Why many coalitions fail, and how to avoid that

Coalitions are the key to solving societal problems

In this time of transitions, the power of collaborative action cannot be overstated. Whether it’s addressing the climate crisis or building a healthy and sustainable food system, the scale and complexity of modern day issues require collective effort. As Antonio Guterres, Secretary General of the United Nations puts it: “Partnership and cooperation are the only way forward. No single entity can tackle the challenges we face alone.” 

Over the past few years, we’ve seen a rise in multi-stakeholder coalitions. Non-profit organizations, governments, businesses, educational institutions, and citizens have joined forces to together solve different parts of the societal puzzle.This article will tell you more about how to build a coalition, and avoid the common traps in doing so.

Why many coalitions fail

Building these successful coalitions is hard. Collaborating with people from different organizations, with different intentions and opinions, is not easy.  Despite good intentions, many coalitions falter due to common errors and lack of effective strategies. We’ve seen many coalitions fail due to lack of direction, internal conflicts, misalignment of goals, and poor coordination.  People who have managed multi-stakeholder projects will recognise the following examples. 

 

  • CEOs sign a large foamboard with a lofty goal at a press event, which lacks clear objectives and a plan of action. 
  • A brainstorm sessions results in many great ideas, only without owners to realise them. 
  • The coalition forms a great purpose and story, but no concrete solutions to follow it up. 
  • An initiator sets a dominant direction, which makes other members disengaged and lose interest.

The Elemental guide to coalition building

At Elemental, we’ve been developing over twenty coalitions for the last decade.  We’ve bundled our thinking in the “Coalition Compass”. There is no linear path in coalition building, so we see the compass as a guide that should steer the journey in the right direction. In practice, there are five elements that should be kept in balance in a coalition:

  1. Purpose: Clearly define your coalition’s mission (and keep it alive)
    A successful coalition starts with a clearly defined purpose. Establishing a shared understanding of the coalition’s mission and goals ensures that all participating parties are aligned. This purpose should be reinforced in all activities and communication of the coalition. Keeping purpose at the centre, to stay focused on achieving long-term systems impact.

  1. Narrative: Create an inspiring story and common language
    To inspire and motivate participating parties, a coalition must build a shared narrative. This narrative is the story behind the vision of the coalition. By creating a common language and narrative, the coalition fosters a sense of belonging and collective identity. 
  1. Solutions: Develop concrete interventions for systemic impact
    Concrete solutions and interventions are the lifeblood of a successful coalition. It starts with a “systems analysis” where the team identifies the right intervention areas and pilot solutions to start with. The selected solutions should touch on different parts and stakeholders of the system, so the coalition can demonstrate systemic progress. These solutions are the ‘visible’ side of the coalition. However, these are unlikely to be effective unless the hidden workings of the coalition don’t get careful attention.  
  1. Connections: Get the right people on board and foster the right energy
    Bringing together the right organisations and individuals with diverse perspectives and expertise, is fundamental to the success of the coalition. Trust, respect, and open communication are essential for effective teamwork. Regular meetings, continuous (in)formal communication, and fostering a sense of shared ownership contribute to strong coalition partnerships. 

5. Structure: Set up a process, tools, and governance for success
Establishing an organisational model with clear governance structures, defined roles and responsibilities, and effective decision-making processes provides clarity and accountability to coalition members. Also, establishing a sustainable financing structure and ensuring the presence of the necessary skills within the coalition are crucial for its long-term viability.

Building a coalition step by step

Coalitions are not built overnight. It is worth it to slow down in the beginning, to effectively work once the coalition is live. While the process of building a coalition is not exactly linear, we roughly distinguish three phases.

Phase 1: Design
A core team of frontrunners takes the lead in designing the coalition, including defining the coalition’s purpose, envisioning its desired impact, and determining which partners should be on board. This phase involves extensive planning, research, and co-creation to identify the players and interventions required to address the coalition’s mission effectively. The outcome of this phase is a blueprint that outlines the coalition’s mission, objectives, and a roadmap for action.

Phase 2: Foundation
Now the coalition moves from planning to building. This involves recruiting purpose-aligned coalition partners and developing a shared narrative. Simultaneously, the coalition establishes an organisational model, determining governance and finance structures, decision-making processes, and roles and responsibilities. In this phase, we give much emphasis to building strong interpersonal relationships among coalition members. Therefore, clear communication and co-creation are necessary to build trust and an uplifting energy, even of tough issues.

Phase 3: Action
Finally we move into implementation and evaluation. Solutions and interventions identified in the previous phases are realised and put into action, whilst continuingly (re)evaluating our effectiveness, impact and purpose. Also in this phase, building and strengthening relationships remains essential. New partners may need to be onboarded, and existing stakeholders need to be continuingly engaged. Regular evaluation and reflection are necessary to learn and adapt for more systemic impact

Through coalitions, we can achieve real systemic change in industries. It requires careful planning, the right mix of diverse partners, a shared narrative, constant communication and evaluation. By staying laser-focused on their purpose, they have the power to address the most complex issues of our time.


At Elemental, we help organisations in building up successful coalitions. We work as mission manager, ‘kwartiermaker’, or facilitator to build strong, integrated, and energetic coalitions with impact. Interested in hearing more? Send me a message at tim.ramsche@elementalstrategy.com.

Read more about projects we’ve done:

Did this article trigger further questions or inquiries otherwise? Please get in touch via info@elementalstrategy.com. Would you like to directly speak with our innovation strategistTim Ramsche? You may do so at tim.ramsche@elementalstrategy.com.

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