From Chaos and Competition to Clarity and Coordination: Four Pivots for Aligning Coalitions to Achieve Equity


We know that changing systems to be more equitable requires collaboration, but sometimes working with a broad network or coalition can feel chaotic, with competing interests among players and a lack of clarity and purpose. How do you get diverse stakeholders, each serving different communities and with its own unique mission and goals, moving together in pursuit of equity?

At Community Wealth Partners, we’ve worked with networks focused on a range of issues from education to economic mobility to health and nutrition. One of these networks has been the Healthy Food Community of Practice, a network of more than 50 organizations working toward a shared goal—that communities of color across the country can access and consume nutritious food. From our perspective, there are 4 important pivots to make—these are shifts in mindset and thinking that can help coalitions and networks to move in one direction.

  1. From scarcity to abundance
  2. From consensus to consent
  3. From breadth to depth
  4. From “I” to “we”

1. From scarcity to abundance.

A scarcity mindset is risk adverse and tends to see things in black and white. An abundance mindset is more open to possibility and emergence. The scarcity mindset can show up in a variety of ways. One example is scarcity of resources—the pie is only so big and everyone is focused on their share. This can lead to competition for resources among organizations within a network or coalition – organizations that ideally would be collaborating with one another. We’ve used a variety of practices with networks to help create a sense of abundance.

Walmart Foundation supported the Healthy Food Community of Practice and provided flexibility in how the resources were spent, giving ownership to the community in determining their priorities. As a result, participants decided to regrant some of the resources to community-based organizations working in innovative ways to address food access and nutrition in collaboration with the community of practice member organizations. Over three years, the community granted $400,000 through a participatory grantmaking process where community of practice members decided together which projects to fund.

The community could have decided to spread these funds across their organizations, each receiving about $8,000 to support their work. Instead, they made fewer and larger grants of up to $50,000 to fund pairs of organizations working in partnership to advance community-based solutions. Giving the participating organizations voice in how resources were allocated helped create a feeling of greater abundance and impact.

2. From consensus to consent.

We often see networks aspire for consensus in decision-making. But when you are engaging a diverse group of individuals and organizations, it’s not realistic to think that everyone will agree on every decision that needs to be made. Instead, it may be better to strive for consent.

You can think of consent this way—while a decision that’s on the table may not be exactly what you would choose if you were making it on your own, you can live with it and don’t have any strong objections. That’s consent.

We learned about consent-based decision-making from Circle Forward Consulting. Consent-based decision-making aims to help a group make a decision that is within the group’s range of tolerance. If a proposal falls outside someone’s range of tolerance, it is the group’s responsibility to modify the proposal to bring it back within the group’s range of tolerance.

A bell curve chart titled Range of Tolerance. At the left side of the chart, there is Cannot Tolerate, which is close to the bottom. The curve then moves up, labeled Can Live With, and at the peak of the curve, is labeled “Prefer”. The curve goes down, with Can Live With implied on the other side, and at the bottom of the curve, it reads “Cannot Tolerate.” The peak of the curve is surrounded by a blue box that is labeled as “The Boundaries of Consent.”

After a couple of years working together, the Healthy Food Community of Practice realized it needed to refine its vision and goal to center racial equity. It was not easy for the community to make this pivot. The community includes organizations serving specific communities like the elderly, rural Americans, and college students. But eventually the group realized that focusing on racial equity will yield benefits for other groups of people who have historically been marginalized.

As the community refined its purpose and vision, we worked to ensure the language was within everyone’s range of tolerance. While some organizations may have preferred to have the population they’re focused on specifically named in our goal and vision, they gave consent to a race-specific focus because they understood that in the United States race is the difference that makes the biggest difference, and when communities of color are thriving, everyone is thriving. Getting to this agreement required multiple conversations and would not have happened without trusting relationships within the community. Consent requires continuous investment in strengthening relationships and trust.

3. From breadth to depth

To have deeper impact, sometimes networks need to pivot from being a broad tent where everyone can see themselves to something more focused and defined. And, even when a network has an explicit focus, there still can be power in enabling small groups go deeper around shared interests or priorities.

The Healthy Food Community moved from breadth to depth when it aligned on a more specific focus of prioritizing BIPOC communities. To allow more opportunities for deeper collaboration, we formed innovation pods—small subgroups within the network that are focused on discrete topics. Innovation pods have taken collective actions such as co-creating resources and conducting research together.

For example, the nutrition education pod worked together to create a proposed framework for nutrition education that is wholistic and centers cultural competency. To create this, nutrition educators from several organizations came together to share their approaches, conduct research that centered the voices of communities of color, and imagine alternatives. As the nutrition education pod shares this framework with the broader field and invites feedback and discussion, pod members hope this body of work will help the field shift thinking and practice.

The successes of these innovation pods helped lay the groundwork for additional collaborations across the community. In a 2023 survey of participants, 40% of respondents said participation in the community led to coordinated actions with one or more organizations, and 21% of respondents said they were actively collaborating on a common goal with one or more organizations. The connections and collaborations happening beyond the Healthy Food Community are signs of meaningful progress toward the community’s vision and goals and shows promise that these connections will continue even after the community’s time together has ended.

4. From “I” to “We”

Members of a network need to determine what it is that they can best accomplish together that they can’t accomplish individually. Then, when working with the network, they need to be able to put aside individual or organizational agendas to prioritize the goals of the collective. This takes time and effort and requires a strong foundation of trust. From our work with networks, we’ve found it is important to start by helping network members build relationships and share knowledge. This is an important precursor to a network taking collective action.

When the White House announced a conference on Nutrition, Hunger, and Health for the first time in more than 50 years, organizations working in the field were invited to offer input on the White House strategy. Many organizations represented in the Healthy Food Community crafted their own recommendations, and yet community of practice participants recognized a gap—the voices of people with lived experience of food insecurity were not yet part of the conversation.

To address that, community of practice members organized focus groups with various community perspectives to get their input on what the White House strategy should focus on. They put aside personal agendas to center and elevate community voice.

Pivoting for Equity

Achieving equitable outcomes requires changing systems, and this requires a range of actors coming together, letting go of personal agendas, and working in pursuit of a shared goal. The following action steps can help coalitions make the pivots we’ve found to be important for achieving impact.

From Scarcity to Abundance

  • Invest in relationships to build a foundation of trust. This will help foster collaboration over competition.
  • In grantmaking, provide flexible funding and embrace the principles of trust-based philanthropy. Rather than tightly controlling how funds are spent and the outputs and outcomes you want to see, trust that grantees know best how to use their resources for meaningful impact and be open to different ways of making progress toward your shared vision.

From consensus to consent

  • Make clear and specific agreements about how decisions will be made.
  • Consider consent-based decision-making to foster an environment where members may not fully agree but can support decisions made within the group’s range of tolerance.

From breadth to depth

  • Prioritize having focused goals and strategies for achieving them over offering a broad tent for participation. Trust that this focus will attract the participation needed to have the desired impact.
  • Create opportunities for subgroups to take collective action on areas of common interest. These “small wins” can lay the foundation for larger collaborations.

From “I” to “We”

  • Identify shared goals that require collective action, and support participants in prioritizing the goals of the collective over individual agendas.
  • Spend time supporting participants in relationship building and knowledge sharing. These are important steps that help coalitions move toward meaningful collective action.

Embracing these pivots can help coalitions transcend individual interests, foster collaboration, and yield greater impact. Committing to abundance, consent, depth, and collective action helps lay a more inclusive and effective path toward equity.

As you think about your own collectives, collaboratives, or even organization, we welcome you to reflect on the following: which of these pivots feel exciting to lean into? Which feel challenging? How might you begin shift mindsets to further your impact?

Related Resources

Podcast: Pivoting to Build a Stronger Collaborative

Podcast: Strengthening Relationships through a Community of Practice


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