How to Make Coalitions Really Work in Social Impact Campaigns

Authors: Leila Hashemi
  • Reading time: 7 min.
  • Posted on: February 19, 2020

Campaign coalitions, like any group project, contain a number of pitfalls which can detract from progress. Many well intentioned initiatives become bogged down by conflicting opinions on sensitive themes. 

Tensions arise when decision making processes come into conflict. Should strategies be informed by the latest research, or by regular consultations with grassroots activists? Decisions are further diluted when a collective attempts to consult on every minute detail.

When communication halts, it’s not uncommon for individuals to express anxieties about their role, feeling left out of the bigger picture. Similarly, organisations taking on the central project management or financing an advocacy initiative can feel burdened with 90% of the work when other members don’t fulfil their obligations. And when coalition members are participating in an advisory or voluntary basis, it is key to find a way to create commitment from members.

A central project manager’s balancing act is therefore crucial in making collectives work. They prevent delays or ‘death-by-democracy’, while acting as a conduit for all voices. This is where Crisis Action’s “creative coalitions” approach comes in, which prioritises impact over achieving consensus.

Agile collectives have a shared understanding of the change they hope to create. They overcome the unnecessary urge for all coalition members to participate at every stage by bringing together bespoke, opt-in coalitions,  matching expertise and influential voices to strategic opportunities, while ensuring egos are pushed to the back. Working behind the scenes to ensure that it’s always the voice of the coalition that matters, a great convenor listens and leads, working with an exceptional network of unusual allies and bringing them together on creative, innovative tactics that are tailored to influence the target with the power to create the change you want. 

Hayley Davidson, UK Director of Crisis Action, told us:

“The challenges we’re facing in the world are too great to be solved by one individual or organisation working alone. But we’ve seen smart collective action effectively drive policy changes that have saved lives in war zones around the world: from getting a groundbreaking UN resolution to enable food aid to reach millions in Syria, to getting peacekeepers deployed in the Central African Republic. So we’ve distilled our lessons learnt into a handbook for change (available at to enable more people to harness the power of creative coalitions to create real change on the issues they care about. Because every drop of effort invested in a model that doesn’t work is effort stolen from those people seeking change.”

How can this work in practice?

In the first place, it can be a challenge to even gain consensus on a common objective for your campaign or advocacy initiative. While attending a recent meeting with a coalition of religious groups organising for change for women, there were a number of conflicting ideologies or approaches, some more “outsider” activists who feel happy to take risky public facing direct action to prove a point, and others who were more comfortable with working within the current guidelines and therefore making change through reform. 

These kinds of ideological differences historically in political movements have led to massive fall outs, fractures and standstill. However, if it is already recognised that these differences are not setbacks, but rather natural, the campaign manager can attempt to steer conversation to finding a common goal, rather than digging into the subtleties of ideology. 

Humility and careful listening are key. This is of particular importance when working in different regions’ political climates, and with unique skill sets. 

Last year we worked on a behavioural change campaign seeking to shift negative perceptions around protest in Kenya. Creative coalition principles were adopted from start to finish, with great results.

Prior to the campaign, we conducted a series of interviews with grassroots activists, journalists and representatives from civil society in Kenya’s capital Nairobi that were critical to securing a consolidated coalition with a common goal.

We identified  individuals with well established networks and the knowledge we needed to form our coalition that would propel the campaign forward.

Boniface Mwangi is a Kenyan photojournalist with over one million followers on Twitter and Wilfred Olal is a grassroots activist who runs a series of offline human rights services. Partnering with these social activists enabled our campaign to maximise impact, reach and resonance whilst driving meaningful and lasting change.

A coalition-based approach enabled the campaign to use authentically Kenyan communications tactics, elevating these into a national conversation (#FreeToProtest) that has since seen thousands of people tweeting and posting in defence of civic space.

Inevitably, we also faced challenges.

As an organisation based in London, our lived experience is extremely limited when it comes to issues affecting the most marginalised communities, particularly in the Global South. Attempting to design a campaign from afar simply doesn’t work. Even with careful research and consultation, it’s vital to check one’s own privilege and share of voice. There can otherwise be a temptation to micro manage and champion certain strategic viewpoints.

From an administrative perspective, it is challenging to manage  an array of activists, journalists and civil society organisations with varying capacities and resources. Internet drop outs, connectivity issues and sizeable time differences can halt campaigns for hours and even days if solutions aren’t pre-planned.

Naturally, each member of a coalition may  look to enhance and maintain their own personal image. Direct conflict or competition can also break out between members  regarding everything from flagship PR events to small offline panel discussions, and even over internal documents.

What have we learnt? 

Open communication is key. Reiterating the bigger picture rallies the coalition behind a joint campaign message rather than individual egos. Knowing which members of the coalition feel most strongly about certain issues, which members are likely to have an immovable position and which are likely to have no internet after 6pm local time is key to ensuring campaign success!

Shape History is a social impact communications agency. We nurture purpose-led institutions, charities, campaigning groups and social impact leaders with strategic design and communication to accelerate social impact.

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