Many Hands Working to Achieve Lasting Change

Laurie Schell • AdvocacyOctober 2022 • October 13, 2022

Collective Impact
Collective Impact can help communities accomplish big things in arts education. The term “collective impact” has been associated primarily with a programmatic approach to systems change through public investments. Not generally structured for advocacy or policy outcomes, collective impact is gaining traction with successful programs such as those funded by the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA).

In my tenure at Music Makes Us in Metro Nashville Public Schools, our team developed successful Collective Impact projects that brought community organizations together with the school district to achieve greater access to arts education. Collective Impact projects in arts education have successfully moved small projects to a larger, more goal- and partnership-driven stage. That said, they are not necessarily set up to achieve long-term, policy-driven systemic change. For that to happen, a coalition is the more appropriate structure.

Coalitions ‘R Us
Coalition building creates the same sense of cross-sector engagement and shared decision making as collective impact projects. Coalitions may be more suitable for encouraging authentic collaboration over time.

Coalitions, if properly structured and maintained, look beyond the single project, and can set both short-term and long-range goals, be self-regulating, sustainable, and adhere to values that are rigorously collaborative.

Strategic and Structural Elements That Enable Effective Coalitions

The reasons behind coalition start-ups vary. For example, ArtsEd Tennessee, where I serve as a founding board member, was created as a coalition in 2017 to fill an arts education policy and advocacy gap. Here are some considerations for all types and sizes of coalitions.

Strategic Elements
Statement of purpose or mission (What is the work of the group?)

Vision statement (If the purpose is realized, what does success look like?)

Rationale for forming the coalition (Why is it important to work as a coalition?)

Key stakeholders (Who are the core members of the coalition? Do they represent a diversity of voices?)

Context/history (What is the history of this issue in the local context?)

Beliefs (What are the core value statements that serve as a touchstone in determining policy, budgetary and policy priorities?)

Outcomes (How will outcomes be measured?)

Structural Elements
Structurally, independent coalitions need not be complex or high budget operations. Start-up coalitions can work well when managed by volunteers.  ArtsEd Tennessee was founded by a former music educator in 2017. A statewide coalition dedicated to ensuring every Tennessee student has access to a comprehensive and sequential arts education (dance, music, theatre, visual art), the focus is on promoting supportive arts education policies and essential funding at the state level and building advocacy capacity at the local level. It is led by a volunteer board (no paid staff) of educators, business, and community leaders from across the state.

Note: It is not necessary to secure 501(c)3 nonprofit status to form a coalition. However, nonprofit status may be useful as the coalition’s work becomes more formalized.

No matter the size or level of formality of your coalition, a coalition leader may consider some of the following structural elements as they begin their work: 

Values play an important part in determining the “right” coalition model.

Budgetary Considerations. Expense budgets may be minimal, especially in the early stages of a coalition. Expenses incurred are typically for communications (online platforms, graphic design), project management, and contractors for project work. Amounts will vary by locale.

Revenue Options. Operating as a network with shared goals means shared fundraising. Start small by encouraging those closest to the issue to make a financial contribution.

Operations. Key functions important to long term success are: designated leader, fiscal sponsor/treasurer, chief communicator.

Measuring Success. Affirm a shared commitment of effort and goals/objectives among key members. Provide an annual check-up to assess progress.

Advocates work continuously to align a vision of the ideal with the reality of the everyday. The iterative work of coalitions means continuous improvising, evolving, building the plane after take-off, and that’s a good thing. 

Strategery– a mash-up between strategic and wizardry– happens when coalitions are flexible, committed to authentic collaboration, and open to possibilities.

Laurie Schell is a lifelong advocate for music and arts education. She is founding principal of ElevateArtsEd, providing consulting services and issue expertise with a focus on arts education.

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