Building coalitions for social change amid political turmoil

By Mike Wang
|
03 / 05 / 21

“We just can’t work with them anymore. Their political views are repugnant, even if they were with us before…” 

“…But they’ve been an ally on our issue. We can’t afford to lose them. We should just look past the areas where we disagree…” 

I hear this exchange play out again and again, and never more than in the aftermath of the most rancorous election in recent history. 

Philanthropists and the nonprofits they fund are asking, Where do we draw the line when it comes to who we will work with? What happens when our partners are on the other side of divisive issues or hold objectionable political views?

There are no simple answers to these questions. 

On the one hand, most experienced advocates recognize that lasting change is most likely to happen through broad-based coalitions, even when that means partnering across lines of ideological difference. Being too ideologically pure about who you’re willing to work with can limit your effectiveness.

On the other hand, there are times when working with those whose words and actions run counter to your goals can result in more harm than good. As an example, I’ve noticed that some political leaders who believe that school systems do not serve Black students well have also supported measures to disenfranchise Black voters; to engage in the latter undermines the former. And we shouldn’t be afraid to call that out. 

How can funders and the nonprofits they support navigate this tension? 

Focus on the issue, rather than picking a team.

Coalition partners working together on specific issues must be able to differ — sometimes vocally — on other issues. True, you may ruffle some feathers along the way, but savvy funders, politicians, and nonprofits recognize that ideological purity doesn’t get results. It is critical for funders, in particular, to consider the power dynamic between themselves and their grantees and create space for grantees who hold different views. In turn, grantees shouldn’t forget the power they have to engage with funders to challenge and shape their perspective. Grantees who refuse funding because of ideological differences with their donors could forfeit an opportunity to change the perspectives of those funders. 

Get crystal clear around the problem you are solving for.

Then use that clarity to figure out what lines you simply cannot cross in order to remain in service of your cause. Alliances of convenience focused more on, say, a particular policy than on solving a problem at its root run the risk of undermining their own long-term objectives for expediency’s sake. Most coalitions have little trouble finding common ground, but the trick to making coalitions sustainable is understanding where partners disagree and when those disagreements will stand in the way of collaboration. 

Revisit the question of whether and how to work together often.

The political conditions that shape how we create change evolve constantly. It may be effective to work with one group today and not tomorrow. Regularly reassess your landscape and adjust your strategy accordingly. Find new allies who were previously opponents and recognize that when a longstanding partnership begins to undermine your credibility or your cause, it may be time to move on. 

Political partisanship and single-issue litmus tests are overly simplistic and unhelpful frameworks when it comes to creating lasting change. At the same time, a shared past or political affiliation shouldn’t lock you in to an unhelpful partnership. Knowing when to partner and when to break with those partners is an essential skill for funders and change agents who want to maximize their impact. 

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