The Way to Build Impactful Networks and Coalitions

network, group, coalition, collaborative, consortium

Creating a network/coalition seems like a good idea, until it finds itself with members ready to duke it out over crudites and hummus.

I’m an impact freak, and as such believe the truest way to accomplish impact is to do it collectively. Harnessing and leveraging diversity in perspective, expertise, funding, resources and exposure.


To put the “impact” in “collective impact,” said collective has to be substantive. A group put together with deliberation and intention. Unfortunately, this is rarely the case and a reason why so many networks turn out crummy; a topic I cover here.

I hadn’t spent enough time thinking about why so many networks/coalitions (for lack of a better term) suck until I read the book Networks that Work. Outside of outlining the healthy, non -dysfunctional habits of sustainable networks, what I love most is the time the book spends talking about the groundwork that networks/coalitions have to lay first. The conditions, mindsets, frameworks, people and discussions we don’t think about because we’re so anxious to get to work. But, without which, the work never gets done; or at least not effectively.


What Are We Doing Here?

Most networks/coalitions I encounter are funder-driven, or financed by some “other.” Inclining many members to participate for the sole purpose of funding. The problem is, funders put networks together without questioning their validity or need. If I’ve learned nothing else, it’s that a network/coalition has to have the space to question its existence. Asking the question from its outset (“Do we really need to do this?”) and throughout its tenure (“Why are we here?”, “Do we need to continue to be here?”).

To facilitate this inquiry,  Networks that Work lists 4 questions a network/coalition should ask itself before it starts the formation process.

  1. Do we really want to do this?
  2. What do we hope to accomplish?
  3. Who do we need to have with us?
  4. How will fund the network’s management and its activities?

Notice, none of these questions go into the substantive subject matter of the network itself, its raison d’etre. Instead, they require potential members to justify the network’s existence.

If you’re in the process of forming a collaborative group, have you justified its existence? Be forewarned, a question like this can trigger defensiveness (why wouldn’t there be a need to coalition around hunger?!) in the most meditated and patchouli covered person. Even when self-prompted.  For me, the question isn’t just “is there a need” but also, “is there a need for us”; two totally different sentiments.  There may be a bigger existential need, but your group (with its approach, members, constraints, etc.) may not be the one to do it. Not fun to hear, but sorry not sorry.

The remaining 3 questions force a potential network/coalition to look at how realistic it’s being in its approach. Solving hunger is noble, but let’s look at reality.  What normally happens is a group of organizations (all fighting for funds or revenue) come together, each with it’s own busy schedule, resource needs and problems. The coalition is comprised of a group of busy-bodies who plan to send low-level employees to meetings with no resources backing them, and no management engagement. In this environment, what exactly will the coalition accomplish? Usually nothing.

Listen, worst case asking these questions will call into question a network or coalition’s existence, possibly averting a disastrous experience and resource drain. Best case, these questions cause everyone to rethink its approach and align themselves in a way that is needed and more realistic.


Can’t Stop, Won’t Stop

So you do a Vinn Diagram, SWOT analysis and decide a network/coalition is the way to go. The inquiry doesn’t stop there!

Just when the reader thinks they’ve made it through the fire the book presents 14 more questions. Suckas.

I won’t list out all 14, but my fave questions are:

What urgent purpose drives our network?

How firm is member commitment to this network?

How do we determine and organize our action priorities?

How will we conduct our work?

How do network members hold themselves and one another accountable?

How will we resolve conflicts?

It’s not that these are any more important than the questions listed in the book. Each is important in some respect. It’s that I’ve personally encountered the questions I listed above…often. And can personally attest to the disservice organizations do for themselves but not asking them.


I’m Just Here So I Don’t Get Fined

I hate this is the case, but typically I’m not brought into a coalition/network until it has been together for several months or even years. Not much has been done, mistrust has been brewing and everyone is just kinda burnt out. In other words, I get brought in once everyone is over it.

All the infrastructure work where I’m most impactful (member assessment, mission building, team-building, charter development, network agreement drafting) gets missed. The problem is, this stuff (the assessment, building, etc.) HAS to happen and it’s better to do it upfront when everyone is excited. As opposed to several months later when people are ready to put someone in a headlock. Or even worse, show up just so they don’t get fussed at.

My advice to anyone in the process of putting a network/coalition together is to run (not walk) to a bookstore and pick up Networks that Work. Use it as an excuse to ask some of these tough questions (“So, I’ve been reading and this book I’m into now suggests we ask…”) in order to cultivate the awareness and humility most networks/coalitions are missing. If you’re already stuck **excuse me** “in” a network that is as effective as dryer lint then bring in a third party to facilitate and mediate.

As a group, start doing exploration exercises; diving back into why the group came to be to begin with. Take field trips, dig into the community. Bring in speakers or community members.  Create and delegate small win projects. Find ways to reinvigorate members and get them reinvested. Once you do that, you can backfill from there.

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If you need help with your own coalition/network check out my resources or reach out here.