Coalitions, as complex organizations of organizations, inherently experience dynamic tensions. Five of these tensions and their management are described below.




While shared goals and a willingness to work together are the foundation of coalition functioning, in fact coalitions are characterized by conflict as well as cooperation. Conflict inherently occurs on several levels: 1) between the coalition and the target they wish to influence, around strategies and issues such as credibility, legitimacy and power; 2) among the coalition participants around issues such as leadership, decision-making and personality/style; and 3) between the coalition and its member organizations around issues such as unshared goals, division of benefits, contributions, commitments, and representation.


Since conflict is an inevitable part of the coalition dynamic, coalition work should be approached as a conflict resolution model, where bargaining, trade-offs, negotiating, and compromise are part of all decisions, and agreements are reached by mutual consent.




Coalition members have a dual commitment--to the coalition and to their own organizations--producing a conflict between altruism and self-interest.


Coalitions that operate in the same service or issue areas as their member organizations may compete with members for resources, organizational time and energy. There may also be confusion over which "hat" coalition members are wearing while participating in coalition business. Once a coalition is formed, this "mixed loyalties" tension affects the degree of commitment and the contributions that members are willing to make to the coalition, as well as what the coalition can expect from them.


Organizations frequently join coalitions for some protection, because they cannot or do not want to be visible on a particular issue. On the other hand, participating in a coalition means assuming a collective risk, presumably for a greater good or benefit. Once coalition members begin working together, an organization's autonomy may be compromised. Organizations may decide not to join or remain in a coalition because they want to control their own agenda, or are focused on their own survival.


Coalitions can minimize losses and risks for member organizations by using the following approaches:

1.      design collective efforts that do not threaten the turf or networks of the member organizations;

2.      identify and treat carefully issues or positions that could compromise members' credibility and funding;

3.      prevent direct competition between the member organizations and the coalition; and     

4.      agree on actions that organizations can do in the name of the coalition versus those that they do on their own.




A coalition must have enough autonomy to take independent action, and enough accountability to several levels within the coalition and its member organizations to retain credibility and maintain the base which is its essence. Effective coalitions decide when they can assume or need to obtain sanction from the member organizations and their constituencies.


Coalitions can balance the autonomy/accountability tension by creating a variety of ongoing communication mechanisms between the coalition and its members and their organizations. They should also clarify:

1.      how to integrate new members;

2.      who the coalition represents; and

3.      when and how different levels of participants will be involved in coalition decisions  and actions.




A coalition can be a means to accomplish a specific social change goal, as well as a particular model of sustained interorganizational coordination. Lack of clarity about whether the coalition is viewed primarily as a "means" or "model" can lead to differences in emphasis on process or product, degree of commitment, visions of success and failure, willingness to compromise, and time frame for accomplishment of coalition goal.


Coalitions primarily concerned about being a model emphasize:         

1.      a goal, structure and operating style that reinforces internal coalition development;

2.      a commitment by member organizations to the coalition as an end in itself;

3.      suspension of action toward the social change goal if necessary to build the coalition,  itself.


Some coalitions approached as a model later transform themselves into permanent federations or organizations.


Coalitions primarily concerned about being a means to accomplish a specific goal:

1.      provide "just enough" structure;

2.      avoid time-consuming process issues;

3.      promote involvement only to "produce results;”

4.      either tolerate or find creative ways to work with differences.


The most effective coalitions strive for consistency in process and goal, and balance skill and leadership development with coalition efficiency.




Coalition members share compatible, but not identical, interests, and must both utilize diversity as a strength, and find ways to act in unison. Coalitions need enough unity to act together and enough diversity to accomplish their goal and to represent a broad base. Their functioning requires a certain degree of "syncretism"--an attempt to combine or reconcile differing beliefs in all salient areas. Coalition members must reach some amount of agreement regarding goals, strategies, domain, decision-making, and evaluation.


Many coalition leaders assume that unity demands uniformity and conformity. In fact, coalitions that are too unified resemble organizations, and fail to achieve the essence of the coalition--the inclusion of diversity. Moreover, excess unity can lead to competition among the groups for turf, access to resources or visibility, and can also limit the coalition's creativity. Coalitions suffer if all their members have the same perspective, expertise, and resources.


Conversely, many coalitions pursue diversity, either strategically or indiscriminately, with an open door membership policy. Numbers are not everything -- rather, it is the specific mix of diversity needed for a "winning coalition," that is essential. Because people assume that working together will be easy, they may overlook differences that may impede coalition functioning over time. Increasing a coalition's diversity will usually slow down progress toward external goals because it takes time to evolve trust, familiarity and comfort in working together. Coalitions can become a whole that is greater than the sum of its parts, but to realize this great potential requires making creative use of the different components.


The unity/diversity tension may manifest in eight different dimensions, as described below.




Goal differences affect problem definition, identification of potential coalition members and choice of social change target, strategies and solutions.


Managing Goal Differences


Coalitions  utilize the following approaches to resolve or minimize goal differences:

·        Select a goal that is central to everyone's interests and is seen as something that can benefit both the diverse groups and the coalition as a whole.

·        Define a goal relevant to the members' interests, but broader than any one group could address alone.

·        Identify linkages between the issues.

·        Create a superordinate goal that transcends differences among potential coalition members, and clarify how the participants' differences support the whole.

·        Compromise on goals: Create goals where all participants can get a portion of what they really want, enough to sustain their involvement.

·        Change goals over time.

·        Show how short term goals relate to the long term, bigger picture.




People with different political or religious ideologies approach coalition work with distinct belief systems and operating principles.


Managing Ideological Differences


Coalitions can use the following approaches to help member groups with different ideologies work together more effectively:

·        Address a third issue unrelated to any member organization's domain.

·        Take action only on issues on which there is total agreement and allow any group to have veto power.

·        Limit joint action strictly to goals.

·        Suspend judgment on areas of difference.

·        Compromise on public position.

·        Tone down the ideologically extreme position.




Organizations may agree on a common goal, but outcome expectations may differ. This tension intensifies with a coalition's success, at which time decisions about pay-offs and rewards must be made.


Managing Outcome Expectation Differences


Coalitions can withstand divergence in the outcome expectations of their members by the following means:

·        Expand or redefine the pie rather than consider possible outcomes in zero sum terms.

·        Engage in issues which promise some tangible or intangible gains for each coalition member.

·        Enable each member organization to maintain the ability to act autonomously on issues that are not directly related to coalition activity, and as long as they do not do so in the name of the coalition.

·        Select coalition issues that do not conflict with members' individual agendas.

·        Make explicit the trade-offs for everyone's involvement.

·        Discuss the consequences of winning or losing when there appears to be a zero sum outcome.




Coalitions have to deal with the consequences of actual and perceived power differences among members and potential participants.


Managing Power Differences


To minimize power differences, coalitions can find ways to have the powerful group provide resources without dominating. When it is desirable to keep the powerful group(s) inside the coalition, the following mechanisms can be established.

·        a one group/one vote rule;

·        voting/not voting membership;

·        caucuses for smaller groups;

·        an agenda that gives less influential members the advantage.


Coalitions which exclude powerful groups from full participation can continue to draw upon their resources and support by:

·        making them affiliates or honorary members;

·        forming parallel/support coalitions;

·        providing technical/advisory status for the powerful group.




Organizations join and continue participating in coalitions for a variety of pragmatic and/or ideological reasons. Pragmatic reasons include some degree of self-interest--a quest for resources, power or social contract; ideological motivations mean some shared value-based commitment to a cause or a concept of the "greater good."


Managing Differences in Commitment


To maximize commitment to the coalition effort and encourage a greater variety of organizations to participate, coalitions can:

·        Structure opportunities for multiple levels of commitment.

·        Develop membership agreements that clarify what kind and level of commitment       is desirable and how it should be demonstrated.

·        Plan for fluctuations in commitment over time.

·        Provide a variety of incentives to sustain participation, addressing the actual motivations of members.

·        Assure protection to members.




Coalitions development requires the assessment of the amount and kinds of contributions needed, and the assignment of equivalent weights to the various contributions actually provided by members. As coalition endure, they identify whether they have the necessary contributions required both to achieve the social change goal and to maintain the coalition.


Managing Differences in Contributions and Rewards


Coalitions should clarify expectations about minimum contributions, how the ratio of contributions to rewards will be determined, and how differential contributions can be made to be equivalent.

·        Balance contributions with rewards. There are several ways to do this:

EQUITY: Organizations get out what they put in

EQUALITY: Regardless of what organizations put in, they get the same rewards

EQUIVALENCY: (Structured inequality) Some organizations get out more than they put in, while others get less.

·        Determine minimum contributions according to a coalition's priorities.




Long-standing differences in experiences, priorities and problem definitions make it difficult to develop coalitions that cross color, gender, sexual preference, nationality, and class lines.


Managing Diversity in Color, Gender, Sexual Preference, Nationality and Class


Coalitions consciously pursuing diversity must factor in the time and effort to make it happen. Some useful approaches include the following:

·        Include diverse groups at the coalition's inception, rather than later, which can minimize real or perceived tokenism, paternalism and inequality.

·        Consciously give priority to increasing diversity.

·        A majority group-initiated coalition can offer some incentives ("affirmative action") to recruit minority participants, and consciously operate in new ways to share control and build trust. True diversity requires an ongoing commitment of coalition resources to issues of importance to the minority group members.

·        A minority group-initiated coalition can present its issues within a broad framework that integrates the majority perspectives, if their involvement and support is deemed necessary.




Organizations and individuals bring different styles of operating and interacting to their coalition work. Some style differences evolve from color, class, and gender, and some, such as personality differences, are purely idiosyncratic.


Managing Style Differences


Depending on their goal and the amount of time they have to act, coalitions can either accept or attempt to minimize style differences. If there is a sense of urgency about taking coalition action, differences may be tolerated. Over the long term, coalitions committed to a model of intergroup cooperation can seek ways to minimize the negative effect of style differences. To contain differences which could become destructive, spell out common rules for interaction:

·        Create and discuss ground rules for meetings and coalition operations.

·        Develop and enforce membership criteria.

·        Structure equal time to speak.

·        Conduct criticism/self-criticism of meetings which articulates and builds a             common set of expectations, values and operating methods for coalition functioning.

·        Create a policy that allows for the exclusion of deviant or disruptive personalities or organizations, if necessary.

    [1] This chapter is adapted from a longer article by the authors:  "Managing Dynamic Tensions in Social Change Coalitions" in T. Mizrahi and J. Morrison, (Eds.) Community Organization and Social Administration: Advances, Trends,  and Emerging Principles. Haworth Press,  1993.