Chap 6

A collective voice

This chapter focuses on maximising the key feature of an effective coalition – its ability to engage diverse partners in coordinated collective action. It will probably be the coalition’s members who provide a direct link to the issues being worked on and who are pushing the urgent need for reform. Through these members, political engagement can be built up in different countries. In key meetings it will be these members who have the contacts and relationships to make sure the coalition gets its messages across to all participants. A diverse membership brings new ways of thinking and different styles of engagement and this can be a powerful force when working towards a single goal. Finding a single coalition voice representing this diversity presents an ongoing challenge.

A collective voice

Coalitions can undertake a wide range of specific advocacy and campaigning activities to achieve their goals, such as direct lobbying of decision makers, media work, public demonstrations and other actions, exhibitions and concerts. A key role for the coalition is to build a platform for these activities, to give advice and in some cases determine which actions will have the greatest impact at a given point in time on a given target.

Some general objectives to consider:

Maximise the Voice of the Membership
Coalitions can exercise influence by acting as vehicles that focus the voices and actions of their many constituents and amplifying them. Coalitions often maximise this amplifying effect to appear bigger than they are. Targeted use of media, public stunts, advertising and diverse delegations at key moments (such as international conferences) can help to make the most of a coalition’s reach and strength.

Maximise the Reach of the Coalition
Coalitions that are able to draw on and activate their individual members in many different capital cities have an advantage when it comes to lobbying a range of countries on a specific issue. This national level work is just as important as the work of a coalition’s delegation on the international conference circuit, even though the latter may feel more intense.

Build a Unified Coalition
Coalition unity, not just a unified message but also a common sense of belonging, is very important. Bringing people together makes them feel they are part of a collective effort. It may be expensive to bring people together and it can pose challenges, for example deciding who should be funded to come, but it can be a vital component in forging a vibrant and active coalition.

“The more diverse a coalition, the stronger it becomes. It is good for people to work across disciplines, but respect each other’s approaches and ideas. Doctors and lawyers bring different perspectives to the table and they can learn from each other and the coalition will benefit from this.”

Bob Mtonga, International Physicians for the Prevention of Nuclear War

Promote the Diversity of the Coalition
Unity is important, but not mutually exclusive of diversity. John Borrie, a researcher at the United Nations Institute of Disarmament Research (UNIDIR) interested in what makes international norm-building processes effective, has written about the importance of ‘cognitive diversity’ in multilateral negotiations. This is important in coalitions as well. There can be many different perspectives among organisations in a coalition, representing views from the North and the South; the big and the small; from those working in democratic and authoritarian societies. This diversity of cultures and experience among individuals and organisations can make things feel a bit chaotic at times, but it can also lead to new ideas and new approaches that might not otherwise emerge. It is important for those working on the coordination of coalitions to be aware of the diversity among the membership and to recognise that a one-size-fits-all approach is unlikely to work.

“There is a logical and empirical case that cognitive diversity leads to enhanced problem solving. The Cluster Munition Coalition saw this – learning from each other, adapting and building a problem solving team. Diversity of perspectives, equity and power should be an important function of coalitions.”

John Borrie, UN Institute for Disarmament Research

Develop a Global Voice in External Communications
The ability for NGOs with different backgrounds and interests to speak with one voice to governments, business and the media on a particular issue is a great asset for a coalition. At the same time, working out common messages is also a source of tension and can take a lot of work to mediate, given the often conflicting priorities. Opponents to change can exploit mixed messages and seek to undermine NGO efforts.

Harness the Power of Individuals
Within a coalition there will be many individuals with impressive personal credentials, experience and advocacy skills. You might have field workers, experts, people with a high profile and people who have been directly affected by the problem you are trying to solve – for example landmine and cluster munition survivors were powerful advocates during the processes to ban those weapons. Coalitions often work to make sure that these different individuals are used to best effect by setting up meetings that match their skills and profiles with the different individuals and organisations that the coalition is trying to influence.

“You need to be working at the various levels – national, regional, international. This is where diversity comes in – you need to have broad membership working at a national level, some leaders from each region able to take the lead regionally, then you have others more adept at dealing with diplomats on the international scene. Everybody needs to be on-message and tell the same story, but different people should be able to carry some aspects of the work further. This is where thematic expertise is also key.

So you need to have people saying the same thing, but you can divide up roles. ‘Smoke and mirrors’ was a big part of ICBL’s success and we benefited in the CMC from being seen as the same as the ICBL, the sense that ‘we have this huge monster behind us’. You also need to be able to show success and that things are going your way.”

Steve Goose, Director of Human Rights Watch’s Arms Division and Chair of the ICBL CMC

Do you have the right balance between coalition and member voices?

One of the most powerful aspects of a coalition is the capacity to project a strong unified voice across a wide number of countries. The membership gives a coalition its reach and the coordination gives a coalition its unified voice. Most often it will be the members that actually do most of the coalition’s work at the national level.

“Having a single message from a large coalition of NGOs can be very powerful if expressed by all of the members all of the time and towards lots of different targets. But this is probably only going to be the very top line advocacy message. Among coalition members there will be different specialisms on different specific issues. It’s important to give people the freedom to do the talking on these specific issues while being part of the coalition.”

Richard Bennett, Effective Collectives

Some coalitions undertake collectively organised events such as global days of action where members around the world take similar, concerted, action on or around the same day or week (IANSA, CMC, ICAN). At the same time, members will often develop their national strategies and adapt them to their own context.

There is great power in having NGOs giving the same message to different governments all around the world, though sometimes the messages and approaches will need to be tailored for particular countries. Sometimes the coalition voice will have much more influence on the target audience than an individual member’s voice, sometimes it will be the other way around.

While coalitions may be able to rally all of their members around one common call, individual members will have their own way of expressing this call and may have particular issues that they wish to raise in relation to it. It is important to have the flexibility that enables members to do this and for them to be able to define their own approach and freedom to express their views in a manner that is appropriate for their individual context.

Is the coalition’s evidence and research a source of credibility and accountability?

Another key role of a coalition is to marshal evidence gathered by members so that it can be used throughout the coalition as a whole. In some political processes, NGOs can present a ’field reality‘ that has an impact on decision makers. When used well, this field evidence can give the coalition – and consequently its members – a powerful voice
in debate.

Some NGOs have the capacity to gather more data than others due to their network of researchers and operational programmes in different countries. Some of this information can be sensitive due to the sources and the circumstances under which it is gathered. Some NGOs might be reluctant or unable to share data, bound by non-disclosure agreements or other such conditions on its use.

NGOs might adopt different methodologies for reporting facts and figures: some might be relatively conservative while others might seek to play up statistics to bolster the case for change. The way in which data is used can affect the legitimacy of these NGOs and of the coalition as a whole. If a coalition of NGOs is deriving its authority and legitimacy by representing civil society in a range of countries then it bears a responsibility to use data carefully and consistently. Otherwise the coalition opens itself up to attacks from opponents and risks losing credibility.

Some questions that might help in thinking through this:

  • Does the coalition as a whole undertake research or is this left to members?
  • What is the process for the coalition deciding what facts and figures it will use in materials and statements?
  • What is the process for mediating between the different uses of data by different members of the coalition?


Initiatives frequently undertaken by coalitions include:

  • Global Days of Action – CMC, IANSA, ICAN and others have all organised global days or weeks of action where campaigners around the world are encouraged to take a range of actions to mark an occasion or present a call for action to governments. Actions can include public demonstrations, meetings with officials, concerts, exhibitions and accompanying media work.
  • The “adopt a negotiator project” – pioneered by the Global Campaign for Climate Action and also used by the Control Arms campaign. It provides a system for specific activists to follow the statements of specific delegations at a negotiation and report on that delegation’s actions via a central website.
  • People’s consultation – in different countries, Control Arms worked with various media, street theatre, text, Facebook etc. to gather people’s views on an arms trade treaty, The results of this consultation were then presented to governments during the negotiations.

Presenting these individual national level activities as part of a whole serves to amplify their power as perceived by decision makers. To mark the entry into force of the Convention on Cluster Munitions, campaigners took actions in over 80 countries. No matter how big or small these events were, they were recorded on a dedicated website and contributed to a global collective action:

Is the coalition making the most of the membership ‘in the field’?

Through its members a coalition will often have a wide array of resources that it might not automatically think to use, or that might take some work to mobilise. Presenting a political or diplomatic audience with direct testimony from someone who works on an issue every day can have a big impact. In the campaigns against mines and cluster bombs, military and former military voices were important, as were the voices of those engaged in clearing up the deadly remnants and helping the wounded.

While it may not be relevant for every coalition, including individuals in the debate who have been personally affected by the issue at hand ensures that approaches are grounded in reality and can inject an undeniable sense of immediacy, helping to change the minds of decision makers. However, the coalition should work to ensure that the experience is empowering for the individuals concerned.

Is the coalition making the most of the membership at the national level?

For some coalitions, much of the work is done at the national level where members work directly to influence their own government or private sector. There are different ways for coalitions to make the most of the national membership. Some coalitions have structured mechanisms for engaging members in different countries. Some work more loosely.

“Lobbying at international negotiating sessions is of limited effectiveness. By the time delegates get to the meeting, they have limited room to maneuver, the negotiating position has already been determined. You have to get them onside through campaigning back home well in advance.”

Kelly Rigg, Climate Action Network

The International Campaign to Ban Landmines and the Coalition for the International Criminal Court both have national affiliates in a number of countries that act as focal points for civil society on an issue in a particular country. Whichever way you choose to structure engagement with national members, the coalition can benefit from a capacity to promote coherence among different national members in the same country.

The coalition may sometimes need to mediate between members at a national level if they come into conflict with each other. However, the main role for the coalition is likely to be supporting or encouraging these organisations in their work – providing ideas, sharing experience from other locations and linking national level actions into the international effort.

Beyond national level advocacy, coalitions can also build links between specific sections of society in different countries or regions. Key partners such as youth, parliamentarians, and faith groups, have a wide reach through their networks of members, constituents and supporters. Coalitions can help connect members of these groups in different countries and encourage them to work together on the issue being promoted by the coalition.

Some of the individual NGO’s within the CMC took a leading role with specific groups of partners. Handicap International coordinated engagement by ‘Ban Advocates’ – a group of individuals directly affected by cluster munitions.1 Mines Action Canada continues to take a lead in engaging and building capacity among young people concerned with social justice issues. As well as promoting campaigining, their Young Professionals programme has provided benefits to individuals and to organisations internationally. Also within the CMC, Religions for Peace brought together faith leaders of different denominations and CMC staff worked through the Inter-Parliamentary Union to bring together parliamentarians from different countries. All of these different groups had important roles in promoting the overarching messages of the CMC.

  1. The Ban Advocates website is:

Is the membership getting the most out of the coalition?

Members of a coalition naturally have expectations from the coalition to which they are contributing. These expectations can include technical advice, help with planning, capacity development, materials, and financial support.

Some coalitions systematically undertake national advocacy planning with campaigners, with coalition staff and experienced members available to support national members in their efforts to develop plans at the national level, helping campaigners to produce strategic advocacy plans with clear goals, outputs and indicators.

Coalitions can organise small grant schemes, disbursing funds to coalition member organisations whose proposals fit with the broader strategic objectives of the coalition. This is useful for donors, such as governments, that are not in a position to disburse small amounts of funding to large numbers of organisations. It is useful for members who may struggle to get funding for their advocacy work and it is useful for the coalition as a whole as it promotes advocacy work towards a common strategy. It also helps build relationships between central staff and leaders of the coalition and national members.

Such funds can also facilitate development of materials to support national advocacy. Briefing papers, brochures, template press releases and letters, t-shirts, badges, films and photography are all typical materials that a coalition may produce. A coalition may produce these in different languages, or in a way that allows them to be adapted easily to
a national context.

Technical advice and expertise is a key area where coalitions can support their members. For example, during the ratification phase of its campaign work, the CMC set up a group of legal experts who were available to comment on national legislation and compare it to other legislation passed or under consideration in other countries. The Control Arms Campaign made a group of lawyers available in different time zones around the world during the negotiations on the Arms Trade Treaty. These lawyers were able rapidly to give input and respond to questions posed by campaigners.

Conference materials and outputs

Coalitions can produce a wide array of materials. From brochures and posters to t-shirts and badges, to statements and press releases, promotional materials are a key element of a coalition’s communications work at the national, regional and international level.

A single conference can produce outputs across the following areas:

There can be significant benefits to having members undertake substantive research, rather than the coalition itself. Sign-off for research findings can be difficult across a coalition and getting individual members to undertake this work helps to embed the issue within their own institution. A greater breadth of engagement is displayed when a range of members bring their own reports for distribution at meetings

At a conference, the coalition will likely draft a number of statements for delivery or distribution. Those who are asked to speak on behalf of the coalition should be able to write their own statements, even if they seek input from the steering group. It is also important to have diversity in who is giving statements, always ensuring that speakers have credibility or expertise.

Briefing Documents
Briefing documents should be accessible materials that summarise the problem under consideration and make recommendations for how to address it. These include one- or two-page briefing papers, more detailed policy or position papers, factsheets with tables of data that can be aimed at campaigners and government officials. It is important to communicate clearly to campaigners when a particular document is internal and not to be shared with government officials. Including the words ‘not for reproduction without author’s consent’ at the top of the document should limit problems if it goes beyond the coalition’s membership.

Audio-Visual Materials
The use of film and photography can be a highly effective way of communicating the diversity of a problem and the diversity of a campaign to a range of different audiences. Images can be powerful without translation and often resonate with people from widely divergent social and cultural backgrounds.

Media Products
A range of coalition materials tend to be produced for media engagements: this can include a written press release, a video news release, fact sheets and
‘frequently asked questions’-type documents, high resolution photographic images, and B-roll (unedited video footage available for use by broadcast journalists). Coalitions will also provide speakers at press conferences, either jointly with governments and international organisations or simply as the coalition. Production of media documents can be a tense affair in coalitions. It is important to balance the brands of the big member organisations and the egos of the key players to highlight the diversity of the coalition and to have the strongest and most credible, quotable, voices possible.

The coalition will often contribute to and take responsibility for coordinating NGO ’side events‘ during a meeting. There may be one or more coalition- organised side events where the coalition sets out its key messages. Members of the coalition might be invited to participate as panelists on other side events and if so it’s important to be clear about whether they are speaking on behalf of the coalition or their own NGO or both. Coalitions often schedule evening events in addition to events during the day. These can be more relaxed and a good chance for coalition participants to build a sense of collective identity. Very importantly for a coalition, evening events can offer outlets for people with different cultural and social backgrounds to express themselves and try to unwind when meetings are getting tense.

“The work involved in being part of a coalition should not be underestimated, it can be very difficult indeed. But the potential rewards in terms of he collective impact are worth the investment. Coalitions can have a greater credibility, greater visibility and greater impact than any one organisation working my itself.”

Anna Macdonald, Oxfam


At different times during the lifecycle of a coalition there may be widely differing expectations, funding and capacity to produce materials. During the early stages, a single leaflet or policy brief may be sufficient. For the Dublin Diplomatic Conference in May 2008, the CMC produced the following materials:

  • 24-page CMC participants handbook with map of Dublin
  • 27-page CMC policy papers with analysis on 13 negotiating topics
  • 32-page CMC lobbying guide explaining how people should undertake their lobbying
  • Boards with movable flags that were placed according to countries’ negotiating stance on three key issues
  • Various exhibitions provided by CMC members and exhibited at the conference venue
  • A professional multimedia exhibition exhibited at the Dublin Gallery of Photography
  • Badges
  • T-shirts
  • Waterproof jackets
  • Umbrellas

Guides to campaigning and advocacy will stress the importance of developing a strategy before printing your t-shirts and it is important to have a well-thought out reason for each item you are producing. Branded materials can help to build a sense of collective identity during a major negotiation. Of course it is also possible to get by with basic materials that communicate the key messages simply and clearly. It’s important to tailor your materials to the circumstances you are facing , the audience you are trying to influence and the stage you are at in the campaign.

Is the coalition making the most of the membership at meetings?

For some coalitions, managing a large and diverse delegation at a formal meeting with delegates from governments, international organisations, businesses and so on will be a key task. Having a coalition in place is a good first step for organising NGO participation in such meetings and those hosting such meetings, very often governments or international organisations, are likely to be quite grateful if NGOs organise themselves.

“During the negotiating process lots of NGOs wanted meetings with US, UK, Russia etc. The Coalition would set up the meetings and then liaise with NGOs about what the key issues were, what order to raise them, who asks, who responds. We could also use the diversity of membership to avoid problematic perceptions of governments. This strategy of meeting coordination helped to get the Coalition formally recognised as the mechanism for NGO representation.”

Bill Pace, Coalition for the International Criminal Court

One of the main things that NGOs tend to do at meetings is lobbying, and when a crowd of opinionated and passionate activists descends on government delegates coordination is important. Coordinated lobbying is a two-way process. It involves gathering the information via meetings, and disseminating it through specific messages.

One way to organise lobbying has been through regional and thematic leads, where the advocacy goals are broken down into specific themes under one individual’s responsibility and different regions are similarly assigned lead individuals to coordinate them. The structure and key messages can be conveyed to all participants from the coalition through a book
that they receive at the start of the meeting – or electronically beforehand.

“We held a dozen or so campaign forums during the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty review conference to mobilise people and convey our message. NGOs also had an hour every morning from 8-9am to share plans and talk strategy, including on some joint statements and a few joint actions. We had a different chair every day. Then from 9-10am every morning we had an Ambassador come to see us, so we could prepare our approach to that government. ICAN and Abolition 2000 coordinated the NGO meetings in the mornings and Reaching Critical Will coordinated the briefings with Ambassadors. We had good feedback from Ambassadors who were impressed with the unity of the message about prohibiting nuclear weapons.”

Tim Wright, International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons


The Cluster Munition Coalition put in place a detailed structure for lobbying during the two-week final negotiating conference in May 2008, held at Croke Park in Dublin, Ireland. The key elements of this structure are set out below.

Thematic facilitators
There were eight ‘thematic facilitators’, each responsible for one key area under negotiation: general obligations, definitions, clearance of unexploded ordnance, victim assistance, stockpile destruction, cooperation and assistance, transparency and compliance, and national implementation.

Regional facilitators
There were nine regional facilitators, each responsible for communications between campaigners from different regions (Africa, Francophone Africa, CIS, Europe, Latin America, Middle East and North Africa, Pacific, South Asia, South-East Asia). They were responsible for ensuring lobbying was undertaken with all of the government delegations at the conference and reported back to thematic facilitators and other campaigners.

This lobbying coordination structure was explained over email and then in person during a weekend orientation meeting prior to the conference. The facilitators were active during the daily morning briefings, and debriefed with the steering committee and staff at daily evening briefings. They also helped organise ad hoc meetings of their regional and thematic groups.

In addition to feedback during daily morning and evening meetings, each facilitator was issued with a pre-paid local mobile phone and the numbers were listed in the lobbying handbook.

In addition to publicity materials, CMC produced a series of documents specifically aimed at supporting lobbying.

Another key task for the coalition at a meeting is to keep people informed and working as a group. An effective way to do this is to have an orientation meeting at the beginning, morning briefings every day and a debrief meeting at the end of the meeting. Sometimes during a big conference it might be necessary to convene other meetings to deal with particular issues that arise.


Coalition team meeting to discuss plans for the day, logistics, events and so on

Sign off of coalition daily updates by relevant steering group members and printing for distribution

Daily morning briefing for all coalition campaigners to discuss plans for the day

Plenary discussions commence for the day, campaigners disperse to lobby delegates, participate in discussions in the conference rooms and so on

Lunchtime side events commence; possibly three or four in parallel

Plenary discussions recommence for the day, campaigners disperse to lobby delegates, follow discussions in the conference rooms, and so on

Steering group, regional and thematic facilitators and staff meet for daily debrief to highlight concerns, take decisions on strategy, discuss media lines and plan for the following day

Evening side events hosted by coalition or others, including government hosted receptions where campaigners can undertake lobbying of delegates

Dinners, used for planning, preparations for the following day or official dinners hosted by government delegations

Here are some ideas for making the most of the membership during a major conference.

  • Have a clear set of roles and responsibilities that cover all the aspects of the coalition’s work at the conference. Make full use of key people from the membership and ensure the burden of work is shared.
  • Have a clear system for organising the lobbying during the meeting. While planning for day-to-day needs, be prepared to deal with internal problems and disagreements.
  • Keep people busy through side events, field trips, advocacy planning, skills sharing workshops in addition to the key work of lobbying. Give responsibilities to key people to ensure their buy-in.
  • Plan how to deal with any NGOs who attend the meeting but are not part of the coalition – will the organisers expect the coalition to coordinate these organisations also?
  • Ensure a clear communication channel with the meeting hosts and organisers. At any big conference there will inevitably be points where the hosts are putting pressure on the coalition and vice versa. Strong relationships here can help to reduce possible tensions.

Is the collective voice of the coalition being heard in the media?

If a coalition is seeking to build up its visibility and credibility, then appearing in the media as the coalition will be important. By speaking through the media a coalition can promote its objectives by applying pressure to key targets and by raising awareness of the issue at stake. But these opportunities can also be a source of tension between members, leadership and staff.

Here are some questions that might help in thinking this through.

  • Do you have a clear media strategy that sets out what the coalition wants to achieve in its media work with the international audience and with specific national audiences?
  • Do you have criteria – or basic parameters – for deciding who speaks to the media on behalf of the coalition? Do you have designated spokespeople for specific issues or for specific regions?
  • Do you have a division of labour between what members’ spokespeople do and what coalition spokespeople do? For example members might take responsibility for speaking to national media in their own country (such as regional or national newspapers and television) and the coalition might speak to more international media outlets (such as Reuters, AFP, BBC World).
  • Do the communications officers in major member NGOs participate in developing media strategy for the coalition, or come to coalition meetings?

Some NGOs (particularly large NGOs with communication departments) will often, quite naturally, seek to promote the work and identity of their own NGO, either at a national or international level, ahead of the work or identity of the coalition. Sometimes this might be because the individuals responsible for dealing with communications are not aware that their NGO is working as part of a collective. It might also be a conscious decision to ensure their NGO ‘brand’ is strengthened through media exposure. Sometimes the individuals that represent an NGO within a coalition might have to struggle against their own communications people to be allowed to speak on behalf of the coalition rather than just their own organisation.

“At this stage for ICAN it is ok to be loose and open, but once we get into negotiations with more media work we would want to make sure that the message is clear and disciplined from ICAN.”

Tim Wright, International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons

Is effective use being made of key individuals?

Coalitions can draw on a wide range of individuals in their advocacy work. It’s important to identify the individuals with particular skills and personal stories and to encourage them to be active where they can make the most impact.

  • Do you have a list of individuals within the coalition that are experts on certain issues and available to speak to the media or undertake lobbying meetings?
  • Is it always the same people representing the coalition in high-level meetings and in the media or are there diverse faces of the coalition?
  • Are the key individuals able to fund themselves to travel and undertake activities? If not does the coalition have the capacity to support them financially?

People who have been directly affected by the problem that the coalition is trying to solve can be particularly powerful, such as landmine or cluster munition survivors, but there is a lot to think about when involving such individuals.

Engagement of survivors should be based on principles of dignity and respect. A sense of exploitation can emerge if a campaign brings in survivors to speak at a conference and then simply sends them home again – as a one-off walk-on part. Campaigns should develop the capacity of individuals so that they are primarily campaigners rather than primarily survivors. Options to consider include:

  • Support networks, including peer-to-peer support
  • Logistical requirements – accessibility of accommodation, transport and venues
  • Lobbying, media and public speaking training

This can mean substantial commitments of funding and staff time and should not be entered into lightly.


Facilitated by Handicap International, the ‘Ban Advocates’ project ensured that individual survivors regularly participated in conferences and spoke out on behalf of the CMC. These campaigners – some who had lost limbs, lost eyesight, lost children and other family members – not only influenced decision makers in governments, they helped motivate people inside the campaign and reminded all campaigners why they were working on this issue. Ensuring that campaigning and advocacy processes include these actors is vital in order to ensure legitimacy and relevance and can be critical to the success of an initiative, but it also presents challenges.

End of Chap 6