Chap 2

The challenges of starting something new

Starting a new coalition is an exciting and motivating process. Despite having it all to do, making that first step should feel like a big leap towards achieving important goals. But this is also a time when decisions are made and ways of working adopted that can affect how the group will operate for years to come. This chapter considers some of the important issues involved in getting a coalition off the ground.

Starting a successful coalition

Starting a successful coalition requires a group of people who share a common agenda for united action. While part of this will likely be codified into a coalition ‘call’ – a statement of what needs to be done – this basis for united action goes beyond policy, to include shared values and norms of behaviour. It needs a group of people who want
to work together.

It also needs a sense of urgency if momentum is going to be built and sustained. Urgency may come from current events that illustrate the problem at hand or provide a pressing opportunity for reform in an area of established concern. Crucially, the coalition will need to fill a gap in the field of NGO work if it is to be seen as a necessary mechanism for achieving reform.

As seen in the last section, collective work can take many forms, from loose information sharing networks to more tightly organised campaigns.In the early phases it is important, therefore, to have some clarity about the approach the coalition will take – so that members and partners share the same basic expectations.

“We were small enough to be a self-elected informal group, we knew each other really well, we were the ones working on the issue and we had excellent relationships with governments and intergovernmental organisations like the UN.”

Martin Macpherson, Child Soldiers International (formerly Coalition to Stop the Use of Child Soldiers)

Is a coalition right for your issue?

Setting up an international coalition might be a logical step in pushing forward an international advocacy process, but it might not be the best option. Answering the following questions might help in the process of determining whether or not a coalition is the right approach.

What sort of issue is it?
Does the issue affect a range of different countries or is it limited to a small number of states, or one particular region? Is it an issue that is easy to understand and one where a clear change in policy or law will make a significant difference in the short term? Or is it a multi-faceted issue that will require a range of policy changes across government agencies and different countries and over a long period of time? These factors will affect how easy it is to attract partners among civil society organisations and to forge relationships with governments and media. This is not to say that complex issues cannot be worked on through coalitions, but they will require different approaches in order to cut through that complexity.

Is there a demand for work on this issue?
It is important to consider the motivation towards collective work. Would the coalition fill a perceived gap in NGO advocacy and effectiveness? That is to say, do the key players on the NGO side feel pressure to be more effective? Is this pressure coming from within the NGO sector or from one or more governments or international organisations?

Will a coalition be stronger than the sum of its parts?
Generally the purpose of establishing a coalition is to make it possible for NGOs to exert maximum influence in achieving their targets. So it’s important to consider whether pressure is going to be stronger with NGOs acting with a collective identity or as individual organisations. Will it be possible to agree on a collective position and clear message? Will some NGOs be concerned that their own identity and visibility could be diluted by the emergence of a collective identity?

Who are the potential partners?
Sometimes a coalition emerges almost organically when a group of individuals from different organisations decide they want to normalise their existing close collaboration and working relationships. Sometimes the process to build a coalition is driven by the recognition that a new structure is needed in order to overcome the status quo. So it’s important to look at who is doing what. Who is already committed and working on the issue? What are the relationships like and how do the different personalities interact? If there are already tensions among NGOs that have been working on an issue for some time, could an effort to work in coalition get bogged down in internal problems – or would it provide a mechanism to overcome them?

“The fundamental dilemma of coalitions is relative firepower vs. nimbleness. Coalitions can take too much time! Every coalition means another email list serv. It is lots and lots of work.”

Anthea Lawson, Global Witness

Can you build a compelling case?

The basis for any calls to change international policy and practice will be formed around the evidence and argument that a coalition can marshal to justify its cause. A fundamental task of any coalition, especially in its early stages, is to provide this material. This book is not the place to consider the issue in depth but the matter must not be overlooked. Whether the case for change can be made sufficiently compelling will be an ongoing challenge throughout the coalition’s life.

In the CMC much of the early work of the initial member organisations was to document the problems that cluster munitions caused. Human Rights Watch, the Mennonite Central Committee and Landmine Action all produced evidence and analysis of the humanitarian problems caused by cluster munitions some years before work towards a treaty began.

Challenges to building early momentum

Given constraints of resources and people’s established commitments to other work, it is likely that only a small group will be available to get the ball rolling. The early work of developing an issue can be relatively lonely and uncertain for those undertaking it. Looking back on successful processes, it is easy to lose sight of the uncertainty and insecurity that often accompany the first stages of coalition work. Building a small enthusiastic community, with trust in each other, is the key task.

Some challenges to this, and to building a sense of urgency, might be:

  • Too many demands on people’s time where natural partners on an issue are locked into too many established streams of work.
  • Feelings of disempowerment if people working on these early issues have not been achieving their goals.
  • Stagnation, in the event the sector has become professionalised to the point of not challenging how these issues are being addressed or how work is done.

Decisions made early can make a big difference in the future

Early choices can have repercussions for the coalition’s future. A lack of flexibility in the coalition’s name or public position can limit room for manoeuvre or space for dialogue, and might seem impossible to change later. A rush to define things can likewise reduce options. Coalitions tend not to like publically changing their minds, so the fixed points that are established early on might dictate the terms around which the coalition has to campaign on its issue for the rest of its life.

A general recommendation would be not to lock the coalition into narrowly framing the issues, but keep the door open to various consistent framings in the future. Multiple framings can be used not only to bring in wider and more varied constituencies but also to get around blockages within individual lines of discussion. The suggestion then is to find a broad – overarching – articulation under which more specific lines of engagement can be developed.

“We were working for the general goal – an independent, fair, effective international criminal court. Definition of these terms would be developed slowly and in partnership with others throughout the process.”

Bill Pace, Coalition for the International Criminal Court

For example, in the development of the International Campaign Against Nuclear Weapons (ICAN), a deliberate effort has been made to create a broad framing that could engage different constituencies; one that framed the nuclear weapon problem in terms of moral, economic and environmental issues.

For the CMC, the frame of reference provided by the general rules of international humanitarian law (IHL) became very constraining in the way that it was used by some states. Finding ways to challenge that frame of reference, particularly through a focus on the “unacceptable harm” that cluster munitions cause, was critical to making progress on the issue.

Where can funding for early work come from?

Funding is likely to be an early challenge for any coalition. Most coalitions rely on grants from charitable trusts and foundations, or from governments. Sometimes individual member organisations might have sufficient funds in a flexible form to allow them to kick-start some collective work.

Some questions for consideration regarding early funding:

  • Can coalition work be developed on the margins of work for which people already have funding? For example, on the margins of meetings that various partners are already funded to attend?
  • Can coalition work be subsidised as a component of research work on the issues in question – especially staff time so that people can also work on coalition needs?
  • Can some initial funding be found for coalition activities before the coalition has been formally constituted?

Early funding for the CMC came from a broad grant that was provided by The Diana, Princess of Wales Memorial Fund to UK NGO Landmine Action. With the Fund’s permission, Landmine Action was able to allocate a portion of this grant to cover the costs of a full-time coordinator working out of the Landmine Action office. From this, the staff of the CMC began to be built.

Who should be the coalition’s first members?

The first members of a coalition, both as individuals and organisations, are likely to have a major impact on the policy, tone and working style of the collective effort. Key characteristics for such partners would be good experience of working with each other in the past, credibility on the issues in question, and people, time and resources that can be contributed. Those seeking to establish a coalition may have more or less choice over who the early members will be. Some partners may be so central to the issue at hand that working without them would seem impossible, or raise questions about the coalition’s credibility. In other contexts the field may be quite open.

Some suggested parameters for composing an initial group:

  • Open to all who are prepared to commit to it and who share a common agenda for action.
  • Formed at a manageable size, which can in turn agree the parameters by which a wider community can become engaged.
  • Mindful of diversity and regional representation issues, which may not be well balanced at first but will need to be considered as the group develops.
  • Include sufficient ‘worker bees’. Such people can be evidence-gatherers, policy drivers, campaigners and activists – but they need to be people who will take on work.
  • Big organisations bring credibility and capacity, but they can also bring challenges in terms of policy constraint and flexibility.
  • On many issues it will be important to have members that address the range of aspects that it presents – such as human rights, development, medical, legal etc.

Without worker bees any effort risks fizzling out into sterile policy discussions (or arguments) with a lack of focus on campaigning and outcomes. In a number of cases, too much of an academic orientation, with an emphasis on policy thinking but not on advocacy or activism, has resulted in initiatives failing to gain momentum. Successful coalitions contain the right mix of academic and activist ingredients.

For some coalitions the early membership has been strongly shaped by established working communities. The CMC was established by organisations that had worked together as part of the ICBL. Similarly, the International Network on Explosive Weapons (INEW) was formed in 2011, primarily by organisations and individuals who had been working together in the CMC.

What should the coalition’s stated purpose be?

A group of organisations will only come together to work as a coalition if they have some agreement on a problem that needs to be addressed and on what needs to be done about it. Thus a coalition needs to have some formulation of its purpose that can be used to focus collective work and explain to external partners (and other would-be coalition members) what the venture is about.

This initial formulation of purpose is very important and will serve to frame the future work of the coalition. It might need to provide an approach to the issues that is broad enough to give the coalition room to manoeuvre as external circumstances develop – but for a campaigning coalition the more direct and simple it is, the more likely it will function effectively as a motivating communication tool.

A number of campaigns have been established on very broad themes but often these provide an overarching umbrella for more specific policy goals. People engaged across a range of coalitions have tended to emphasise that a narrower focus is preferable for generating momentum and ultimately achieving policy change.

The CMC did not always have a narrow focus towards a ban on cluster munitions. When it was first established, the CMC was concerned also with the wider problem of ‘explosive remnants of war’ from all types of explosive ordnance. While it could be argued that this wider framing reduced coalition effectiveness in the early stages, it may also have provided the space for people to work towards common agreement regarding the coalition’s direction.

What should be the mission statement or ‘call’?

A mission statement or ‘call’ is a brief text that frames the work of the coalition. It will probably be with the coalition throughout its life and so is a vital early milestone in coalition development. The call will likely contain both a statement of the problem and the key points of a proposed solution to the problem. The call may also indicate the types of actors who should be responsible for enacting a solution, and the types of framework within which a solution should be established (e.g. behavioural change, policy change at a national level, change to international law). All of these elements can be important for framing the coalition’s future work. At its most basic level, the call can be used to constrain or discourage approaches that fall outside of this formulation – setting boundaries to the coalition’s remit.


A coalition’s call should be sufficiently detailed to limit the potential for disagreement on fundamental points. While a coalition will necessarily house divergent opinions on strategy and policy, there needs to be sufficient direction derived from the agreed call to keep differences of opinion within a manageable framework.

Lack of clarity in a call can result in a coalition providing an umbrella for interests that are too divergent to work together effectively. However, the call should still function fundamentally as a framing tool – not as a detailed statement of policy. There will likely be much that needs to be worked through and discussed in detail within the framework established by the call.

It may be preferable to adopt a call among a small core group of NGOs initiating a coalition rather than waiting to attempt this within a wide community. The initial group needs to be big enough and diverse enough in its thinking to shape the call effectively and to give some legitimacy to the text. It can then be used as a basis for inviting a wider group of NGOs to participate in the coalition effort.

“When setting goals you need to make sure that your goal references the actual change you want to see, not the instrument that will achieve that change. So the goal should be to end the destructive practice, not to get a treaty. The treaty is a means to an end, and is therefore a secondary objective. I say this, because when we campaigned for a moratorium on deep sea-bottom trawling we got something that wasn’t quite a moratorium, but if fully implemented would have spelled an end to such trawling on vulnerable ecosystems. Since we’d set ourselves up to campaign for a moratorium it appeared to be a failure, when in fact it was a landmark, paradigm-changing agreement in relation to high seas ocean governance.”

Kelly Rigg, Climate Action Network and formerly the Deep Sea Conservation Coalition

What should the coalition be called?

The name chosen for the coalition will create expectations as to how it will operate and what it will be working to achieve. A name like the ‘International Campaign to Ban Landmines’ suggests a clarity of intent that is greater than that suggested by the ‘Cluster Munition Coalition’ for example. However, some have noted that an overly specific name can become limiting in the future if it goes against changes in the external environment and the coalition’s policy ambitions. Given the international nature of the effort, it is also important to consider how a proposed name will translate into other languages.

How will you build a wider network?

Beyond an initial group of organisations, most (but not all) coalitions will seek to engage the participation of a wider network of members. Often it is this wider network that will truly form the coalition and be vital to its ongoing work. The key tools in this effort are likely to be existing networks and the energy of individuals.

Although networks over email are very accessible, mass emails are not the same as identifying and directly engaging and motivating individuals who will be active coalition partners. Those people committed to growing the coalition need to invest time and energy in building their personal relationships with the individuals in other NGOs who can make a coalition membership not just a list on a website, but a dynamic force. Word of mouth, personal recommendations of people to talk to and face-to- face conversations provide the basis for building partnerships that will have strength.

Before reaching out to build a membership it is worth considering structural issues and developing guidance for potential members on what their role will be and what is expected of them. These issues are discussed
more in the next section on coalition structure.

How formal should we be?

The level of formality adopted in early work is important in setting the tone. People coming from different working backgrounds might have very different expectations regarding formality. When considering formality here, it is taken for granted that when organisations come together for a meeting there should be an agenda, a chair, a speaker’s list to organise input, decisions and action points noted in the form of documented minutes, and these minutes later circulated as a record of the meeting. This sort of formality is more or less essential in ensuring that meetings are focused on meaningful outcomes and don’t end up simply wasting people’s time. However, with coalitions drawing on activists and experts in specific subject areas, it should not be taken for granted that everybody has the same understanding of how a meeting should be run.

For many, an informal approach to structure during the early stages is to be encouraged. This might mean a flat structure – operating with a minimal hierarchy – and a willingness not to formalise structures initially, but rather to allow people to work together based on their competencies and on trust. Lack of trust can result in focusing on formality rather than on outcomes.

“Trust relationships are very important and need to be worked on in the beginnings. Conflict is natural – so how it is addressed is important, and this is expressive of the vital issue of trust.”

Liz Bernstein, Nobel Women’s Initiative and formerly ICBL

Some have suggested a dynamic that moves from being informal during early stages to more formal as the coalition grows and work intensifies, before reverting to a more informal approach again once trust and unity are strong and widespread.

In all of this, balancing the need for leadership and the need to be inclusive is a constant challenge.

“It’s important to keep coalitions light touch otherwise individual organisational mandates can become a problem – whether an organisation feels the direction of the coalition is consistent with its own mandate. And the bigger the organisation, the bigger the problems will be. Getting some big NGOs to move can be like trying to turn an oil tanker.”

Anthea Lawson, Global Witness

What should be the pace of the coalition’s early work?

Most coalitions will need to be prepared for a long process of work and so need people willing to commit to working with the coalition for a significant period of time.

While a sense of urgency is needed from the onset, the workload of the coalition should increase over time, perhaps in steps that are linked to the changing political dynamics of the issue in question. The point at which the pace of coalition work can appropriately be increased will be dependent on:

Internal coalition factors:

  • Evidence marshalled
  • Organisations and individuals on board
  • Clarity of purpose

External circumstances:

  • Support among key governments
  • Space for political process
  • Pertinent external events highlighting the issues in question

During the early stages of coalition work there probably needs to be a degree of acceptance that it may be some years before the issue becomes ripe for a more dynamic push. Accepting this is not an admission of weakness, but necessary if people involved are not to become frustrated or have unrealistic expectations. The main challenge is to keep the coalition going and to ensure that when an opportunity does become available, the coalition is in the strongest possible state to take it on.


This section has covered some of the most immediate issues when considering putting together a coalition. Assessing whether such a coalition might provide a response that is more than the sum of its parts is perhaps the most important step. Beyond this, ensuring the policy issues are kept in a broad frame of reference can provide freedom of movement in the future and allow a diverse range of partners to get involved in the initiative. Balanced against this, the purpose of the coalition will need to be articulated in a way that is sufficiently focused to motivate the membership.

The next chapter considers how coalitions can be structured.

“Personalities are important. There was a spark and real friendship between people working on the NGO working group on women peace and security. And there was a lot of trust in WILPF.”

Felicity Hill, former director, UN Office of the Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom

End of Chap 2