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Nonprofit coalitions, Part 1

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By Jeffrey Leiter

Nonprofits can accomplish a lot of work through coalitions and networks, even though building those efforts can be a challenge.

In forming coalitions and networks, nonprofits seek to cooperate, to share resources, and to be more effective collectively than they would be in sum separately.

Cooperation means thinking about outcomes for others in the coalition, not just for your organization.

It means focusing on ways in which the fates of the coalition partners are bound up together.

It means developing a coalition identity that does not give way to individual identities.

Sharing resources means making some of your time, expertise, money, and information available to others.

It means overcoming the temptation to guard resources for your organization even though sharing can involve a loss of control.

Collective effectiveness means realizing synergies by which the whole network is more than the sum of its parts.

Such synergies rest on shared identities, shared resources, shared efforts, and shared fates.

Collective effectiveness requires moving away from a past in which identity and strategy were based on loyalty to one’s own organization and finding a new identity based, in part at least, on the collaboration.

One dilemma for collaborations is how many groups should be involved.  A large coalition with many member organizations has great advantages.

It has more resources of all sorts — personnel, expertise, money, connections, information, visibility, and legitimacy.

Resources should increase network capacity, effectiveness, reach, clout — all of which are desirable.

Large size, however, can be costly.

All else equal, a large coalition is harder and more expensive to coordinate and move to action.

It is more likely to suffer from free riders, that is, members who let the others in the coalition carry the weight.

The large coalition is less likely to benefit from face-to-face interaction among members in which good ideas are shared, enthusiasm is bolstered, free riding is discouraged by group pressure, and a group identity is forged.

Striking the right balance is not easy, but coalitions that work on this issue can build a strong focus on a collaborative issue and have significant impact on that issue.

Other stories in series:

Part 2: Differences, inequality post challenges for collaboration.


Jeffrey Leiter is a professor of sociology at N.C. State University and research director of its Institute for Nonprofits.

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