In the complex world of policy-making, two potent forces stand out: coalition-building and grassroots movements. While the former draws strength when diverse entities join hands for a common cause, the latter is fueled by the passion and commitment of everyday citizens championing change from the ground up. Each can be a potent force for change – and when they converge, real magic can happen.
Herbie Thiele, Partner and Director of Public Affairs at Sachs Media, is no stranger to this careful dance. With an impressive track record of uniting diverse groups, foundations, companies, and individuals, Herbie has helped orchestrate significant policy shifts not just in Florida but across multiple states. Join us as we dive into the intricate world of policy advocacy with one of its seasoned maestros.
Q: How would you define coalitions, within the context of policy-making?
Herbie: Coalitions are all about bringing together diverse people and organizations to weigh in on an issue. The individual coalition partners don’t have to share positions on all issues, or even be part of the same industry or area of interest – as long as they share a point of view about one particular issue, we can work with them to find common ground so they can work together. In education, for instance, you might have interest groups as diverse as public school superintendents, school choice advocates, teachers unions, business groups, and health insurers. These groups rarely see eye to eye on anything – but if there’s a policy proposal that calls for greater funding for school programs of all types, including more for workforce training programs and school nurses, you could create a coalition where they’ll work together to get the bill passed.
When people and groups with diverse perspectives find that common link, it allows us to communicate a strong, unified message to policymakers. Often, our focus is on telling their different stories in a way that adds up to a single goal. The essence of coalition-building is getting everyone on the same page for a common cause. It’s a misconception to think coalition-building is only about involving big-name groups; it’s equally about the grassroots level. One of our most effective strategies has been sending letters from real consumers to their elected representatives, which adds so much more to the debate than just official statements from organizations.
Q: Do you have a specific example of this?
Herbie: Sure – many of them. In one campaign related to a financial bill, we coordinated a campaign to send thousands of letters from regular working Floridians to their representatives, senators, and even the governor. The writers were everyone from nurses to firefighters and more, all of them contacted by local leaders in their individual professional associations. Each letter emphasized the bill’s significance from the sender’s particular viewpoint, explaining why it mattered to them. This diversity and representation lend authenticity and weight to our cause.
Embracing the variety within a coalition is critical. In a diverse state like Florida, it’s essential to tailor our messaging to resonate with the unique features of each community and each part of the state. But at the heart of coalition-building is the understanding that there’s a network of interconnected individuals and groups.
Q: How do you approach multistate coalitions?
Herbie: Building and nurturing relationships across states is such an important part of what we do. When we work a multistate issue, our Florida coalition partners often know their counterparts elsewhere, helping forge coalitions wherever they’re needed. National organizations play an instrumental role, as they often bridge state-level networks, facilitating collaboration and networking opportunities. Once you establish a foothold in one state, it often leads to connections in others. However, the key lies in adapting the message to suit each state’s particular nuances – strategies effective in a blue state might not resonate in a red state. And who is influential in one state may not have the same impact elsewhere. For example, when you’re working an issue affecting laborers, in Florida the Hispanic Chamber of Commerce might be a key partner in Florida while it may be the NAACP that holds more sway in New York.
Q: It seems that relationship-building are integral to this process.
Herbie: Absolutely, coalition-building is all about fostering meaningful partnerships. Helping partners disseminate messages within their networks often sparks increased awareness and mobilization. Often, an organization’s members may not even realize there is pending legislation that can impact them, and they welcome the opportunity to help. This is where coalition-building comes into play. Members might offer to write a letter or leverage their connections with specific legislators. They’d never have been aware of these opportunities without the coalition; it’s like building a grassroots army.
Q: Do you have an example of a successful coalition-led effort?
Herbie: One example involves ride-sharing in Florida. The traditional taxi industry was doing all it could to block the spread of ride-sharing, which posed competition. We were engaged on the pro-ride-sharing side and formed a coalition of diverse groups that typically would have little to do with one another. This included organizations for people with disabilities and other health challenges, local and state Chambers of Commerce, and Mothers Against Drunk Driving (MADD). Even though they each had different priorities, they all supported legislation to make sure ride-sharing could be available throughout the state. It was a diverse mix of organizations, but they were united in their support for ride-sharing – and in the end, they helped carry the day.
Q: What are some challenges in this process?
Herbie: Challenges can easily arise when multiple stakeholders come together but each tries to hang onto their own vision. Imagine multiple chefs in one kitchen. As the policy proposal changes, some members might diverge from the coalition’s main objective. Maintaining cohesion can be tricky, as each organization has its priorities. Our role is akin to being an orchestra conductor – you have different skilled musicians, each playing different notes on different instruments, and our job is to make sure it all comes together to create a harmonious symphony.
Q: Sounds difficult.
Herbie: It can be. Sometimes, you may have organizations partnering on one policy but opposing each other on another. It’s the dynamic nature of coalitions. The key is to remain focused on the shared goal, even if coalition members’ interests diverge on other matters.
Q: So what advice would you give to organizations aiming to shape or change policy?
Herbie: Focus on one common, achievable goal. When trying to establish a coalition, ensure that everyone is fully committed to that shared objective. Be mindful that each organization may have other priorities, but the coalition’s focus should remain undistracted. As with our ride-sharing example, despite differing interests, everyone was united in promoting ride-sharing across the state. So my advice is: Have one clear, common goal.
Q: That’s quite straightforward.
Herbie: Coalitions should be about leadership, with a focus on diversity. Imagine the impact when groups like the Urban League, Associated Industries, and the Hispanic Chamber come together for one purpose. When such influential entities voice their support or opposition to something, legislators pay attention. Suddenly, their inboxes are flooded with letters, and they’re getting numerous calls from constituents.
At the end of the day, our primary objective is to influence legislators through genuine grassroots efforts and collaborations with influential organizations.