Will there be a dedicated coalition staff team?
If resources allow, a coordinator, staff team or secretariat working on behalf of the coalition, rather than serving the interests of one of its members, can be a major asset. This is probably vital once a coalition is engaged in a political process towards international policy change. Such staff can exert a great influence on the way a coalition works. This can be a big strength but it can also be a challenge, creating a new centre of gravity in the coalition that can replace active engagement by member organisations and begin the creep from coalition to institution in its own right.
The importance of staff in developing a coalition
- In the early stages of a coalition’s development, having one person with responsibility for furthering the coalition’s interests can make a major difference. Such a person might be employed by one of the members and might only have this role as a small part-time component of their work. The key requirement is that they are someone who can separate the coalition’s needs from the institutional interests of particular members and push forward the administrative requirements of that coalition. Likely key tasks would include calling coalition meetings, maintaining and updating email lists, circulating minutes of meetings and agendas for development. Such a role does not need to be considered a leadership position within the coalition, but it should be recognised as a position on behalf of the coalition.
- Over time, and depending on resources, a full time coordinator and additional support staff are often put in place. Support staff roles can include logistics, finances, communications, support to campaigners and media functions.
- As well as pushing forward the coalition agenda, staff can facilitate the work of the steering group and the membership. Staff can mediate between different organisations in a steering group and provide an impartial speaker for the coalition who is not affiliated with any one of the members.
- A coalition coordinator might also have influence at a decision-making level, prompting the coalition to take necessary risks. As in any venture, an effective coalition will require difficult decisions to be made in uncertain circumstances. A coordinator can help to spur bold decisions from a steering group that might otherwise be more conservative.
The choice to employ staff will depend on financial resources available, but consideration should also be given to whether there is sufficient buy-in to the project from partner organisations. There is always a danger that staff will do all the work, with coalition members taking a back-seat role. For example, in coalitions where funding is very limited, having staff available to represent on behalf of the coalition may serve to limit the extent the steering group or wider members are able to take on such roles.
“We realised we had a specific window of opportunity and therefore a strict timeline so we needed a clear strategy. We appointed a coordinator who employed other staff as required. The team worked extremely hard especially in preparing and organizing the regional conferences. We did not spend time setting up a formal legal entity but we did have a Coalition member organisation take responsibility for managing our funds and accounts.”
Martin Macpherson, Child Soldiers International (formerly the Coalition to Stop the Use of Child Soldiers)
BALANCING STAFF AND ACTIVISM
There needs to be clarity about what the staff are there to do and what they need to be encouraging member organisations to do. Many coalitions have emphasised the facilitation and communication role of staff as being of primary importance – providing a ‘hub’ around which the work of members revolves. However, the ability of staff to work on the basis of the collective interests of the coalition first and foremost – and to perceive when decisions really need to be made – makes it important that, over time, they are empowered to spur action from the leadership group and so to the coalition as a whole.
With the primary role of such coalition work being to engage people in a broad process of change, a useful consideration for staff, leadership group and membership alike is the number of other people each individual is engaging in the work. The more people that an individual is reaching through their work, the greater the impact of that work is likely to be.
How are staff employed?
It is quite common for coalitions to house coalition staff within one or more member organisations, rather than establishing the coalition as an institution in its own right. This draws on established structures of employment, contracting etc. without requiring the coalition to undertake legal registration and establish its own formal institutional practices. On the other hand, such a move can cause tensions. It may mean one of the coalition’s members receives financial benefit from the coalition, or appears to have additional influence because of the close working relations. If a coalition is established as a legal entity it must be owned by some form of governing body (such as a ‘board’), taking full responsibility for its operation. This can indicate a high level of buy-in to the coalition project.
With trust between coalition partners, the host organisation and staff themselves, many of the issues raised in the box below can be easily resolved – but that should not be taken for granted. It is worth considering what would happen if a staff member filed an official complaint about some aspects of their employment and following through where the formal and practical responsibilities would lie.
It is also worth noting that with an active steering group, coalition staff can sometimes feel as though they have numerous managers. This needs to be recognised as a particular challenge for staff in this line of work.
“When you have coalition staff it’s easier if you have one NGO responsible for overseeing them, rather than having a seconded approach with staff coming from different coalition members. All of the problems with resources and fundraising and so on are amplified if you do that. The Coalition for the International Criminal Court (as well as the International Coalition for the Responsibility to Protect) are legally projects of the World Federalist Movement. The fact that 99 per cent of people don’t know that is a sign that we have been able to operate without this being an issue. This is part of why it works – big NGOs who are members can know that we are not going to steal the credit for the World Federalist Movement.”
Bill Pace, Coalition for the International Criminal Court
HOSTING COALITION STAFF
Housing coalition staff within a member organisation raises formal management challenges that need to be considered:
- The staff are likely to be under contract to the host organisation not to the coalition (which may not be a legal corporate entity)..At the same time staff will need to have a line management relationship with the decision making body of that coalition (not simply with the organisation employing them).
- The employer organisation will have legal responsibilities towards these staff (e.g. regarding leave allowances, sickness pay, notice periods etc.) that will need to be respected by the coalition.
- While hosting a coalition team might be a source of income to an organisation (in administrative support costs at least), the host organisation may come under pressure to cover cash-flow shortfalls within the coalition.
- While these risks may not seem significant if hosting is being provided for a single part-time post in a large organisation, in other situations a coalition staff team can grow to become a substantial part of the organisation it is embedded within.
A coalition may also take on volunteer staff or interns. If managed effectively, they can be a valuable boost to the coalition’s staff resources and a useful experience for people receiving training to develop their working skills. This is probably best done through structured intern arrangements where it is known that an individual will be able to commit to a certain amount of work over a fixed period of time. However, it is important to understand the legal obligations relating to such staff wherever they are being employed.