Creating Coalitions: Stretching to Serve the Community

Often we are faced with a dilemma about how to accomplish everything we want to do with our limited resources. We can be referring to financial resources, professional staff members, available volunteer leaders, and even the fact that there are only 24 hours in a day. In the not-for-profit world we have all learned that the needs far out weigh the ability to meet the needs. If we were to actually try to balance each on an old fashioned scale we would not have enough weights to raise the needs side of the balance.

I could not begin to count the number of meetings I have attended either as a participant or an observer where the discussion turned to what the agency’s response is to a need(s) in the community. In almost all cases there was a level of frustration in the room due to the inability of the organization’s staff to find a way to stretch their present resources to meet the emerging need(s). Most of the time a comment was made by the director or a senior staff person that the issue would be added to the list of unmet needs that had been identified by the agency.

When this happens in the context of a meeting of the professional or volunteer leadership of a non-profit organization there is an alternative response to adding another unmet need to the list. Following the initial frustration of not being able to respond by providing the needed services we can begin to think about working together with other non-profits. This is the appropriate time to think about creating a “coalition”.

The American Heritage Dictionary defines a coalition as “an alliance, especially a temporary one, of people, factions, parties, or nations.” This is the time to think about creating a temporary alliance of non-profit organizations that can respond to the request for services. It may require a series of important and necessary steps and not providing the needed services immediately.

The more skeptical of our readers will say, “What are we doing while people in the community are in need. Is the only thing we can do is to talk about the problem. Let’s respond and find a way to do more than talk.” Of course, in order to find a way of dealing with the problem we need to bring together the strengths that each one of the organizations has to offer and in order to do this we must initiate a process.

The first step in the process is identifying who are the people and organizations that need to be approached. The initial approach is to introduce the concept and to have a sense of who will be willing to consider coming to a meeting to discuss joining with other organizations in discussing the presenting issue. The most important aspect is recognizing that no single organization can respond to the problem by itself and the in order to respond responsibly the strengths of other non-profits need to be brought around the table together.

At times the greatest obstacle is the organizational egos of those who will be invited to sit around the table. If the focus is on meeting the need(s) in the community then this should be the overriding imperative and provide the opportunity for people to focus on the task at hand. By joining in an alliance to respond to the identified need each organization is demonstrating its concern for the community and not focusing on any one agency’s being more important than another agency in the process. The message is a very important one for the community in general, and the clients, in particular.

By bringing a variety of resources together as represented by the different organizations a clear message is being delivered to the community. In a time of need we can harness our strengths and coordinate our services. Although we may have differences the present need mandates our finding a way to work together.

This statement rings loud and clear to a number of groups in the community. First and foremost, it says something to the clients. They know that in a time of need they can rely on the existing agencies to respond appropriately.

Secondly, donors are always enthusiastic about supporting joint efforts that coordinate the agencies in the community. Cooperation rings louder than competition when seeking additional resources from funding sources. When donations are requested there is an added value in the support of a coalition. It is not only the support of one organization providing services to a particular group of people, but it is also supporting the strengthening of the non-profit organizations as the pool their resources together.

Thirdly, local government bodies are often more open to purchasing services and funding programs when they know that they are providing services across a broader spectrum. Local politicians will frequently lobby for the support and maintenance of a coalition as it is seen as a way of having a greater impact than just one organization. Coalitions are seen as impacting the broadest number of people in the most effective way.

It is not only the provision of services that makes coalitions desirable. The cooperation and coordination of organizations reassure the community that meeting the needs of community is of the utmost importance. It is worth the extra effort to invite people to sit around the table together and find a way to capitalize on all their abilities for the sake of the community. Although the vehicle is the coalition the real “winner” is the people who receive the services provided by the agencies that are working together.

Stephen G. Donshik, D.S.W., is a lecturer at Hebrew University’s International Leadership and Philanthropy Program and has a consulting firm focused on strengthening non-profit organizations and their leadership for tomorrow. Stephen is a regular contributor to eJewish Philanthropy.