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The Value of Coalitions

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I get frustrated with individuals and groups who give up on good ideas “because we don’t have any money.”

I’ve seen it time and again:

  • The ag teacher who never invested in planning an expansion for his course offerings because “he knew there wouldn’t be any money to fund it.”
  • The principal who wanted an additional staff person devoted to keeping middle schoolers caught up on their homework assignments, he never really expected it to happen.
  • The school board who gave up on ever trying to improve high school library facilities because “the community would never allow the tax increase necessary to pay for the remodeling.”

Do you see the pattern here?  In each case a person dreamed about good ideas but gave up without trying because “there is no money anyway.”

The budget can become a huge barrier for many people.  Educators often hear, “No. Sorry. Can’t fund that.  It’s not in the budget.”  But the thing is, maybe it could be.    How do you expand that budget?  How to you leverage the money that is available?

One way is to look for outside funding sources—grants or seed money contributions from local businesses.  Another way is to build coalitions with other like-minded community groups and organizations.

I was superintendent during a period of very tight budget constraints.  One of the important programs we had to cut was summer school.  But our administrative team talked frequently about the value and need of summer support, especially for our at-risk students.  So I began to start conversations with leaders in other youth-serving organizations and agencies—Social Services, local health department, Juvenile Justice System, sheriff’s office, extension agency, local Tribal Council.

These conversations about our mutual interests lead to a countywide meeting to discuss how we might work together for the benefit of youth.  Each agency had small amounts of money ear-marked for youth programs, and each group had a further network of community resources they could tap into (city library, the Boys’ and Girls’ Club, 4-H programs, idle school busses).

Together, we formed a coalition with each agency contributing financial or in-kind support to fund a six-week summer enrichment program to keep kids learning through the summer.

It was kind of like the loaves and fishes biblical story.  Everybody contributed a little bit and together they designed a really beneficial program targeting our most vulnerable children.  It wasn’t just a school program; it was a community commitment!

This coalition has stayed together for more than ten years now.  It is built on relationships and a common vision of working together to provide important opportunities for children.  Many of the original adults in the group have transitioned out over the years, but new ones have stepped up to take their places.  Or new groups/ agencies have joined to fill any voids that arose.

It’s not easy to keep coalitions together and running smoothly.  But the energy to do the work is worth it.  It leverages not only small pots of money that civic institutions have for special programs, but is also engages the hearts of individuals around meaningful, mutual goals.

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