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The Case for Creative Coalitions in a Time of Turmoil

By Nick Martlew

Imagine a country’s Olympics team getting all mixed up. The swimmers end up in the sprint and the cyclists are handed javelins. There’s a wrestler on a horse and a gymnast with a tennis racket.

I’m no sports guru – my knees are better suited to physical comedy than physical exercise – but I still think that’s no recipe for success.

Right now, in response to the myriad faces of political turmoil in the world, new collaborations or networks are being designed – but too often they end up in this approach that mismatches expertise and impact. There’s a truly inspiring surge of activism, and with that can come the drive for all to be involved everywhere. This is understandable. Whether it’s to shape Brexit in my native Britain or to tackle corruption in South Africa, when people or organisations volunteer their time for a coalition, there’s an impulse to want to respond to this appetite. But how can we channel all this energy to have the greatest possible impact for the cause?

The first question you ask when building or reshaping a network can determine whether you end up with right talent having the most impact. Too often the starting point is: we are organisation x, what can we do?

On the face of it, it’s a reasonable question. And the current political disorder means that a lot of organisations and individuals are asking it of themselves.

An alternative approach to social entrepreneurship turns this question on its head. A memorable failure inspired the idea. In 2003, a million people took to the London streets to prevent the UK’s involvement in the invasion of Iraq. Scores of slogans on the placards. No common strategy. No impact.

Guy Hughes, a young activist, reflected on this damning failure of collective action and saw that it started from the wrong question, an often ego-driven question: what can I do? A far more effective strategy, and the basis for collaboration, is to instead answer ‘what needs to be done?’. Invariably the answer is complex, requiring mutually reinforcing constellations of actors, each playing to their strengths, and each made stronger by the new links forged across and beyond the ecosystem.

These clever coalitions don’t come about by accident: they need a low-ego strategic convener – a systems entrepreneur – to catalyze and coordinate smart, collective action. By building mini coalitions that work alongside one another, you are able to avoid the Achilles heel of coalition working: descent to the lowest common denominator, sacrificing impact in pursuit of everyone agreeing.

To assume that role of the strategic convener requires that potential coalition members trust you: they must empower you to craft the constellations of action that will have the greatest impact.

You can supercharge that trust with one radical decision: seek no public profile. If you work behind the scenes, you serve the cause, not the organisational ego.

The idea – that a strategic convener acting behind the scenes to build clever coalitions can transform the impact of a network – led to a new social enterprise, Crisis Action (a Skoll Awardee for Social Entrepreneurship in 2013). Indeed, this was an early model of systems entrepreneurship, an approach with a buzz around it now, as organisations and donors seek maximum impact from their networked collaborations.

We’ve tried and tested this model at Crisis Action. Our work with the best peacebuilding, humanitarian, and human rights organisations in the world has seen families protected by peacekeepers in Central African Republic, and Syrians receiving aid for the first time in years.

As we all grapple with the current political turmoil, the applications are endless. That’s why we’ve just produced a free new resource, Creative Coalitions: A Handbook for Change, to help others pick up this idea and apply it in their work.

“Marginalization, hatred, violence – the injustices people are trying to tackle today are immense and numerous”, says Sally Osberg. “I’m really excited to see how much more change people across the social justice ecosystem can bring about when this model is scaled out and applied to other issues.”

To take on the tumult of today so we can leave the world a fairer place for those who come after, we all need to be at our best. Each of us needs to devote our energy where we can have greatest impact. Whatever struggle you’re in, think back to the Olympic team: let’s get the hurdlers hurdling and the canoeists canoeing, and let’s see how much more change we can all make.

Image (cc) Paul Sableman

 

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