Non-profits In A Trump Era: How To Build And Strengthen Coalitions

How do we grow a stronger political base, inspire long-term action, and hold the line for the next four years on so many fronts?
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This is the second post in a four-part series on how liberal and progressive non-profits can overcome the challenges of the Trump era.

What does the Trump era mean for U.S.-based progressive and liberal non-profits? Hints: Within just ten days of Donald Trump's victory, the Southern Poverty Law Center documented 867 bias-related incidents directed at black children, immigrants, and gays, while our future Secretary of Health and Human Services has led opposition to the Affordable Care Act. In short, we'll be busy. But how do we avoid being too overwhelmed by the challenges of the Trump administration on issues ranging from hate crimes and reproductive rights to Middle East policy and climate change? How do we grow a stronger political base, inspire long-term action, and hold the line for the next four years on so many fronts?


In a year characterized by schism on all parts of the political spectrum, the need for broad justice-oriented coalitions has become obvious. Rather than having non-profits work only within the silos of their movements, this is the time to find greater common purpose across issues. Not only will such organizing defend against the inevitable policy assaults, but it will also build political alliances, enable the pooling of resources, and promote the coordination of strategies. These coalitions should include environmentalists, feminists, civil rights and civil liberties groups, labor unions, immigrants' rights organizations, LGBTQI advocates, inter-faith groups and others whose missions will be challenged.

Building such broad-based coalitions will surely be politically daunting because of the need to find sufficient common ground. For example, why should an environmental or conservation organization support a "controversial" issue such as reproductive health and choice? The answer: global consensus recognizes the interconnectedness of these concerns -- sustainable economic development must take both people and our one planet into account. Another, more surprising, political task: Why should American women join a coalition across racial and class lines? The answer: Women face many shared challenges -- pay equity, maternity leave policies, violence, access to child care and reproductive rights and health -- that need to be addressed collectively.


Are there any successful models that leaders can turn to when building such far-reaching alliances? At the United Nations, NGOs from around the world and from diverse issue areas have been coming together as a coalition to advocate for their concerns. Starting in the mid-1990s, NGOs from sectors spanning women's rights, environment, conservation, human rights, global development and population -- to just name a few -- have been building coalitions that ultimately resulted in global blueprints for sustainable development and the foundation for current discussions around climate change. This type of coalition has had to morph, negotiate every step of the way, and incorporate new views to ensure a united international front.

Closer to home, an example of a successful coalition is the wide range of non-profits that worked together to restore U.S. funding for the United Nations Population Fund when, starting in 2002, President George W Bush withheld the $34 million that Congress had allocated to this multilateral agency. President Obama finally restored U.S. funding for UNFPA in 2008.

In my experience then and since, I have come to recognize four key principles that drive such coalition building.

Principle #1: Be Strategic
Not all coalitions are equal and their power and success will vary considerably based on core strategic choices. Some key questions to consider: What goals are we trying to achieve? Is this a short- or long-term coalition? What trade-offs are there between a narrower agenda and a broader one? What resources can we share and how? What is our organizational functioning and structure?

Principle #2: Be Inclusive and Expansive
Coalitions should actively try to recruit both the least and most powerful in their communities and to ensure that these members are diverse. They should also try to be inclusive by allowing all who endorse their mission to join. In addition, the words used to describe the effort are crucial, and accommodations should be made, particularly when English is not a community's first language. In considering digital outreach strategies, it is vital to ensure that the work plan bridges the digital divide.

Principle #3: Be Versatile
The issues facing liberal and progressive non-profits in the Trump era will need to traverse the local, regional, national and international. An effective coalition must therefore be versatile in acting at these multiple levels and be agile in including new voices and members.

Principle #4: Be Hopeful
In these challenging political times, it is important that a coalition provide the gift of hope -- the hope that its success will enable its members to feel that most problems can be effectively addressed. Coalitions have a unique ability to increase the confidence of their members as they face daunting odds.

As suggested in my first post in this series, progressive non-profits are poised to scale up and be visionary leaders. As this sector rises to greater strength, creating effective broad-based coalitions will further enable it to deploy an additional successful strategy to achieve success in the Trump era. We need our non-profit sector to be strong, connected, and united in defining our future.

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