Creating Communities of Support: The Work of Coalition-Building
(Rachel VerWys, Center for Religion and Civic Culture, University of Southern California, 2004)
“I can’t think of one [collaborative] that is not valuable,” asserted a senior administrator at a CatholicCommunity Center in the eastern U.S. This administrator is not alone. Most of the faith-based human service administrators interviewed by the FASTEN project affirm the value of partnerships among public and private agencies in delivering services for participants.
Scholars note how rare it is for human service organizations to succeed without the cooperation of secondary players outside the organization (Rapp and Poertner 1992). One study concluded that organizations standing alone simply do not have the capacity to provide what is needed for participants who almost always experience multiple hardships and vulnerabilities (Perkins, Borden, and Knox 1999).
For these reasons, it behooves faith-based human service administrators to assign a high priority to coalition-building. Leaders should also be clear about what is required in creating and sustaining networks of cooperating organizations. Successful coalition-building relies on informed, consistent, intentional practice. It is not easy work, but its benefits can be substantial.
During the past two decades, researchers (Doherty, 2000; Perkins, Borden, and Knox, 1999; Thompson et al., 2003) have attempted to identify elements that are present in all (or, at least, most) successful coalition-building strategies. Here are a few of their conclusions:
- Relationships. Personal relationships among program administrators are the cornerstone for networking and collaborative agreements (Perkins, Borden, and Knox, 1999). Relationships take time. They require repeated conversations and frequent occasions for working and planning together. That is how shared visions and common purposes emerge.
- Dedication. Doherty (2000) speaks about the importance of long-term dedication among staff members to the collaborative enterprise. It takes time for leaders from the different organizations in the coalition to grow confident that that they can count on their colleagues to supply needed services. Over time, they recognize that that they are not in competition with these colleagues in their efforts to recruit clients; indeed, their new partners may become sources for new referrals. Long-term commitments are also essential because of the extended time it often takes for change and transformation to occur in participants’ lives or in distressed target communities. Coalition members must be in it for the long haul, patiently awaiting the fruits of their labors. That requires special people. A staff person with the CatholicCommunity Center admitted that she was “overwhelmed” by the intense dedication of network colleagues to helping each participant.
- Trust. Trust facilitates communication and thus creates a willingness and commitment to identify with the collaboration (Perkins, Borden, & Knox, 1999). Trust is nurtured, these authors suggest, when members of the collaborative network together produce a written document specifying their enterprise’s mission, expectations, and terms for exchanging resources. An administrator at Muslim free clinic we studied noted they mostly use memorandums of understanding so that the roles of the clinic and collaborating universities are explained and “those responsibilities are very clear.” This formal communication, while necessary, is still insufficient. This program’s administrator emphasized that trust is cultivated and maintained through constant communication: “Make sure there is constant exchange of information; that it is not just one sided [and that] one organization doesn’t just benefit from the other.”
- Shared Knowledge. Knowledge of the community’s history, its strengths, and its needs is a vital element within the process of building successful collaborative relationships. This may include simply sharing information. A Pennsylvania faith-based administrator benefited from this type of collaboration, noting that their partner “shared demographic information, they shared suggestions with us, and they contribute a lot of the information we pass out. They let us know whenever there are activities in the community.” Sharing knowledge also may involve building a deeper, common understanding. Buried, unacknowledged memories of past resentments and/or of injustices negatively affect current efforts to work together. Leaders of cooperating organizations cement their relationships when they listen to each other and to community members—i.e., when they take the time to cultivate a shared memory. In this process, the virtues of flexibility and openness build trust among cooperating organizations (Thompson et al. (2003).
- Leadership. Collaborative efforts require strong leaders who will move the cooperating organizations toward shared goals and objectives, according to Perkins, Borden, and Knox. Successful collaborative leaders focus on relationship-building, but they never lose sight of the fact that these relationships are intentional and goal-directed. The head of the Pennsylvania faith-based organization communicated that one measure of their organizational performance is “ the contacts we make with other organizations…We are seeing our name pop up on people’s brochures that we are one of their collaborating agencies…Those are good indicators. [And] our board is connected throughout the community.”
- Assessment. Finally, Perkins, Borden, and Knox argue that an ongoing process of assessment is always present in successful networking. Assessment is the vehicle through which networks maintain and reinforce their shared visions and missions. Clarity about how success will be measured is essential to the network’s health. A Los Angeles collaboration between a faith-based welfare to work program and a local bank, for example, is deliberate about measuring the success of their collaboration. The welfare to work program tracks participants and keeps case notes that indicate the success of the participant working with the bank’s employment program.
DePree, H. (1986). Business As Unusual. Zeeland: Herman Miller.
Doherty, W. (2000). Family science and family citizenship: Toward a model of community partnership with families. Family Relations, 49 (3), 319-325.
Perkins, D. E, Borden, O., & Knox, A. (1999). Two critical factors in collaboration on behalf of children, youth, and families. Journal of Family and Consumer
Sciences, 91 (2), 73-78.
Rapp, C. & Poertner, J. (1992). Social Administration: A client centered approach. New York: Longman.
Thompson, M. et al. (2003). Facilitators of well-functioning consortia: National health start program lessons. Health & Social Work, 28 (3). 185-195.
This is part of a series of Thumbnail Case Studies authored by the FASTEN research team and released by Baylor University School of Social Work as part of a 30-month research project funded by the Pew Charitable Trusts. This project is designed to identify the factors that contribute to the effectiveness of faith-based organizations (FBOs) in addressing problems of urban poverty. Baylor is leading this project with researchers from BaylorUniversity’s business school, the schools of social work at the University of Pittsburgh and VirginiaCommonwealthUniversity, and the Center for Religion and Civic Culture at the University of Southern California.
A team of researchers from these four universities have interviewed various stakeholders from fifteen (15) promising faith-based programs in four United States cities. This ends the data collection portion of Phase I of a grounded theory research project in which participants, board members, administrators, program coordinators, and collaborators in these fifteen programs have been interviewed face-to-face.
The findings of this first phase will be the foundation for a quantitative national survey designed to determine the extent to which the grounded theory that emerges in the project’s first phase can be applied nationally across the diversity of faith-based social services in the United States. The Hudson Institute and the Center for Faith and Service of the National Crime Prevention Council (NCPC), Baylor’s partners in this project, are disseminating the findings of this research through the creation of the Faith & Service Technical Education Network (FASTEN).
This essay represents some of the findings from the FASTEN research project that are relevant to the planning and delivery of services by faith-based organizations. The piece was authored by Rachel VerWys (with the Center for Religion and Civic Culture at the University of Southern California) with the FASTEN Research Team.