Build a Strong, Diverse Working Group and Organizing Coalition
The purpose of community-wide dialogue-to-change programs is to address community issues by bringing together large numbers of people who represent the diversity of viewpoints, backgrounds, and experiences in your community. To successfully recruit diverse participants and then move to action, the program needs to be sponsored and led by a strong,
diverse working group and organizing coalition.
Building this kind of collaboration takes time and effort, but it’s worth it. There’s lots of evidence to suggest that the most effective dialogue-to-change programs are initiated and sustained by broad-based, cross-sector coalitions that keep learning and growing. This section will explain how to develop a coalition that will:
- recruit the different kinds of people and groups you want in your dialogues.
- provide resources and skills to help organize the program.
- help the program move from dialogue to action.
Establish a diverse working group.
In most cases, there is a working group (sometimes called the steering committee or core working group). Typically, representatives from five to fifteen community organizations, businesses, government or institutions make up the working group, with many more organizations – sometimes as many as 100 – in the broader, organizing coalition. It is this smaller group of individuals within the coalition who take more direct responsibility for the effort. Diversity within this core group is key, since this group is the most visible representation of the program to the community.
Identify key people and organizations to recruit into the sponsoring coalition.
- Keeping your program goals in mind, create a list of the kinds of people and groups you want to include. (Consider race and ethnicity, income, religion, age, gender, views, geography, old timers/ newcomers, political affiliation, occupation.) For each category, create a list of people and organizations that can help you reach this constituency. Consider informal leaders, grass-roots leaders, and high visibility leaders in the community. As you are making your list of potential coalition members, keep asking yourselves, “Who is missing?”
- Again looking at goals, create a list of the kinds of resources you will need in order to create your program. (Consider staffing needs, administrative assistance, meeting sites, trainers, facilitators, public relations experience, evaluation assistance, and fundraising experience.) For each category in your list, think about groups and people who might provide these resources and consider their work on the coalition a natural part of their own mission.
- Think about who can help implement the kinds of action ideas that are likely to come from the dialogues. Consider policymakers, people from government agencies, and leaders from key community institutions.
Recruit coalition members – explain why they should get involved, and how.
- Create a simple “pitch” that explains why the people or organizations you’re talking to should get involved, and what you’re asking them to do. A good pitch describes the program in brief and says what you believe the program will accomplish in the community. Think about how you will communicate this to different kinds of community groups. Make sure that you explain the dialogue process – and the program – in a way that the people you are talking to will understand it. To do this, think about their mission and their goals. What do they care about? Help them see how getting involved in the dialogue-to-change program will help them advance their organization’s mission or meet their constituents’ needs. Your letters and any other written materials should send a clear, straightforward message that people from all parts of the community will understand. Be sure to include contact information.
- Develop a task list for coalition members. Make a list of the many ways coalition members can be involved in the program. Provide a variety, so they can find something that fits their available time and resources. (See the sample sponsor sign-up sheet at the end of this section for the many ways that sponsors can support a program.)
- Use a variety of recruitment methods. The most effective method of recruitment is a personal invitation. Consider one-on- one meetings, phone calls, and letters (a combination works best). (See a sample invitation letter at the end of this section.) Ask members of the working group to use their connections to help reach a broad cross section of the community. When inviting people you don’t know very well, send information on the program, but don’t count on a letter alone. You’ll need to make follow-up phone calls so people will know you’re really interested in their participation. Most communities find that coalition-building meetings are an effective way to reach large numbers of potential coalition members at one time. Be sure to invite people who represent a range of views on the issue. In the meeting, give an overview of what the dialogue-to-change program might look like. Give people a chance to participate in a brief sample dialogue if time permits. (See the coalition-building meeting agenda in the sample documents at the end of this section.)
Conduct pilot dialogues among new and potential coalition members.
It’s a good idea for new coalition members to go through a pilot dialogue together. This will help them build strong working relationships and a commitment to the program, and will make them better prepared to recruit participants. A pilot dialogue also gives potential coalition members a chance to decide whether they want to join the effort.
If key members of the coalition can’t take time to do all the sessions of a guide, consider setting aside some time to do several sessions. Find people in the community with facilitation experience to lead these discussions. (Consult Everyday Democracy's Guide for Training Public Dialogue Facilitators or see any of Everyday Democracy's discussion guides for facilitation advice.)
Help your coalition work as a team.
Remember to incorporate the principles of inclusiveness, collaboration, and active listening in all your planning and decision making. Consider what makes an effective coalition and think together about how you will do the following:
- develop trust
- set common goals
- develop clear expectations of each other
- provide for ways to fine-tune the way you work together throughout the life of the program
Collaboration and team building are important to all kinds of community initiatives, and there are many excellent resources on these subjects.
Here are some suggestions for making your coalition meetings productive:
- At the first meeting, establish a schedule for the remainder of the meetings.
- Keep the meeting agenda focused. Stick to the tasks that involve the whole coalition. Many tasks can be assigned to committees, who can report back to the whole coalition.
- If many new coalition members have joined the program since your last coalition meeting, you may want to consider holding a brief orientation before a regularly scheduled meeting to explain the program and bring newcomers up to speed.
- Send minutes out right after the meeting; be sure to summarize the decisions and remind people of future meetings.