Ensuring a Strong Foundation




Ensuring a Strong Foundation

In community work, organizations are often called together to share information and to network, particularly when working on the same or complimentary issues. This addresses the common challenge of working in silos, focusing only on your work, when broad community engagement can better advance your organization’s mission.  Other times when groups are assembled, there may be a long-term goal to act together in coalition to fill a community service gap.  It is important to identify the purpose of the group you’re involved with.  Furthermore, it is important to clarify the group’s goals and expectations to ensure that your organization’s interests align with the group and that you are able to effectively participate.  Most importantly, if group meetings seem adrift, it is not enough to continue to attend out of obligation to a colleague or because you do not want to miss what happens when you are not present.  Your time and your organization’s mission are too important for you to be involved in a group that is not mutually beneficial.

If you’ve decided a coalition needs to be created to achieve collective change or you have been asked to participate in a coalition, there are three key assessments to consider.  You should assess your organization, assess whether a coalition is the right model for your organization and assess the current environment.  Finally, you should ready your environment to cultivate the partnerships. This will help you, your organization and the coalition find success.

Assess Your Organization

Assess Whether a Coalition is the Right Model

Assess the Environment

Ready the Environment

Assess Your Organization

Before you dive into coalition work, make sure you proactively assess your organization’s readiness to fully commit to being part of a coalition. Questions to ask include:

  • Purpose: Are you able to clearly state what you hope to gain or improve through building the coalition? Will you be able to achieve more mission impact? Better serve your community? Strengthen your organization? This is a necessary first step to evaluate fit.
  • Fit: Do these goals fit within your organization’s strategy? If so, you’re more likely to be able to commit the time needed for your organization to be an active participant.
  • Time: Do you have the time? A coalition agenda may be a strategic fit, but your current workload may not give you or others in your organization the freedom to participate. Be honest about this, and reprioritize if needed so you can make participation in the coalition a priority for your organization.
  • Capacity: Do you have the staff capacity for meaningful coalition participation? Determine which type of staff members are needed – decision makers, doers, or both – and consider whether you can allocate staff resources appropriately.
  • Support: Do you have board support? Does your board understand how the coalition work fits into the strategy? Can they advocate for the work and support you in allocating the resources needed to be a productive coalition member?
  • Preparation: Are you ready to collectively plan and source resources to sustain the coalition? What will you need to do to prepare? There may well be other resources needed by the coalition as it develops – financial, infrastructure, access to your network – can you be an active and constructive partner, if needed, in providing and garnering resources required for the coalition’s success?

If you have not yet asked these questions or answered “no” to any of them, we recommend you take the time to engage your organizational leadership in getting to “yes” before you join a coalition or begin to reach out to coalition partners.  Giving due diligence to the assessment portion of determining your organization’s overall readiness will create a more stable foundation for future impact.

Essential Resources to assess readiness:

Assess Whether a Coalition is the Right Model

There are many different types of collaboration. A starting point is to assess whether a coalition is the right collaboration model for what you want to accomplish. The coalition model outlined in this Blueprint – most commonly used to achieve collective impact – allows multiple organizations across sectors to work together to address complex, challenging and specific community issues. The collective impact approach works when there is a system that needs strengthening because of service gaps, a lack of communication among actors, or when there is a need for new policies or new solutions due to an ineffective current system.

Essential Resources to understand different types of collaboration:


Assess the Environment

Once you have determined your own organizational readiness, and confirmed building a coalition is the right model to achieve your community goals, the next question is whether the environment is ready to benefit from a coalition? Effective collective impact coalitions require considerable, long-term investment by partner organizations – most of whom are already busy focused on their own missions. Economic, political and environmental factors will play a large role in the level of the investment that partners are willing to give to any coalition effort.

To understand whether this model of collaboration is feasible to achieve your goals, consider whether these key factors exist:

  • Leadership: Is there an influential champion(s) to jumpstart the effort? Does this champion(s) have the clout to convene multiple stakeholders together to envision a planning process?  Can this champion(s) lead by example in coalition participation?
  • Resources: Do financial and human resources exist? Is there a willingness among coalition partners to raise or share funds and/or staff to invest in the collaboration?
  • Environment: Is there a history of collaboration among key and diverse stakeholders in the community? Are there cross-sector relationships that can be tapped to support the effort? Are prospective partners ready, willing and able to think strategically and plan together to address a community need, whether or not it has immediate benefit to their organization?
  • Urgency: Is there a sense of urgency across the community around the problem identified? Is there a desire to unify sectors to find new ways to address the issue?

If these necessary factors are present, there are a variety of catalysts that can help build a sustainable collective impact effort. Several questions should be addressed to determine if a catalyst exists:

  • Can you secure a commitment among stakeholders to act on the results of the planning process?
  • Is there a neutral convener respected by the stakeholders that can bring the group together effectively to address the issue?
  • Is there a funder that will agree to provide a planning grant to galvanize the work?
  • Is there a commitment from elected officials to support, financially or otherwise, the coalition’s planning or implementation activities?

Essential Resources for assessing the environment:


Ready the Environment

If the key factors are not present, take time to put them into place before launching your collective impact initiative. There are many creative and productive ways to begin to cultivate partnerships and the sharing of resources in your community.  Furthermore, there are many ways to begin the necessary conversations about collaboration and coalition building.

Creating a sense of urgency is central to launching any effort. A sense of urgency can be built by attending to the following factors:

  • Define the Challenge: If other organizations are not sure that they are really working on the same problem (or if the problem is not well-defined), you can convene groups of potential partner agencies to jointly define the community challenge and identify opportunities for strategic partnership that could lead to more formal collaboration. If the community needs additional information on the scope and/or nature of the problem, consider conducting a needs assessment to specifically articulate the scope of the problem.
Local Spotlight Local Spotlight:

  • CMHWC – need info from them – does this just go back to the Human Services Strategic Plan priorities?
  • City of Promise. When the initial request for proposals came out in 2010 from the United States Department of Education (USDOE), the initial stakeholders, led by City Counsel woman, Kristin Szakos (who was following the local academic achievement gap, and disparities in the distribution of resources across the City), brought together publically available data from sources such as the public schools, police, and department of social services to demonstrate the need for the grant funding to support under-resourced families across Charlottesville. When that proposal was not awarded, those same leaders re-reviewed the data to identify the parts of the City with the most need. The data pointed to the neighborhood including Westhaven and 10th and Page as having some of the greatest need for resources to help kids succeed in the City. Once the data were brought together and understood, a successful grant to the USDOE was written in 2011. One year later, additional USDOE funding was sought which required a comprehensive needs assessment to show the areas of greatest need and strength. City of Promise partnered with Youth-Nex, the Center for Positive Youth Development at the Curry School of Education, University of Virginia who worked with neighbors and the City of Promise leadership to design a survey. Then, a small group of neighbors were trained to administer the survey to 100 households living in the City of Promise footprint. Additionally, data were gathered from the City of Charlottesville Schools (CCS), the Charlottesville Department of Social Services (CDSS), the Charlottesville Police Department (CPD), and the S. Census. Once all the data were gathered and graphed, a series of community meetings were used to understand the story behind the data, to draw conclusions and to make recommendations for changes. These conclusions and recommendations were presented to the Steering Committee and led the charge for the initial City of Promise efforts and programming.
Essential Resource for readying the environment:


  • Build the Case: If other organizations have not considered a collaboration or the building a coalition (or if they are waiting to see someone else take the first step), act as a resource to potential partners on the issue. Share your strategy, your programs and your challenges as a learning tool.  Build or strengthen one-on-one relationships with leaders of partner agencies.  Locate community champions among elected or community leaders to assist you in advocating for a coordinated response to the challenge you seek to address.
Local Spotlight Local Spotlight:

Essential Resource for readying the environment:


  • Develop the Scope of Work: If other organizations are not sure that building a coalition would be beneficial or worth the time and resources, propose informal cooperation among partner agencies as a starting point. In order to continue to build trust and reciprocity among agencies, suggest sharing information about programs or develop short-term joint projects.

Note: Developing the scope of work can be a short or long-term process.  It may take years, depending on how ripe your community is for the action.  In some cases, new leadership among key stakeholders or evolving partner relationships can be the trigger that leads to long-discussed collective action.

Local Spotlight Local Spotlight:

  • U/A, CACF & Partner Agencies, school systems data collection collaboration
Lesson Learned:

  • When the original partners of the CMHWC joined together, their focus was clearly on expanding services and better connecting adults with moderate mental health challenges to services. Over the first year of operation, as the membership expanded, the consensus over focus became less strong. These differences were highlighted in the Coalition Health Survey conducted by The Center for Nonprofit Excellence and Partnerships for Strategic Impact. The articulation, through the data, of the differences between partners in understanding what the coalition was focused on led to the facilitation of a retreat and meetings to gather perspectives and build input, as well as to the articulation of clear goals in the Strategic Impact Mapping process. After the summer of 2015, when the coalition underwent substantial changes in leadership and backbone support, a new effort to build membership and consensus about the direction of the coalition was needed. The new coalition leadership found that they needed to re-focus the coalition around what the expanded partners wanted to get out of it. They saw that effort to build buy-in by trying to recruit potential partners touting the benefits (defined by the pre-Summer 2015 coalition) of joining the coalition were not persuasive. Therefore, they began by asking potential partners what they would like the coalition to do for them, thereby identifying where the need and sense of urgency was, as well as gathering important information about what expertise and perspective members could bring to the coalition.


  • Generate the Resources:  No matter how engaged the coalition partners or how urgent the problem, a lack of resources can stymy any initiative’s effort.  Make sure that part of your coalition strategy work involves a plan to attain the resources needed to get the job done, including: human, financial and infrastructure. All coalitions need funding to support basic operations and to power the strategic work to achieve community goals. Raising money to support operations can be challenging for any individual agency, much less for a coalition. Therefore, the more transparent you can be with the need and the earlier you engage key donor prospects in the project, the higher the likelihood of success.

The best case for an infrastructure investment may be the leveraging impact of that investment in coordinating coalition partners to achieve better community results. One key question for early discussion is how to raise funds for a collective impact initiative without competing with the fundraising done by coalition partner agencies. To combat this concern, it is important to think in terms of system-wide impact.  It may help to consider how funds raised for the collective impact effort have the potential to grow resources for the community, rather than reduce them. One strategy is to identify funders with a specific interest in resolving the complex challenge the coalition seeks to address Another strategy is to devise a fundraising strategy that incorporates the expertise of all of the partners.

Essential Resource for readying the environment:


NOTE: In some cases, the collaboration train has left the station – perhaps because funding has been awarded or the planning process is well underway.  If so, some key conditions still can evolve with the process.  If financial or staff resources are not yet committed, the coalition can develop a realistic plan to obtain them.  If urgency is not driving all partners, it can be intentionally generated through: partner education, the voice of a champion, new funding opportunities, and/or a compelling community change vision. The key is to shore up the collective impact effort by ensuring that it has a strong foundation for impact. In this case, the equivalent of building the train while driving it!

Local Spotlight Local Spotlight:

  • As it formed, the Charlottesville Community Mental Health and Wellness Coalition (CMHWC) was able to source initial seed funding of $20,000 from a local donor for the planning efforts. Subsequently, it applied for and received a follow-up 2-year implementation grant of $100,000/year from the local Charlottesville Area Community Foundation (CACF). This grant allowed the coalition to move forward with the initiative to ensure easy access to mental health services for people who are not in crisis, but rather, have moderate mental health challenges. Additionally, in the founding charter for the coalition, membership was conditioned on the payment of organizational membership dues in support of the collective effort. Now, the basic backbone for the coalition (a part time coordinator and office space) are funded by the City of Charlottesville. Additionally, the coordinator has some expertise in data and evaluation that has built the coalitions capacity for measuring impact. The coordinator has also been able to reach out to new partners, broadening the scope of the coalition, as well as the expertise around the table.
  • We need Kristin Szakos to write this. I think it was just the Planning Grant and is now donors, and some City Support.
Lesson Learned:

  • The Charlottesville Community Mental Health and Wellness Coalition (CMHWC) realized the importance of the coalition coordinator position when the position went vacant for 6 months.  This caused the initiative to lose some organizational momentum and institutional knowledge. What was gained through the process was a better understanding of the key role that the coordinator could and should play for the coalition.  In this case, the best use of the coordinator was to organize the work, galvanize member participation, and manage the evolving evaluation efforts to best align coalition activities around outcome measures that could be tracked over time.
  • At the same time, the coalition transitioned into new leadership with the founding “champions” and long-time co-chairs stepping into an advisory role.  Another key lesson learned through this process was the critical importance of engaging in ongoing succession planning – to groom new coalition leaders – so that the coalition can effectively manage a leadership transition. As part of the succession planning, an honest discussion about the time needed to be an effective leader is critical to ensuring you have leaders in place with the right amount of backbone support who can do their best work for the coalition.
Essential Resource for readying the environment:

[1] Bridging RVA, Facilitation for Community Change, Saphira M. Baker, Author; Jason W. Smith, Contributing Editor, (Richmond, VA: Virginia Commonwealth University, 2014.)

[2] Bridging RVA, Facilitation for Community Change, Saphira M. Baker, Author; Jason W. Smith, Contributing Editor, (Richmond, VA: Virginia Commonwealth University, 2014.)

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Coalition-Building Roadmap