Using legislative coalitions to win

October 2006

State veterinary medical associations (VMAs) often partner with other organizations and interest groups to support or defeat legislative or regulatory proposals. Depending on the issue, pet owners, farm producers, groomers, kennels, shelters, animal products and drug manufacturers, and even humane groups can provide support to veterinary medicine's position.

It's likely that your association has developed relationships with some of these groups over the years, and contacting them isn't very difficult. You can also ask the AVMA, which maintains contacts at the national level, or other state or allied VMAs, for suggested organizations that may be interested in your issue.

There are other ways to find potential coalition allies. One is a simple Internet search for other groups talking about a particular issue. You can also talk with legislative committee staffers to find out who else is calling them. Finally, an association directory in your state may reveal names that suggest a likely interest in your issue.

Benefits of a coalition

Associations form or join coalitions to accomplish together what they cannot do alone. Coalitions are formed in the hopes of capitalizing on strength in numbers and the strengths of each member. This applies to political clout as well as expertise, staff resources and funding.

A broad-based coalition can help small organizations reach more legislators and get the legislative leadership's attention. Reaching more legislators is easier when more organizations share the load. A coalition often creates new relationships and establishes alliances that serve various purposes. Also, the united front of a coalition is more likely to impress decision makers and the news media.

Obstacles to consider

As beneficial as coalitions can be, they are not always possible or practical. Partners may have difficulty in reaching consensus and tough compromises may be necessary. The need for approvals from individual entities on positions and strategy can slow down a group. Differences can easily appear on a range of matters, including goals, strategies and the division of responsibility. The focus must be on the group, not a single member, which may lead to loss of ownership on an issue. The large egos of those who want to be the stars can present problems too.

Some practical suggestions

Some coalitions work easily together, while others never seem to get off the ground. Below are some time-tested tips to making coalition-building a part of a successful advocacy campaign.

1. Develop a concise mission statement. A representative core group should draft a mission or consensus statement representative of the participating organizations' positions and what they hope to achieve. The statement should be brief - it is much easier for people to coalesce around a few critical issues - but broad enough to garner ample support.

2. Select the structure. Coalitions are generally temporary and loosely organized around a common goal or set of objectives. Some long-term coalitions are more formally structured by establishing bylaws and becoming incorporated to take advantage of tax-exempt status.

3. Determine funding and roles. If financial contributions are necessary to sustain the activities of the coalition, members need to make a commitment and provide some start-up funds. The amount that each member contributes must also be worked out early. It is not uncommon in larger coalitions for members to contribute at different levels; members of a coalition's governing board might contribute at one level, while other participants pay less.

Members must also determine their level of involvement upfront so there are no surprises later. Choices include simply lending a name, playing an active role, or assuming a leadership role. Agree on a projected timeframe for the coalition and coordinate the responsibilities of all members. Logistics such as meeting dates should also be addressed in the organizational stage.

4. Communicate on a regular basis. Whether building or maintaining a coalition, continued success requires regular communication. To be successful, time must be spent on nurturing the coalition. Regular e-mail, conference calls, and occasional in-person contact build trust among coalition members, facilitate exchange of information and help the coalition achieve its mission more quickly. It's advisable to set monthly performance goals and schedule regular meetings.

VMAs are encouraged to consider using coalitions as part of their advocacy arsenal. Getting help from like-minded organizations is an important tool that should not be ignored. There are many examples where collaboration with outside groups proved crucial in averting a negative outcome. The AVMA State Legislative and Regulatory Affairs Department is available for consultation if you are considering starting or participating in a coalition.