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Questions for consideration

• Is the coalition an informal or formal organisation? Is this structure appropriate for the aims that it is trying to achieve?

• Does the structure need to incorporate thematic groups? Would doing so help to provide focus for individual interests?

• How do resources affect the structure of the coalition?

• Where should the coalition be housed in order to avoid dependency on or leadership by a single organisation?

• Has the legal structure been chosen in order to obtain funding? Does this have an impact on how the coalition functions?

• How have the coalition’s structure and stimuli evolved? Where would you like to see it positioned in the future?

Coalitions can be categorised according to whether their structure is formal or informal. Although these distinctions are not clear cut – in reality coalitions lie at some point along a continuum between formality and informality, and may move along this continuum during their history – the distinction is helpful in understanding how different coalitions work. At their extreme, formal coalitions have an executive committee and secretariat and are strongly supported by a facilitating agency (either a funder or INGO) in terms of resources.

Conversely, at the other end of this continuum, very informal coalitions are loose collaborations that have no executive committee or secretariat. They rely on the voluntary contributions of members’ time and resources.

The intended aims of a coalition (should) determine the formality of a coalition’s structure. Coalitions set up to address long-term issues with interrelated activities and foci (such as ‘education’ coalitions to address EFA goals) may require a permanent secretariat to manage the process. In such cases, their durability and formalised structure may be just as important as the ability to disseminate information, mobilise a broad range of support and share roles and responsibilities, as permanence can give the coalition clout and leverage at the policy table. Conversely, those set up to address a specific objective, such as a particular policy implementation issue, may be short-term, demand less of their members, and therefore be adequately organised through voluntary contributions of time and resources (CSO representatives). In such cases, once the objective has been reached, the coalition may disband; as an NGO director stated, ‘It should be possible to have a coalition that is built on particular issues and break up when that objective is met. They do not have to have a legal body but the coming together itself must be legal’.

Another factor that shapes the coalition’s structure is the scale and reach that the coalition intends. Broad representation and inclusion of many NGOs and CSOs may necessitate a national secretariat and district representatives to coordinate the coalition. But district divisions of the coalition may also start operating independently.

There are strengths and weaknesses to both formal and informal structures. For example, in the case of an informal structure: a loose forum can lack the means to strategise activities and, similarly, ‘because some international coalitions are  loose, nebulous organisations, it’s hard to know what you’re dealing with, who you’re dealing with and what their status should be. When someone comes to meet you it’s hard to know what hat they are wearing’. Thus it may be necessary to formalise the structure in order to secure the ear of the government where a loose collective of organisations may not be seen as sufficiently serious or organised. But while a highly formalised structure may be necessary to coordinate activities in line with a coalition’s aims, and to accommodate and coordinate growing numbers of members, formal structures also have their problems.

‘A lot of networks at the peak, flush with funds, become institutionalised and invest in assets. This becomes too constraining and builds a bureaucracy which is very unmanageable and inflexible’.

Experience therefore suggests that much of the success of a coalition has to do with whether the organisational form fits with the function, within the specific context. ‘Those coalitions that are set up by civil society and grow organically from the centre rather than being artificially constructed by an external agent such as the government or donor, with a managerial structure imposed upon them are less likely to be weak and, consequently, more likely to succeed.

The structure of these coalitions is influenced by their origins and the nature of their agenda. In turn, the structure shapes the work that these coalitions undertake, how members and secretariats interact, and plays a key role in the coalition’s achievements.

As mentioned above, in practice coalitions move between different points on the continuum. Frequently, but not always, the direction of movement is from a more informal to a more formal coalition, but with the stimulus for action (developing from the motivations for establishment) becoming more national rather than international.

While there are a range of factors that shape the structure of a coalition, the most significant issue for reflection is whether (and how) the coalition’s structure tallies with its aims. Scrutiny of this issue is central to ensuring the efficiency and effectiveness of a coalition, to streamlining potentially over-bureaucratised coalitions, and to maximising their prospective impact. An important point within this, however, is how the coalition may have changed over time and whether the structure has shifted at a similar pace, becoming either less or more formal. (As alluded to above, shifts in the latter direction are much more common than the former.)

This information has been drawn from the CEF's report Driving the bus: the journey of national education coalitions.