do some mapping to see needs before moving ahead.
10) Key skills – I asked a question about what are the key skills people need to work in this space. Two responses were provided by the panelists. The first is how to do budgeting and finance as too often people come out of academic programs without this key expertise. Second is the ability to be the invisible making links between members, partners and others as one’s modus operandi.
Overall this was a great discussion filled with active questions and answers with the audience. To advance sustainable change and impact in the world, we need to advance collaborative efforts for change. But this does require sustained effort, when people are often strained for time, resources and competing priorities. Building effective coalitions is an iterative process that requires sustained effort, reflection and engagement but I think all in the room would agree that it is a critical step.