How will the pieces fit together?
How these components of staff team, membership and steering group work together will change over time, but there are some key themes that need to be taken into account. Central themes are likely to be around ‘decision making’ and representation on behalf of the coalition. Binding all of this together is the fundamental issue of communication.
Who needs to be involved in decision making
The ‘steering group’ should take the lead in defining the broad parameters of who will be involved in decisions of different types. Too much decision making in the hands of a staff team can leave member organisations feeling out of the loop, but too much member participation in decision making can lead to bottle necks and indecision.
Some examples of different levels of coalition decision might be as follows, in descending order of importance:
- Revising the coalition’s call, fundamental policy decisions, changing the coalition’s major governance structures.
- Approving annual plans and budgets, making decisions on coalition staffing.
- Setting internal and external policy.
- Approving press releases on behalf of the coalition.
- Signing off coalition statements for conferences.
Issues that require the engagement of the full membership might still not be amenable for decision making by that group. In such circumstances, consultation processes with the membership can provide a mechanism for participation on decisions without taking items to a formal vote.
Other structures of work
Coalitions can generate workload challenges for people participating at the steering group level, especially given that those people usually have other jobs that they are being paid to do. This can pose a problem for staff teams if they start to find they are not getting responses and timely sign-off from that group for urgent work. Steering groups can also hoard work to themselves, preventing other members from being as engaged as they might be. Sub- committees, working groups and co-chairs can all be used to address these problems and provide more flexible and dynamic structures through which work can get done.
- Sub-committees of the steering group can be used to drive work forward on particular streams such as human resources or finances.
- By working through a smaller configuration there is more pressure on members to participate and pull their weight rather than sitting back and expecting others to engage.
- Smaller groups can work on sensitive issues in a more discreet way.
- Different sub-committees, of different compositions, can be used as a mechanism for trying to maintain active engagement by the steering group.
- However, there is always the risk that sub- committees serve to pull more decision-making power into themselves, reducing the effective drive of the steering group as a whole.
- A group of two or three individual co-chairs can be used to provide a rapid response to urgent needs from the staff team in situations where the wider steering group does not have time to respond effectively.
- Co-chair roles can also link into representational roles, giving certain individuals or organisations an additional status within the group.
- As with certain sub-committees, the danger is that these configurations take on more authority to the detriment of the steering group as a whole.
- Advisory board generally provides additional input on strategy and direction from outside the steering group. Such boards can be drawn from the wider membership or formed of high profile individuals (who might then have access to key decision makers etc.).
- Such groups need active engagement if they are to be successful. Because they are not part of the formal management structure there is a danger that they are not referred to systematically.
- Working groups might be used to bring people and organisations that are not part of the steering group into a more active role on particular themes.
- Such groups are most likely to be focused on particular areas of policy or campaigning strategy and action and can provide individual people as focal points on particular issues for key meetings.
- The main requirement for working groups is that there are sufficient energetic individuals to drive them forward and maintain participation. Such groups don’t necessarily need to be bound to a particular membership but can be open to any who are keen to participate.
- There is a risk with working groups that, through their formation, responsibility for an important area of work is partitioned off, so if the group doesn’t drive it forwards this area of work can become neglected.
Determining who speaks on behalf of the coalition on specific matters is an ongoing challenge. Some of the issues at stake in this include:
- Some individuals are better prepared or more confident than others.
- Some individuals might be over-exposed by being seen repeatedly on behalf of the coalition.
- Speaking on behalf of the coalition can be a sign of status, offering both individuals and organisations a chance to gain profile for themselves – is this being sufficiently shared around?
- Some organisations have stronger identities and their credibility can strengthen the voice of the coalition.
- Diversity of voices illustrates the breadth of the coalition and the depth of its expertise.
- The gender and regional background of speakers is indicative of the coalition’s orientation to equality issues, and will be noticed both by government partners and by the coalition’s wider membership.
- Certain speakers, as a result of their background, will lend greater gravitas to certain topics of discussion.
Given these issues, deciding who will speak or who is given individual or organisational prominence in press releases and the like can be a tense affair. Added to this is the question of who decides what such people can say on behalf of the coalition. Again, mutual trust will have an important role to play in ensuring such issues can be worked through effectively.
There are numerous channels through which a coalition can communicate internally. These need to be used in combination if the coalition is going to harness the full power of its members.
Many coalitions use email list-serves (automatic electronic mailing lists), sometimes multiple list- serves, as the basis for group communication. Such lists are free and easy to set up through a variety of online providers and allow a specific group to be mailed collectively. Subscription to the list can be easily controlled and the history of group communications is stored online as well as in the email inboxes of the individual members. Distinct lists might be used for the steering group, staff, different working groups and the membership as a whole.
- It is important to ensure sufficient communication is going through the wider membership lists and that all of the conversations are not happening only at the level of the steering group.
- It is important to keep communication on the lists, especially broad membership lists, reasonably focused on the work at hand. Such lists can be a very valuable way of building a sense of community, but they can also become rather congested if not operated within some boundaries
- People should be encouraged to provide updates on their activities though the membership list as this builds the collective sense of working together and understanding the breadth of activities being undertaken.
Newsletters, often in electronic form, are a good way of compiling activities, providing a forum for people to feed into and provide people with a platform through which to feel part of the whole movement. By recording activities on an ongoing basis such newsletters can also be a useful resource when
the time comes to report back to donors on the coalition’s activities.
It is becoming increasingly inexpensive to hold conference calls. Such discussions can still be awkward to chair but they do allow for a more direct and interactive form of communication than is possible through email alone. They are more useful for smaller groups.
Face-to-face meetings are very important for building trust and mutual understanding. For a steering group, regular face-to-face meetings are essential for building up an effective working community, especially if the coalition is engaged in a political process. The cost of getting people together, finding appropriate space, and the challenge of congested calendars all need to be overcome.
During the course of government conferences, morning and/or evening briefings can provide a mechanism for preparing people for the work of the day ahead and accessing information campaigners have acquired. Providing space for all people to take the floor (if they have been active in their advocacy) means such briefings are good for encouraging participation. Chairing such meetings can be rotated through members, helping to build the culture of leadership from within the group.
When large numbers of campaigners are coming together in the same place, a campaign forum can be a vital mechanism for building the feeling of collective work, as well as addressing specific working needs. Such a forum may need significant logistical preparation, including a large room and microphones, but it offers an excellent way for people to speak out and engage each other as a group. Different people can be given the opportunity to facilitate different sessions and it can provide space for presentations, information sharing by steering group members and staff, and feedback and input from the wider membership. Within a political process, these meetings can be used both to prepare for, and wind-down from, campaign participation in government meetings.
“Once you lay down detailed organizational rules you risk becoming bureaucratised. Because we were so focused and had a strict time frame we couldn’t afford to get distracted on organisational issues.
The focus had to be on adopting declarations at each regional conference in support of a strong and effective Optional Protocol and advocacy at the UN for
Martin Macpherson, Child Soldiers International (formerly the Coalition to Stop the Use of Child Soldiers)