As one coalition fades into the history books, many more are springing up, not in Westminster, but across the charity sector.
Over recent years charity coalitions of various forms have become increasingly popular as ways for independent organisations to join forces behind single issues – some of them organisations that, in the normal course of their work, would describe each other as competitors in terms of funding and share of voice.
One of the most recent to launch is A Fair Deal for Women, an umbrella group of 11 women’s rights charities, including Women’s Aid, the Fawcett Society, the Women’s Resource Centre and Rape Crisis, with funding from the Barrow Cadbury Trust. This model, with its own brand, website and communications, is just one of many forms these collaborations can take. Others see charities uniting for shorter periods or one-off projects, in the form of co-signed open letters for example, joint events or even protest marches.
There can be no doubt that charity coalitions can have a real impact. Look at Time to Change, for example – the programme run by Mind and Rethink Mental Illness to tackle mental health discrimination and stigma. That initiative has a significant amount of time and money behind it, but smaller versions work well too. That said, from a communications point of view coalition arrangements of any type can raise important questions, particularly for those who are not the largest or loudest at the table.
Many coalitions see big household names joining forces with smaller, more special interest groups – take the Children’s Charities’ Coalition on Internet Safety, which sees NSPCC sitting alongside, for example, ECPAT UK, which campaigns against child trafficking and transnational exploitation. Clearly there are stories that ECPAT are going to be best placed to offer comment and insight on for the media, but how do they ensure that their role in the coalition doesn’t send journalists who should be speaking to them running off to chat with the NSPCC press office, who they’ve dealt with before and know are in a position to respond with all the speed and confidence of a large comms team?
Clearly the differences in expertise and size among these groups represent a key strength – pulling together the various perspectives that exist around an issue. But if you are a small-medium sized organisation considering getting involved in a coalition or collaboration of some kind, or if you’re already in one, it’s worth taking the time to think about how to get the best out of it, and how to avoid some possible pitfalls.
1 – What do you want to get out of it?
It sounds obvious, but smaller organisations need to be absolutely clear on what they want to get from a coalition; even more so, in some ways, than the larger players. You have to be confident in expressing this, and single-minded in applying it in discussions around direction and communications, to avoid being swept along by someone else’s agenda. Some good ground work in the early stages, to establish your must-haves and what you bring that no one else can, will stand you in good stead.
2 – What do others want to get out of it?
Obviously everyone should broadly be working towards the same thing, but it’s worth taking time to think about whether bigger or more well-known organisations in the group are using this partly as an opportunity to move into new areas – your own area of specialism being one of them. That’s not a deal-breaker of course, but it’s best to be clear on everyone’s motivations and what they might mean, even indirectly, for your own work.
3 – Fight (nicely) for the spotlight
Working alongside organisations with a more recognised brand than your own can offer huge potential in elevating your charity’s position in the minds of audiences, but only if you are confident and assertive in taking the opportunities it presents. Make sure your spokespeople are as good as anyone else’s, so you can’t be side-lined in favour of more ‘media-ready’ interviewees. Invest in good quality training for your people, and make sure you are as able to offer compelling case studies and statistics as the others on the team. Only then can you make a powerful case for being the one to feature on the Today Programme, for example.
4 – Establish a shared and fair approach to handling communications
It’s all very well getting the content together and your spokespeople ready, but if journalists and producers are all calling the press office of your largest or best-known member, then you’re at risk of never getting a look in. Conversations must be had early on about how to share out the media interest and give all members their chance to speak, so far as they want to or are able to. A process must be agreed that will allow swift and consistent responses to media enquiries, but that takes account of the needs, expectations and potential benefits for all involved. One more slot on Channel 4 News is always nice for a major household name, but it won’t make the same difference to them as it will to a small organisation that gets few chances to talk at such a level.
5 – Think about how you’ll wind it up
Coalitions often form around distinct projects or campaigns, and they work well in focusing attention in this way. But campaigns are often left floating around when the group has run its course, with no clear end or next steps communicated to all those who have been engaged in the process. It’s important to invest in telling people what you’ve achieved and what you’ll be doing now – particularly so for smaller organisations, who may not have another significant PR opportunity for some time.
Working with others always brings challenges, but there’s no doubt that if you approach coalitions in the right way, they can offer a huge platform for the specialist and front-line expertise of small-medium organisations. Make sure you make the most of them.