The Avengers: Infinity War is one of the most successful films in cinematic history. If you look past the vast array of world-renowned actors and the eye-watering $400m budget, the film offers us a great lesson about tackling big social problems. The Avengers, alongside a host of other superheroes (including Wakanda's finest warriors), understood that the antagonist, Thanos, represented an existential threat to humanity. They set aside their differences and pooled their unique assets to offer a more coordinated and effective response to the complex challenge. Strategically, it made more sense to confront Thanos as a coalition of fighters instead of taking him on separately.
Our world is facing a series of challenges, many of them exist that no one organisation or even sector can solve on their own. Coalitions are a critical way of addressing these issues by gathering those willing and able to lead the fight on a given issue. Take the issue of childhood obesity. Over the past 40 years, the number of young people with obesity has risen more than 10-fold. Obesity affects 1 in 6 children and adolescents in the US. This social problem is also complicated. Companies will need to change the way they market their products to children. Governments and local councils will have to work together to make sure that young people have access to sporting facilities and open spaces. Non-profits dedicated to health and nutrition need to work with families to raise awareness of the need for healthy eating. Academics and statisticians will need to gather and analyse the data to measure what is happening. Think tanks will have to use that data to develop policy. All of these organisations will have to work in concert to win the fight against childhood obesity.
What are coalitions and why bother with them?
There is no standard way of defining a coalition. They can be broad or narrow; loose or formal. This article focuses on narrow and formal coalitions. These are groups of organisations which have been convened, in a structured way, to achieve a specific social outcome. They usually have an initiator but the day to day running of a coalition is led by a neutral secretariat or backbone. For example, the Fair Education Alliance, launched in 2014, sought to bring together crucial education organisations to reduce educational inequality. Open for Business is a coalition of companies aiming to increase LGBT tolerance in markets with a strong anti-LGBT sentiment.
The purpose of coalitions
I think there are three main reasons to establish a coalition.
First, coalitions are a brilliant way of aligning activity. Organisations who are committed to achieving the same goal can develop a better understanding of where the need is most significant because a coalition provides a structure that enables them to work in a more coordinated manner.
Second, in a world where it's becoming increasingly difficult for campaigns to get cut through, forming a coalition of organisations can be an effective way of amplifying an advocacy campaign and reaching a wider audience. Convening a large number of organisations engaging in joint communications over a particular issue is very a compelling story.
Finally, coalitions are useful trust building mechanisms. A well-governed alliance can facilitate openness and transparency among its membership over a sustained period. This becomes important when a coalition is made up of a quirky assortment of organisations. The Fair Education Alliance counts investment banks, trade unions, parental groups, charities and parent-led campaign groups among its number.
Making coalitions work
Coalitions can be complicated beasts and they require strategic thinking, effective stakeholder management and patience to build and develop. These tips might be helpful if you're considering building one.
First, as the lead convenor of the coalition, you should gather a core group of initial interested parties to develop a common agenda. You should all be on the same page about what the nature of the problem you're trying to solve is and what your goal is. You should also have a clear understanding of how to solve that problem and how you'll measure progress. It might be reducing the number of obese children in the UK by 50% by 2030, or tripling the number of female entrepreneurs worldwide by 2025. Speaking to various experts and practitioners in the area should help.
Second, you need to be clear about the rules. How do you decide your membership? How do you develop and agree on policy positions? Who approves the overall strategy? Who are your spokespeople? Clarity on rules is critical. Without it, your coalition will get bogged down in inefficient discussion and decision making.
Finally, you should collectively identify a "hero product", such as a report, that allows your coalition to maintain momentum, work on a tangible project and hold the whole movement to account. The Fair Education has a yearly "Report Card", which sets out its policy agenda and tracks progress towards its goals. It's a co-created report - some organisations provide the data and research, some help develop the policy, others help with the case studies and some support with the communications strategy.
It is right that organisations are increasingly turning towards coalition-building as a way of increasing social impact and also building their reputation for being a force for good. A well thought out coalition, with the right strategy and managed well, offers enormous rewards.
Co-Founder, Purpose Union