By Sam Woollard
We were recently in a meeting when a prospective client compared community planning and coalition work to making baklava. As he described it, it matched perfectly with our experience. Baklava is a dessert of the Middle East and Mediterranean, and it has numerous variations depending on the country of origin. The same is true of coalitions. While they have some similarities, they are all slightly different with different ingredients, cooking needs and outcomes.
Baklava is made of paper thin phyllo pastry which is notoriously delicate and easy to break. Coalitions are similar, they are fragile, especially at the beginning and require gentle handling to build their strength. Baklava requires many layers of phyllo that are carefully placed on top of each other to create a firm and durable dessert. Coalitions require an ongoing cycle of committed individuals who see value in the work they are doing, experience short-term gains, and then build that into sustaining long term success.
Baklava is filled with a variety of fruits or nuts, with the outcome of each batch resulting in slightly different flavors. While there is some consistency in the ingredients it takes to create a successful coalition – strong and stable organizational structure, agreed upon goals and outcomes, capacity of members to do the work, and a sustainability plan – coalitions are filled with a variety of personalities. They are rarely static and it is necessary for all the ingredients (actors) to work together to achieve the desired outcomes.
The most important element of successful baklava is the sweet honey sauce that covers it. This is the magical ingredient that holds everything together. Coalitions, too, require a special ingredient, something that makes them unique and different and adds value for their members. Each coalition’s sauce is slightly different. Sometimes it is a compelling issue that unites its members, sometimes it is dynamic leadership, and sometimes it is the creation of a safe space for its members to process and deal with things impacting them and their organizations.
As messy as making baklava and supporting community coalitions can be, we at WNA love the work. The results are rich and rewarding, just like our favorite dessert.