The Top 5 Things That Determine the Success of a Community Coalition

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#1. Leadership

In the many years that I have been working with community coalitions and collaboratives, choosing the right leader maybe the cornerstone that determines a coalition’s success. An effective coalition leader requires a combination of charisma, attention to detail, and someone who is a savvy politician. It takes charisma to attract and keep the community members needed to do the work. Because the coalition is likely funded by a cobbling of state and federal grants, all with their own rules and regulations, the coalition leader needs to be a detailed administrator. It takes a lot of work in order to meet all of the varied grant requirements and financial obligations. Finally, managing community stakeholders, all of whom have varied opinions, motivations and perhaps agendas, is challenging and requires political savvy.

#2. Make a plan, then stick to it (and change it if needed)

Ideally a community coalition’s change efforts will start with a comprehensive community assessment and data review. The coalition should conduct qualitative interviews with community members and leaders. The coalition should also take a deep dive into local data. Then, once the coalition (not just the staff) reviews and digests the data, they need to design a plan that truly reflects the needs and desires of the community. Then the coalition needs to stick with the plan. Ideas will come and go and crises happen. Sometimes, you need to tweak your plan in order to respond to the community’s needs. However, it’s important for the coalition to stay focused and avoid the shiny objects in the water. For example, if alcohol is the drug of choice among youth, the coalition should focus on that and understand the local conditions that support underage drinking. If the coalition is tasked by a funder to prevent substance misuse and abuse, they should not focus on treatment. I am not saying that other substances or the need for treatment are not important issues. But other community stakeholders likely lead in these areas. The coalition has limited time and resources and needs to think about where they spend their time and energy. We can think of similar examples for other types of coalitions. For example, a coalition that focuses on 3rd grade literacy but spends all of their time implementing programs that have nothing to do with literacy likely won’t move an indicator of improved 3rd grade reading levels. A community coalition needs to use good judgement before choosing what action to take and a focused leader to keep the coalition on track (See point 1).

#3. Nothing about us, without us

Way too many community coalitions commit the unforgiveable sin of not including community members. Involving professionals in the community is important. But involving the people the coalition intends to serve is critically important. So, for a substance abuse prevention coalition that focusses on youth, that means making sure students are engaged fully in the work of the coalition. Likewise, if the coalition is supposed to address low birth weight babies, then young women must be engaged.

#4. Focus on systems change

Too often prevention approaches and early intervention programs focus on the individual person. Sometimes, programs target community groups, by offering a community forum or parent education night. Although community education is important, changing knowledge is not sufficient for the kind of change we all want to see in our community.

A public health approach to prevention is one that considers the context of the problem and reaches as many people as possible. It also considers the social determinants of health, variables that are associated with where people live, work, play and pray.

At the heart of it, a public health approach requires systems change. Systems change means focusing on the structures, laws, policies and community attitudes that allow a social problem to happen. For example, let’s look at domestic violence. People often wonder why a woman stays in a violent relationship, but rarely do people ask what is it about our society that allows violence to flourish? How does how law enforcement and the judicial system respond to violence against women? How easy is it for women to access support? How do people feel about victims of interpersonal violence? Do they feel that the woman is to blame?

#5. The boring stuff – structure

Community members join, then stay in coalitions in order to make a difference in their community. People attracted to a community coalition tend to be passionate and anxious contribute to the work of bettering their community. But a coalition without a structure (that is, job descriptions, written by-laws, and an active steering committee that provides budget oversight and supervision for the coalition staff) is destined for trouble. We have seen work plans not implemented because a coalition director tried to do it all or just would not delegate the work to committees. We have seen coalitions nearly derailed because of disagreements between the fiscal agent and staff and financial mistakes made by staff that threatened funding. Butterfoss and Kegler’s (2002) Community Coalition Action Theory (CCAT) is helpful in guiding coalitions and helping them to avoid these and other pitfalls. We use the CCAT as a framework for understanding our coalition clients and assessing the health of the coalition. For one client, we created a coalition logic model using the CCAT model and used it to educate the coalition on what they need to do in order to position themselves for success. Have a community coalition and need some guidance? We’d love to help. You can reach us at

Butterfoss, FD, Kegler, MC. | In DiClemente, R, Crosby, L, Kegler, MC. (Eds.) Emerging Theories in Health Promotion Practice and Research. San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass Publishers, 2002, 157-193.