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


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