Spitfire Strategies

Working with Coalitions: Getting Agreement on Messages that Work

For many nonprofit organizations, coalitions and alliances have become a way of life. Tight budgets and limited staff capacity make partnering with others a smart way to bolster resources. Once you’re playing with others, how do you make sure your messages stick? How do you craft messages that work for 10, 15 or even 50 organizations?

  1. Know What You’re Signing Up For. While we value the power of coalitions and partnerships, it’s important to be clear at the beginning about what you are committing to do. Some key questions to ask at the start: what is the overall goal and how long should we plan to partner to get it right? Having a sense of what you’re trying to accomplish – and figuring out where you can agree to move it forward – will set you in the right direction. Don’t forget to get the right buy-in across your organization from the start. Most often you’ll need leadership or other program staff to share the coalition’s messages, so involving them from the beginning is key.
  2. Think About What to Message. Once you have a clear vision for working together, think about what you are trying to accomplish. The more specific, the better chance your coalition will succeed. For the Conservation Alliance for Seafood Solutions, 16 conservation organizations came together to agree on six steps to help business partners move on a path toward more sustainable seafood. They knew they needed to get it right from the start, so they worked for two years to think through the details of each step, setting them up for greater success.
  3. Simple Does Not Mean Watered Down. Once your group has agreed on who you need to reach and what you need them to do, its time to craft messages. This may prove to be the hardest step, as it may feel like there is just no way to compromise. But, as you develop your agreed-upon messages, try not to settle on the “least common denominator.” For example, the Let’s Move campaign might not have hit home with “let’s get kids healthy.” Instead, they focused on their effort to “reverse childhood obesity within a generation.”
  4. Divide and Conquer. You have your messages in hand, but now what? While you know you need to use them, it’s easy to settle back in old ways when you get bombarded with your day-to-day work. Instead, hold each other accountable. Figure out which organizations are going to target which audiences. The Heinz Endowments’ grantees combined efforts to improve Pittsburgh’s air quality, but they made a smart key decision at the start – selecting multiple campaign objectives that fit each organization’s strengths. From there, they lined up grantee-specific roles and responsibilities for each objective. Even though they all had a common message platform to speak about air quality-related communications, the decisions they made to divide the work at the start helped them quickly take advantage of the right opportunities.
  5. Check Back In and Adjust. The landscape you work in changes daily. Like any communication plan, map out your timeline and benchmarks, including steps along the way for the full group to reconvene and adjust. The Gulf coalition’s original plan was to pass the RESTORE Act. Once that passed, the group had a brief celebration but then reconvened to see where to go next. They are now working to ensure that that money is used as it was intended – to restore Gulf ecosystems, communities and economies.

By committing to the coalition’s work from the start, having a clear objective in place, and understanding the importance of coordinated messages – your organization will benefit from the joint effort of your combined voices.

“This is a truly transformative program and there is no question that it is preparing leaders to be courageous communicators.”

- Colleen Bailey, Executive Director, The National Steinbeck Center

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