June 28, 2016

Eight keys to success in building an effective coalition

Marissa Chmiola
Communications Officer

Editor’s note: This is the second post in a two-part series on the history of GHTC and lessons learned by the organization in coalition building. The series coincides with the launch of a case study examining GHTC as a model of successful coalition building in the global health space. The first post explores the history of GHTC.

"If everyone is moving forward together, then success takes care of itself." ~ Henry Ford

Inspiring words. But if you have ever worked with a group before, you know, getting everyone moving forward together is a task that is easier said than done.

Through our over a decade of experience building and operating a coalition for global health research and development (R&D) advocacy, GHTC staff and members have learned a lot about what it takes to enable a group of organizations to work together effectively as a coalition to enact policy change. While there is no silver bullet that guarantees smooth sailing in building a coalition, there are value systems and operating structures that can be put in place from the start to make the journey less choppy.

From interviews with current and former staff and members, we’ve pulled together a list of what we think are the top eight keys to success for building an effective coalition.

1. Establish a core set of shared principles 

You can only move forward together if you first agree on what direction to take. GHTC learned this early in our coalition’s formation. As GHTC achieved initial success and membership ballooned, it became increasingly challenging for the coalition to achieve consensus and agree on areas of advocacy to pursue. To counter this paralysis, GHTC established terms of reference to define the principles that would guide the coalition’s advocacy agenda and a membership application requiring all members to endorse those terms. “Having terms of reference and a clear vision for members is key,” said Kaitlin Christenson, former founding director of GHTC. “It helps members understand what they can expect from the secretariat of [the] coalition and agree on issues of focus—what the coalition’s purpose is and is not and what it will and will not pursue.” Establishing these principles early ensured that GHTC’s work could move forward in areas of agreement, rather than stagnating around sources of dissension.

2. Pursue membership diversity

While it is important to agree to a set of common principles, it is equally as critical to ensure that a wide range of perspectives is represented among a coalition’s membership. GHTC has benefitted from a broad membership base of global health R&D actors and stakeholders who have experience in different health and technology areas and across the continuum of product development. Not only does this ensure that GHTC truly represents the voice of the global health R&D community, but it expands the coalition’s understanding of complex policy issues, enabling GHTC to knowledgably speak to and advocate for policies that could strengthen global health R&D.

3. Identify the right convening organization

It is critical to choose a convening organization or secretariat that not only has resources to serve as a convener, but also one whose interests are best aligned with the coalition’s mission and best insulate the coalition from internal schisms.

As GHTC’s founding members worked to transition from an ad-hoc group of collaborators to a formalized coalition, PATH was selected to serve as secretariat. This choice was strategic. PATH was the only member that conducts R&D across a large number of technology platforms and health and disease areas. Thus, the selection of PATH as convener helped protect the coalition from fracturing along the lines of disease or health area and has ensured that its activities do not promote the importance of one member’s perspective or area of R&D over another. This has helped engender critical trust between the secretariat staff and coalition members.

4. Elect a representative steering committee

Establishment of a representative steering committee has been critical to GHTC’s ability to make informed decisions and translate those decisions quickly and efficiently into action. GHTC’s steering committee is elected by members with seats on the committee reserved for different types of GHTC member organizations (product developers, advocacy organizations, etc.), thus ensuring it is representative of the breadth of the coalition’s membership. The committee is a critical forum and mechanism for strategy development and guidance without depending on consensus from every coalition member for every decision.

5. Remain transparent and member driven

Decision-making within GHTC’s organizational structure is an intentionally transparent process—every GHTC member has the opportunity to offer an opinion on a decision or policy position through surveys, calls for feedback, or open discussion, even if it means that GHTC avoids taking a stance in an issue area in response to member disagreements. As a result, members have remained engaged and invested in GHTC’s work, preserving the strength of the coalition’s collective voice.

“GHTC is very good at giving its members a chance to provide input,” said Jodie Curtis, executive vice president at District Policy Group and a consultant who works closely with GHTC. “There are no hidden agendas, no sense that GHTC [secretariat staff] wants to hold all the power; it is a very transparent organization.” To remain member driven, GHTC staff prioritize regular communication with members through regular meetings and more informal interactions.

6. Secure a dedicated staff and source of funding

In its earlier days the coalition was constrained because its members were not able to dedicate the consistent amount of time and resources needed to maximize its effectiveness. In 2009, PATH received a grant from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation to fund GHTC which enabled it to hire full-time, dedicated staff to manage day-to-day activities. Having this dedicated staff allows GHTC’s members to focus on contributing to the coalition’s overall strategy and advocacy content and amplifying its work and ensures all members have the capacity to remain up to date on and involved in the coalition’s activities.

7. Conduct active education and relationship-building efforts

A coalition is only as strong as its connections and relationships. GHTC’s staff prioritizes relationship building with key decision-makers and their staff, meeting regularly with them and organizing meetings and events where they can interface with GHTC members. Members also appreciate the direct access these relationship-building efforts offer them. “As a member, it certainly helped to have others who were strolling the halls of Congress more frequently than we were and who knew how to get a lot of things done in DC,” said Holly Wong, principal deputy assistant secretary for Global Affairs at the US Department of Health and Human Services and former vice president at IAVI—a GHTC member. “It was like having an extra staffer to run those advocacy activities for us.”

8. Stay connected to the broader advocacy community

While GHTC maintains its focus on R&D advocacy, its staff and members are constantly working to understand the broader global health landscape, including development aid infrastructure and systemic issues, and to make sure the coalition has a seat at the right tables it needs to exercise influence. GHTC attends external functions and joins other coalitions and working groups as a member, not only to ensure that the voice of global health R&D is heard in these forums, but also to learn more about what is happening in other areas of the field and how it can shape its priorities to better support the changing environment. “To be effective, a coalition needs to make an effort to be an active member of the broader global health sector,” said Christenson.

Posted in: