Coalitions have come to the forefront of campaigning in the past few years, but organisations need to make sure they are more than pointless talking shops, writes Radhika Holmstrom.
Both inside and outside the charity sector, 2005 will be remembered as the year of the white wristband. Its success showed how the Make Poverty History campaign, which came to the end of its planned one-year lifespan in January this year, got its deliberately simple message taken up by a huge cross-section of people.
It was possibly the most effective cross-organisational (and cross-sector) coalition in recent memory; the likes of Oxfam, ActionAid and Christian Aid have been campaigning on poverty issues for decades, but MPH managed to sweep up hundreds of like-minded organisations - some with no apparent links to the issues - to get its story to the top of the news agenda.
In many ways, this isn't new. Campaigning coalitions in the UK go back to the anti-slavery movements of the late 18th century, and the current legislation outlawing discrimination against disabled people is just one example of change that came about as the result of collaborative campaigning.
Campaigning at European level is almost entirely carried out through consortia and networks.
However, coalitions have become more sophisticated in recent years. "The third sector has come on in leaps and bounds," says Craig Bennett, head of corporate accountability at Friends of the Earth. "I spend as much time working with colleagues from other organisations as I do with colleagues from my own."
So is this type of campaigning going to become increasingly the norm?
There is an undoubted advantage in bringing together different organisations with different areas of expertise.
"Joint campaigning is a necessity for international issues such as poverty and the environment," says Glen Tarman, co-ordinator of the Trade Justice Movement, which was a key player in MPH and is now part of Core, the coalition for corporate responsibility. "Problems such as unfair trade and climate change cannot be solved by a few organisations or a handful of governments. They will be addressed only by mobilising millions of people to place massive pressure on decision-makers."
Bringing different perspectives to a campaign is crucial, according to Bennett, who is one of Tarman's colleagues at Core. "It's a bit like an eco-system, with many different species," he says. "There might be overlapping or different niches, but we need that diversity. In coalitions, we understand that other groups might be able to do things we can't, and co-ordinate work together. For example, there are small, pioneering NGOs working on agendas that aren't mainstream at the moment, but which will slowly influence the bigger organisations."
It's not simply an issue of strength in numbers; there's also an increasing trend to bring in partners from outside the voluntary sector, in a way that goes far beyond the broad appeal model of MPH. The Mental Health Alliance is a coalition of 60 service-user, professional, service provider, trade union and voluntary organisations that was set up in January 2000 to provide a focus for campaigning on reform of the Mental Health Act.
"Before this, it would have been highly unusual to see voluntary sector, user-led organisations at the same table as psychiatrists," says Celia Richardson, director of communications at the Mental Health Foundation.
The result is a far more effective lobbying force.
Bringing together this breadth of expertise and perspective means coalition campaigning serves to render any argument almost impervious to opposition - the policy debate usually goes through so many different stages that by the time it's reached a consensus it has debated pretty well any argument that can be thrown at it.
Tarman points out that it also puts campaigners in a position to counter what are effectively joint opposition campaigns. "Industry works in coalitions too," he says. " The other side might not look as if it's campaigning, but it is. In our case, we're trying to work around decades of orthodoxy on free trade and against an oppositional constituency that has set out to establish credibility for a set of ideas on international trade that are supported by the world's rich and powerful."
There are also distinct advantages for the person or organisation that the campaign is targeting. Liberal Democrat MP Paul Burstow, who has worked extensively with the Mental Health Alliance, says: "Speaking with one voice and giving one message really helps to frame and influence the debate. If, like the alliance, a coalition has the experiences and views of service users, providers and professionals, it will carry more weight."
So far, so good. However, not all consortia are exemplars of co-operation.
Some are pointless talking shops that revisit the same issues again and again, or thinly veiled attempts by big players to sweep up smaller ones while refusing to concede any ground. One campaigns officer, who asked not to be named, recalls "at least one homelessness consortium in which every third meeting or so we'd redefine our statement and purpose just to give ourselves a reason for being there. We never actually had any aims or specific things we were supposed to be doing. It's still going, and I imagine it's carrying on in exactly the same way."
Brian Lamb, executive director of communications at the RNID and chair of the Special Education Consortium, could hardly be described as anti-coalition. But he explains with refreshing frankness that "the real difficulty is when everyone comes together with the soggy idea that 'we'll be better together than separately'. Realistically, you need some clarity about why you're all there. Otherwise, you spend huge amounts of time delivering consensus around the lowest common denominator, without anyone being terribly happy about it.
"You do have to be brutally honest about whether it's worth doing, because even good consortia involve the very difficult job of balancing needs and keeping everyone on board," adds Lamb. "You can also get consortia that begin successfully but then stay together for the sake of it. MPH has taken a very brave but absolutely the right decision to step back."
So what makes a workable, effective coalition that acknowledges the different views of its members while synthesising them into a coherent, convincing message? The recommendations from different consortia are broadly similar, with an unsurprising emphasis on the importance of compromise and negotiation - especially when it comes to branding, which is often the area in which self-serving organisations become determined to take over.
"If you're part of a big group, it's essential that you police yourself to ensure that you don't dominate," Bennett insists. "You can't treat a coalition meeting in the same way you would an internal one, and don't take too many staff to each meeting - it should be one voice for each group.
"On the other hand, smaller groups need to be strong, robust and prepared to speak up to challenge bigger ones. If a small organisation gets involved in a big coalition, it really does need to hold its sway and be confident about its own expertise and what it's bringing to the party." It's also important to acknowledge that there are times when it's more effective for individual members to work independently with their own constituents.
Paul Farmer, director of public affairs at Rethink, chief executive designate at Mind and chair of the Mental Health Alliance, stresses the need to retain focus on a consortium's primary purpose. "At the alliance, we're single-minded about the fact that we work on the reform of mental health legislation," he says. "There have been occasions when we've been asked to work in other areas, and we've said no.
"It's important to have good internal communications. We have about 75 member organisations, and we put a lot of emphasis on communicating with them. A simple structure is essential - some alliances drown under their own bureaucracy, whereas I think we've tried hard to make sure that it's clear where decisions are made, how people can become involved and how they can support us."
In fact, some suggest that the most effective consortia have their own secretariats - not a separate body, but a dedicated office with its own staff.
Coalitions may not be the sole way forward, but it's clear that they will be at the forefront of campaigning in the next few years. Many of those already on the ground show no signs of slacking; the networks behind MPH are reforming in alliances for joint campaigning, and last September a new alliance arrived in the form of Stop Climate Chaos, which aims to bring together a popular, broad-based coalition to "create an irresistible public mandate for political action to stop human-induced climate change".
The 20 members of SCC range from the World Development Movement to the National Federation of Women's Institutes. Its director, Ashok Sinha, who used to co-ordinate the Jubilee Debt Campaign and is well versed in the ways of consortia, sums up the new coalition as "an exercise in diplomacy and in ensuring that everyone knows why we're involved in different strands of work".
Bringing different groups and perspectives together is crucial to preventing the campaign being dismissed as a marginal green issue, says Sinha. "We are trying to reach out to the broadest swathe of society," he says. "We can genuinely say 'this is not about the particular interests of green lobbyists; it's the view from many perspectives that come together'. You can make your message more powerful if you have a coalition expressing it.
"There are always going to be challenges - people feel passionately about the issues that matter to them and the paths they want to follow, and they do lose ground from time to time. But you're there because you want to see impact. There's a lot to be gained."
The message from the other alliances is much the same. This type of work takes time, energy and concessions - but ultimately, and most importantly, it can build up sufficient pressure to effect change.
TESCOPOLY: A COALITION OF LOCAL CAMPAIGNS
The Tescopoly alliance is a rather different coalition: it involves major players such as Friends of the Earth, but it also brings together a network of local campaigns, each focused on fighting Tesco developments in their local areas.
So far, they haven't worked together on concerted action. But being linked together has enabled separate campaigns to tackle the same multinational, as Norwich campaigner Chris Hull explains. "It has struck us how easy it is for Tesco to 'pick off' each site on the assumption that local campaigns stay local and don't talk to other groups around the country," he says.
"Linking up has helped us see the bigger picture of what usually happens, the tactics we might encounter and what we should do to counter them. We've also started sharing ideas for campaigning, getting media attention and so on. It reinforces the fact that we are, generally, barking up the right tree and it's beginning to redress our disadvantage - we're part of something bigger ourselves, and we're not working in isolation."