Keys to Successful Advocacy: The Role and Value of Coalitions

By Ross E. Weber • May 8, 2019

Associations have promising potential to influence public policy at every level of government. The most successful advocacy campaigns are customized to an association’s unique needs, but there are certain strategies that are integrated into nearly every successful advocacy campaign. This includes engagement via coalitions, defined by Merriam-Webster as “a temporary alliance of distinct parties, persons, or states for joint action.”

Coalition-building is not easy, but neither is the slog also known as government relations and policy making. Associations are well-suited to widen the base of support for a particular position by leveraging their infrastructure and organizational status to establish coalitions with other organizations. Well-conceived and managed coalitions offer many benefits to members, including a shared mission, effective networking and information sharing, increased access to resources, heightened accountability, and improved problem-solving.i

This quasi-business-to-business advocacy can demonstrate to policymakers that a proposed law or regulation will impact constituencies beyond a singular profession. Organizations and companies might participate in several coalitions, each formed to achieve a broad goal. A trade group representing the trucking industry, for example, would seek out different partners to address the different objectives of highway funding versus workforce training.

Attributes of Effective Coalition Members

  • Willingness and ability to work collaboratively
  • Clear sense of what they bring to the table (e.g., time, relationships, reputation)
  • Clear sense of what they want from coalition participation
  • Willingness to share resources and power
  • Willingness and ability to identify creative solutions to problems
  • Ability to address conflict constructively
  • Staffing sufficient to ensure timely decision-making and task completion
  • Ability to connect the dots among their mission and activities, those of other coalition members, and those of the coalition

Source: What Makes an Effective Coalition? Evidence-Based Indicators of Success. TCC Group. March 2011.

In one instance, our team worked with organizations representing rheumatologists to establish a coalition advocating for access to affordable medications and greater transparency in the way prescriptions are priced. Strategic outreach to organizations outside the rheumatology community expanded the group’s membership base to include patients affected by arthritis, lupus, and other chronic conditions as well as other medical specialties such as dermatology, psychiatry and urology.

After sitting down at the same table, these divergent groups established mutually-agreeable goals, including an intention to:

  • Reduce costs for patients
  • Improve access to treatments
  • Eliminate unfair and deceptive pricing practices

Coming to this end takes considerable time, effort and expertise. Arthritis patients might be interested in one goal while dermatologists are desperate for relief from another, but together they demonstrate to policymakers that a broad constituency desires change. No project will be successful if the group implementing it is not cohesive. Conflicts often arise due to lack of understanding about the other partners in the group. Spending time to establish the group’s commitment to a common mission will make it easier later on to agree to specific activities that are required to succeed.

Another common source of conflict within a coalition is perceived power within the group. It must be understood that, in a coalition, “power” comes in many forms. The organization representing arthritis patients may have a strong grassroots network and compassion from the general public, while dermatologists have scientific expertise and connections with legislators. The National League of Nursing advises, “Each group member can contribute in a different way at varying levels and at various times. All forms of power must be acknowledged and equally valued to maintain equity.”

Civil rights activist Bernice Johnson Reagon once said, “If you’re in a coalition and it’s comfortable, you know it’s not a broad enough coalition. Associations are stronger when working together. Coalitions can provide the connections, knowledge exchange, and complementary resources that help associations achieve their advocacy goals.

Other articles in our Keys to Successful Advocacy series:

iStrength in Numbers: A Guide to Building Effective Medicare Advocacy Coalitions. Medicare Rights Center. October 2011.

About The Author

Ross E. Weber is a state affairs manager for policy and engagement with Naylor Association Solutions.