How do you take scores of people, representing dozens of organizations, and get them to collaborate when almost all of those people and organizations have other priorities tugging at them?

Cross-Boundary Leadership Training Helps Boost Community Coalitions
A coalition of community leaders seek input from citizens to define the group’s goals, using boundary spanning as a way to achieve them.
– Photo by Ruth Clark, Providence, RI

That’s the challenge that Elena Fracchia, director of income and engagement for the United Way of Lane County (Oregon) faced a year and a half ago. She is the staff lead for a coalition focused on increasing the financial stability of lower-income families in the Eugene, OR, area.

The coalition’s members all seemed “bought in” with a focus on financial stability, she recalls. “But we [didn’t] have clear direction.”

The direction-alignment-commitment model of leadership was one of the tools Fracchia and her team, as well as 20 other teams from coalitions around the country, learned about as part of a training program funded by the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation.

The idea was to provide leaders of community coalitions tools and skills to better harness the energy of their coalitions. The coalitions were tackling a range of issues — family income stability, education and more. But they would only work well if members were able to work well together.

“When we fund a coalition, we’ll often challenge them to engage new partners and get on the same page,” says Sallie George, a program officer at RWJF.

The Foundation had previously commissioned CCL to look at leadership challenges that community nonprofit organizations faced and what approaches could address those. Out of that came an interest in boundary-spanning leadership – leadership across organizational or other boundaries.

Given the number of coalition-based initiatives funded by RWJF and the size of some of those coalitions, it would be expensive — and probably impractical — to try to bring all of these coalition members together for an in-depth training on boundary spanning principles. “But we (RWJF and CCL) thought that if we brought in coalition leadership teams, we could train those teams to take the tools and principles they learned back to their coalitions and implement those methods with them,” says Lynn Fick-Cooper, senior faculty at CCL.

To further support them, each coalition leadership team recruited a local coach who got the same four-day CCL training program, as well as an extra day of coaching training.

David Neidert was the coach for his coalition in Anderson, IN.

“I’ve been involved in things that had been called ‘coalition building,'” he says … “When you start to get into the nitty-gritty about shared governance … it really starts to fall apart.”

Though he had worked for decades with community groups and had facilitated teams, the CCL training gave him new tools and new ideas he brought to bear at the United Way of Madison County (Indiana) Financial Stability Partner Group.

“As I was being taught this boundary spanning piece … we just had these, over and over again, ‘Aha!’ moments of saying ‘Oh no wonder it’s not working,'” he says. “We had missed this part of building trust.”

Rebecca Boxx, who heads the Children and Youth Cabinet in Providence, RI, , says the CCL work in the summer of 2013 kicked off a transformative year for the organization. Though the group had done solid work before, the training led her and her leadership team to initiate a process to get her coalition to define values, goals, metrics and processes.

That, in turn, led to a community engagement and listening project where they gathered input from more than 750 residents to develop a list of nine core priorities the coalition could unite around.

“The CCL experience drove the major projects and work we undertook in that year,” she says. “It was absolutely instrumental in the strength and impact of the coalition work that we did.”

As I was being taught this boundary spanning piece … we just had these, over and over again, ‘Aha!’ moments.

David Neidert of United Way of Madison County, IN Financial Stability Partner Group.

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