Coalition Building

Brad Spangler

June 2003

What is Coalition Building?

A coalition is a temporary alliance or partnering of groups in order to achieve a common purpose or to engage in joint activity.[1] Coalition building is the process by which parties (individuals, organizations, or nations) come together to form a coalition. Forming coalitions with other groups of similar values, interests, and goals allows members to combine their resources and become more powerful than when they each acted alone.[2]

Why is Coalition Building Important?

The "ability to build coalitions is a basic skill for those who wish to attain and maintain power and influence."[3] Through coalitions, weaker parties to a conflict can increase their power. Coalition building is the "primary mechanism through which disempowered parties can develop their power base and thereby better defend their interests."[4] Coalitions may be built around any issue and at any scale of society, from neighborhood issues to international conflict.

The formation of a coalition can shift the balance of power in a conflict situation and alter the future course of the conflict. People who pool their resources and work together are generally more powerful and more able to advance their interests, than those who do not. Coalition members may be able to resist certain threats or even begin to make counter threats. Generally, low-power groups are much more successful in defending their interests against the dominant group if they work together as a coalition. This is certainly more effective than fighting among themselves and/or fighting the dominant group alone.[5]

Environmental groups in the United States have long understood the power of coalitions. Rather than taking on powerful industries on their own, leading environmental groups have often formed coalitions to challenge big business in the ballot box, at the legislature, and in the courts. They have succeeded in getting environmental candidates elected, and strong environmental protection laws passed. Without having many environmental groups working together, industry would have had a much stronger hand in the fight over environmental protection in the U.S.

How Do You Build a Successful Coalition?

Building a successful coalition involves a series of steps. The early steps center on the recognition of compatible interests. Sometimes this happens naturally. Other times potential coalition members must be persuaded that forming a coalition would be to their benefit. To do this one needs to demonstrate

  1. that your goals are similar and compatible,
  2. that working together will enhance both groups' abilities to reach their goals, and
  3. that the benefits of coalescing will be greater than the costs.

This third point can be demonstrated in either of two ways: incentives can be offered to make the benefits of joining the coalition high, or sanctions can be threatened, making the costs of not joining even higher. For example, the United States offered a variety of financial aid and political benefits to countries that joined its coalition against Iraq in 2003; it also threatened negative repercussions for those who failed to join, and much worse for those who sided with Saddam Hussein. Another method that can make joining the coalition appealing is to eliminate alternatives to the coalition. Once most of one's allies or associates have joined a coalition, it is awkward...perhaps dangerous not to join oneself. Although people and organizations often prefer non-action to making a risky decision, if they find themselves choosing between getting on board a growing coalition or being left behind, getting on board is often more attractive.[6]

Lastly, coalition builders may use precedence as a means of social influence. For example, in making decisions, people (or countries) generally want to remain consistent with prior commitments. That means that nations can pressure their allies to act with them in new endeavors. Failing to do so, it can be argued, would hurt their "long-standing alliance." This strategy is not always successful, especially if the self-interest of the other group seems to be harmed by the proposed action. (France, for instance, was not willing to join the U.S. coalition against Iraq in 2003, despite a long-term alliance between France and the U.S.)

What are the Benefits of Coalitions?

The benefits of coalition building go beyond increased power in relation to the opposition. Coalition building may also strengthen the members internally, enabling them to be more effective in other arenas. Some other key advantages to coalition building include[7]:

  • A coalition of organizations can win on more fronts than a single organization working alone and increase the potential for success.
  • A coalition can bring more expertise and resources to bear on complex issues, where the technical or personnel resources of any one organization would not be sufficient.
  • A coalition can develop new leaders. As experienced group leaders step forward to lead the coalition, openings are created for new leaders in the individual groups. The new, emerging leadership strengthens the groups and the coalition.
  • A coalition will increase the impact of each organization's effort. Involvement in a coalition means there are more people who have a better understanding of your issues and more people advocating for your side.
  • A coalition will increase available resources. Not only will physical and financial resources be increased, but each group will gain access to the contacts, connections, and relationships established by other groups.
  • A coalition may raise its members' public profiles by broadening the range of groups involved in a conflict. The activities of a coalition are likely to receive more media attention than those of any individual organization.
  • A coalition can build a lasting base for change. Once groups unite, each group's vision of change broadens and it becomes more difficult for opposition groups to disregard the coalition's efforts as dismissible or as special interests.
  • A successful coalition is made up of people who have never worked together before. Coming from diverse backgrounds and different viewpoints, they have to figure out how to respect each other's differences and get something big accomplished. They have to figure out how each group and its representatives can make their different but valuable contributions to the overall strategy for change (See consensus building). This helps avoid duplication of efforts and improve communication among key players.

Disadvantages of Working in Coalition[8]

  • Member groups can get distracted from other work. If that happens, non-coalition efforts may become less effective and the organization may be weakened overall.
  • A coalition may only be as strong as its weakest link. Each member organization will have different levels of resources and experience as well as different internal problems. Organizations that provide a lot of resources and leadership may get frustrated with other members' shortcomings.
  • To keep a coalition together, it is often necessary to cater to one side more than another, especially when negotiating tactics. If a member prefers high-profile confrontational tactics, they might dislike subdued tactics, thinking they are not exciting enough to mobilize support. At the same time, the low profile, conciliatory members might be alarmed by the confrontation advocates, fearing they will escalate the conflict and make eventual victory more difficult to obtain.
  • The democratic principle of one group-one vote may not always be acceptable to members with a lot of power and resources. The coalition must carefully define the relationships between powerful and less-powerful groups.
  • Individual organizations may not get credit for their contributions to a coalition. Members that contribute a lot may think they did not receive enough credit.

The Bottom Line

Deciding whether to join a coalition is both a rational and an emotional decision. Rationally, one must consider whether one's effectiveness and one's ability to attain one's own goals would be enhanced or harmed by participation in a coalition. Emotionally, one must consider whether one likes the other people or groups, and whether cooperating with them would be easy, or more trouble than it is worth. Usually when two people, groups, or organizations' goals are compatible, forming a coalition is to both groups' benefit. But organizational styles, cultures, and relationships must be considered as well before any choices are made.

[1] Douglas H. Yarn, The Dictionary of Conflict Resolution. (San Francisco: Jossey-Bass Publishers, 1991), 81.

[2] "Coalition Building" (Boulder, CO: Conflict Research Consortium, 1998, accessed on January 30, 2003); available from; Internet.

[3] Michael Watkins and Susan Rosegrant. "Building Coalitions." In Breakthrough International Negotiation: How Great Negotiators Transformed the World's Toughest Post-Cold War Conflicts. (San Francisco: Jossey-Bass Publishers, 2001), 211.

[4] "Coalition Building," op.cit

[5] Michael Watkins and Susan Rosegrant, op. cit

[6] Ibid, 218-219.

[7] Florida Office of Collegiate Volunteerism, Coalition Building Guide. (1991, accessed 1 July 2003) available from; Internet.

[8] Ibid.

Use the following to cite this article:
Spangler, Brad. "Coalition Building." Beyond Intractability. Eds. Guy Burgess and Heidi Burgess. Conflict Information Consortium, University of Colorado, Boulder. Posted: June 2003 <>.

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