Building a Successful Coalition

2001 by Gregory Castle, No More Homeless Pets in Utah

Audience: Executive Leadership, Foster Caregivers, Public, Shelter/Rescue Staff & Volunteers, Veterinary Team

The 12 Cardinal Rules

  1. Know yourself
  2. Take the lead
  3. Hunger for knowledge
  4. Give!
  5. The win/win wins
  6. Bad-mouthing not allowed
  7. Be prepared
  8. Nurture
  9. It CAN be done!
  10. Become a media hog
  11. You're part of a team
  12. Don't delay, do it today!

Rule 1:

Know yourself. Coalition building is about leadership. You may be a good leader; you may not. You may have certain qualities required of a leader, but not others. You may be the type of person who naturally takes the lead in almost every situation you find yourself in. Or you may feel more comfortable deferring to others, and following a leader you trust. Understand where you fit in this spectrum. Recognize your own leadership skills, or lack of them.

You may understand that there is a need for respected leadership in your community of animal helping organizations and individuals, but feel that you are not the person to provide it.

You may feel that the leadership that does exist in your community is flawed, for whatever reason, and is therefore incapable of building a satisfactory, working coalition. If so, are you able to positively supplant that leadership, and then provide good leadership without alienating people? If not, do you know someone who could?

Are you the type of person who works better in the background, supporting and guiding, providing feedback for a visible leader?

Know yourself. Understand your leadership strengths and weaknesses. From there you can work to provide or support the leadership required for a successful coalition.

Rule 2:

Take the lead (or find someone who will). If you do decide to provide the leadership required, what then? Be a visible leader. You will almost certainly need to be more subtle than announcing to all involved that you are now their leader! To be an effective leader you will need to build confidence, support, trust, and recognition that you have the interests of others at heart. This may take time.

You need to be a diplomat, giving support to all, large or small, influential or not. Develop a plan which can benefit all, showing special favors to none.

Be prepared to play a part in reconciling differences. Look for points of agreement and help opposing parties to focus on them. Set aside your own points of disagreement. Encourage mutual appreciation of involved groups and individuals.

Be accessible. Be available. Respond promptly to participants, with affinity and support. Become visible as the leader of the coalition you are building.

People need a focus. We all need to know to whom to turn for direction.

Rule 3:

Hunger for knowledge. Understand everything you can about the problem. Conduct surveys. Read. Research. Talk to others; pick their brains! If you are not already one, become an expert.

Get to know everything you can about the groups and organizations involved in your coalition. Their methods, their physical set up, the key individuals involved, the numbers of people who work with them, who volunteer with them. Who are these people and what are they like. How do they see their position in your community?

What is the history of their organization? How do they raise money? How successful are they? Find out as much as you can about their finances.

With adoption and spay/neuter programs: how do they adopt their animals, where do they adopt them, how often? What spay/neuter programs do they operate, how many animals do they fix? For all their activities, how do they advertise?

About veterinarians: size of clinic, numbers of spay/neuters, attitudes to rescue groups, discount prices.

About Animal Control shelters: size, whom they're answerable to, how they operate, how - and how effectively - do they keep records? Do they work with rescue groups?

There is a lot to discover. You can do much to build your leadership position by simply asking questions and listening. Be understanding and sympathetic.

Rule 4:

Give! You are developing a plan for your coalition, and for the participation of its members. Always look for ways in which your plan can benefit its members. Aim to provide something which participants value, which can help solve their problems.

If you are able to develop resources independent of your member agencies, make them available to coalition participants wherever there is a need. Money, donations-in-kind, volunteers, technical and professional expertise, internet resources.

Look for opportunities to provide resources which can benefit numbers of participating organizations simultaneously. Organize an adoption event involving different groups. Set up the venue, establish and communicate the ground rules, provide advertising and public relations. Organize a discount spay/neuter program in which a number of member groups participate. Make arrangements with community veterinarians, then offer availability of their services to the groups.

Wherever possible, coordinate the activities of different participants, combining resources to the greater benefit of all.

Develop a publicity campaign - TV and radio appearances, press releases, PSAs - which can be used to promote the work of individual member organizations. Get them the media attention they may not have the time or expertise to arrange themselves. Become a benevolent rich uncle, or aunt!

Rule 5:

The win/win wins. In all your planning make win/win your guiding principle. Look for ways in which all parties involved can benefit.

One organization may have a surplus of donated animal food. Another may need food, but be able to provide volunteers to help transport animals to a mobile adoption. Propose a deal.

A new group may need help from an attorney with their 501(c)(3) application. The attorney on your board may be able to help. In return the new group can distribute your spay/neuter coupons.

There is usually a way in which commercial interests that contribute to your programs can benefit from the association. Approach a boarding kennel or groomer for help with your fostering and adoption program with an offer to publicize their services to all your adopters.

If you know a veterinary office which also conducts dog training, arrange discount medical services in return for directing people who adopt dogs to their training courses.

Encourage veterinarians to participate in discount spay/neuter programs on the grounds that they will thereby reach new clients for more profitable services such as routine examinations and vaccinations.

A shopping mall or large store which provides a venue for an adoption event can receive much added traffic as a result of promotion given the event.

Rule 6:

Bad-mouthing not allowed. You or your organization may not agree with some of the methods, the policies, the plans or principles of other coalition members. You may disapprove of some of the ways they do things, their rhetoric, or their beliefs. But we are talking about details here. If they subscribe to the basic principles of the coalition, and have the good of the animals at heart, they can be a valuable part of your alliance.

Establish ground rules for participation, then welcome those who subscribe to those principles. Always keep your focus on what you have in common.

Above all, don't criticize other groups, individuals, plans, policies. Don't allow coalition members to publicly criticize other members. And discourage private criticism.

Your aim is to be build confidence in your leadership and a sense of being part of a group with a strong sense of identity, high morale, and pride in its achievements and those of fellow coalition members.

Be cooperative with those who are working in a totally different part of this arena than you. For instance, you may include animal control people in your coalition. 99% of animal control officers dislike the practice of euthanization. They are not bloodthirsty killers! Remember, that is where many of the animals are.

Rule 7:

Be prepared. Everything will not always go smoothly. Problems will arise. Some will disagree with you, your organization, your plans and policies for the coalition. You may be criticized, even bad-mouthed. Be prepared.

In extreme cases when there is entrenched opposition or disagreement with you, the best policy may be to 'shake the dust from off your feet' and move on. There may be some who can never be a part of your alliance.

But wherever possible look for the common ground. Avoid defensiveness. Promote points of agreement. Encourage people to set aside their disagreements or arguments and appreciate the efforts of others to help the animals.

Focus on the animals. Remember your mission, and that of your coalition. All of you are there for the same purpose.

Rule 8:

Nurture. Your single most important job as leader of the coalition is to build up the morale of your participants. Congratulate them on their accomplishments. Compliment them and their people on work well done. Validate, encourage.

Your group has come together sharing a mutual desire to achieve more. Some members may need ideas or other resources, but more than anything they need a strengthening of their spirits. Ideas will flow from their positive feeling.

High morale attracts people, money, and other needed resources. Success breeds success. Solutions to the problems they face will come naturally as a result of the high energy generated by success and positivity.

With animal rescue work there is a special problem. The extent of the tragedy, the intensity of feeling for the animals, the often overwhelming scope of the problem, makes it easy for well intentioned people to sink beneath the waves, become discouraged, and burn out. Many simply cannot make the decisions necessary to save only some of the animals they encounter. The emotional strain is too great.

Help others to focus on the good they are doing for the animals. Reinforce the good feeling they have from what they have been able to achieve. Be sympathetic and understanding of their difficulties and stresses and strains. But guide their attention to their successes.

Another difficulty besetting many who are concerned to help animals is low self-esteem. This is evident in body language, dress, and public presentation. Your job as a coalition builder includes communicating and reinforcing a sense of the importance of the work of your members. Of their personal worth. Your aim is to have your participants feeling they are engaged upon the most important endeavor there is.

Above all, nurture their spirits.

Rule 9:

It CAN be done! The magnitude of the problem we face is often so great that it is easy to succumb to a sense that what we are attempting is impossible. There are so many animals to save. There are so many unfixed animals. There are so many people who will never feel the importance of giving their animals better care. It's impossible!

Attempting to do what you feel is impossible is a debilitating feeling - to say the least! It saps the spirit, leads to chronic discouragement, and expectations of failure. And it is impossible to keep this to yourself. It communicates, and infects others. Soon the task is impossible!

Your coalition members must not be allowed to feel that the objectives of your alliance are impossible. Instill a sense of possibility - we can do it! Emphasize successes and positive achievements. Draw attention to good results. See the glass half full, and encourage others to do the same.

Some things are impossible! Be sure to set the goals for your coalition at a realistic level. Some people will feel your goals are achievable, some will probably dissent. Avoid the mistake of allowing those with the lowest expectations to dictate your goals. The lowest common denominator should never be your guide.

Be aware of the mindset of your participants. Those that feel an undertaking is impossible carry an atmosphere of impossibility. Counter that atmosphere and do not allow it to affect others. Work on encouraging those people in particular to feel the positivity of success.

Rule 10:

Become a media hog - Positive media exposure is essential for the success of your endeavors. Getting the word out will bring interest and involvement from your community. Ensure that you have one, or at most two, spokespersons for your coalition. Cultivate relations with media outlets, so that they become your friends. Seek out reporters, producers, anchor people, DJs who are sympathetic to animals and want to help. Go after those appearances on TV and radio, articles in the print media.

There are many opportunities for getting media attention for the plans of your coalition. TV stations are always looking for warm and fuzzy animal stories (perhaps to offset all the bad news on TV!). The opportunities in TV include in-studio interviews on local news shows, features on your shelter or an adoption event, community interview programming, 'pet-of-the-week' appearances, and special stories about incidents or issues concerning pets in your community. Radio stations need material for call in shows, drive time talk between the music, studio interviews, and news items. Public Service Announcements can be used to promote your events and programs.

Learn to use the media. Always take a dog or cat with you to the studio - chances are they make for more appealing video than you do! The TV people will love you for it, and want you back for more. Make any events you hold as photogenic as possible.

Become well known. It will build momentum and get results.

Rule 11:

You're part of a team. Whether you have chosen the role of leading your coalition or playing a different role within it, you are part of a team. By definition working with a coalition is a team project.

This may sometimes mean being flexible, bending or even compromising. It will certainly mean being supportive of other members of the team. Be prepared to set aside differences of opinion in the interests of the overall goal. Be prepared to work alongside people you may not get along with. Remember that you are all in this together, you have a common purpose and common goals.

Find a basis for respecting and appreciating the efforts and contributions of others. Communicate your appreciation of whatever part they play, large or small - whatever part you play, large or small. You will all gain from mutual support. And most of all, the animals will gain.

If you are not leading your alliance, cooperate with those doing the coalition building. Understand that they need all the support you can give. They need your backing, just as you need their leadership.

Be proud of your team, your coalition and its achievements. Boast about the results, in particular the results of other team members. Build them up, strengthen them.

Rule 12:

Don't delay, do it today! Start now. Even if you have no concrete plans to begin building a coalition, you can start right away. Even if you intend never to play a leading role in creating a formal alliance, you can begin to lay the groundwork for working together. Get to know other organizations and individuals, and encourage them to get to know you. Begin communicating with them, begin befriending them, begin to build mutual respect and confidence. This will not be wasted.

You may feel that some or all of your prospective coalition partners are not ready to work together in an acknowledged or formal alliance. It may need time, positivity, or the healing of old wounds. There need be no talk of 'coalition'. You can still start to create cooperation. Use imagination, resourcefulness, and diplomacy.

Avoid the mistake of giving yourself excuses for delaying the process of coalition building. There is always somewhere to begin. If the road ahead is long, start as soon as possible.

If the time is right, suggest working together, or begin talking about a formal alliance. Begin by focusing on common ground. Understand the need to build confidence and trust. Respect the efforts of others. Look for areas where all parties can benefit from the cooperation.

Allow your common love of the animals to be your guide.

Gregory Castle

One of the founders of Best Friends Animal Society, Gregory Castle coordinated Best Friend's Utah programs, including the No More Homeless Pets in Utah campaign. Castle grew up in England and is a graduate of Cambridge University with a master's degree in philosophy and psychology. His background includes extensive administrative and accounting work for non-profit human services and church organizations.

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