Over my career, I had to form a couple of grand coalitions in order to advocate for a cause. Forging these big tent coalitions seem like normal and pretty standard lobby work. It isn’t. I actually dislike big coalitions because you are spending 50% of your time aligning positions and bickering over semantics. Nevertheless, some cases are so big that you will not be able to get things done on your own. Here are my learning points on how to forge a grand coalition and have it work to your advantage.
Don’t forge grand coalitions
My honest advice; don’t do it unless absolutely necessary. I would prefer operating within small teams and working groups anytime over big tent advocacy. You will literally find yourself in the situation where you are arguing about logos, tweets and the wording of a text. And yes it exists; death by coordination. So if you can avoid needing to build grand coalitions, do so.
Throw out the rotten apples
Often it has crossed my mind whether I’m building a grand coalition or if I’m organizing my own opposition? Some organizations join your grand coalition just to block and frustrate your attempts. Confront those rotten apples and ask them plainly; are you in or are you out? You can’t have discussions about every word in the text. If people are not able to prioritize but want to debate every step along the way, you will get nowhere. Confront, escalate and even threaten to quit. Whatever you do, don’t put up with rotten apples.
Plan & organize
Now that you have a coalition of the willing you need to plan and organize your lobby. This simply means holding meetings. Make sure you have a strict agenda and a timeline. Also, give readouts and notes after every meeting and make sure everyone knows their role. A grand coalition needs to have a sense of direction. The best way to mess that up is by not having agendas at a meeting. The loudest voice will take over the meeting and before you know it, you are bickering again about hashtags. Also, make sure to keep to-do lists and notes and make sure everyone gets them.
I will definitely write an entire piece on the role of WhatsApp in lobbying. And while we have too many WhatsApp groups around as it is, if you are serious about your case you will have a WhatsApp group for your grand coalition. It might sound counterintuitive but I don’t set rules for the WhatsApp group. People need to feel secure to share important and not-so-important information. Moreover, joking around in WhatsApp groups also creates a bond.
Prioritize and create support
One of the things I noticed is that you can have endless debates in grand coalitions. From hashtags to logos to words in a position paper. You don’t want to win all those battles. First, it will take an enormous amount of time. More importantly, it erodes the support base. People need to see their interests represented in grand coalitions. So you win a few, you lose a few, but it’s important to keep things going.
Keep the sludge moving
Grand coalitions need a lot of time to get going but when they do they function as steamrollers. Except when you lose momentum, then they tend to slow down and stop altogether. Keeping momentum is key in grand lobby coalitions. So whenever there is a lull in momentum try to crank up the movement by organizing new initiatives or even team-building efforts. In that same sense; celebrate successes together. Whenever there is a success, claim and own it and celebrate together. This will improve group cohesion and makes everyone feel like a winner.