Building State Coalitions
Freedom to Marry’s work in the states almost always consisted of quickly and efficiently establishing state campaign coalitions, promoting teamwork, providing and enhancing expertise and a playbook of effective tactics, and generating the needed funding. By bringing together local and national partners, we were able to ensure that the state campaigns benefitted from lessons learned in prior states and got a head start in the political persuasion work required to win. This document provides a look at how we arrived at this model for winning in the states in synergy with work at the national and federal levels to fulfill the overall national strategy.
How State Coalitions Improved Movement Organizing
Throughout the 2000s, national and state leaders working at the state level often started building state campaigns from scratch. In every fight - whether it was an attempt to fend off an anti-marriage constitutional amendment at the ballot, support for a court case, or a legislative effort – state organizations and advocates were cobbling together resources, strategy, messaging and logistical components, too often reinventing the wheel. Often, more than one organization would establish a campaign without thorough coordination.
At the heart of this collaboration is respect for what local and national partners can each bring to the table.
In 2011, we created a new coalition model in New York that served as the basis for most state campaigns going forward. With the leadership of a new governor, Andrew Cuomo, advocates saw a pathway to a potential win. Freedom to Marry came together with the Empire State Pride Agenda and the Human Rights Campaign to pioneer a model for quickly and efficiently establishing a state campaign coalition, singularly focused on winning marriage in the state. These key state and national partners launched a branded joint campaign, New Yorkers United for Marriage, while committing the organizations to a set of tasks that they would do together through a single coordinated effort.
At the heart of this collaboration is respect for what local and national partners can each bring to the table. State groups often have strong, long-standing relationships with lawmakers, activists, allies, and the media. At the same time, passing a piece of legislation as significant as a marriage bill—or winning at the ballot—required significantly enhanced capabilities in field, lobbying, and bipartisan outreach;, much more robust communications and public persuasion; and more money. That required the active engagement of national partners.
Along with its partners, Freedom to Marry replicated the successful New York model in multiple other states in 2011 and 2012, binding pay-to-play partners through memoranda-of-understanding into jointly branded campaigns (Rhode Island United for Marriage, Illinois Unites for Marriage, Minnesota United for All Families, etc.).
Logistics of State Coalitions
Memoranda of Understanding
- With each state marriage campaign, the players who were involved in the specific state came together in a campaign designed to secure victory. These efforts operated under memoranda of understanding (MOU) that clearly spelled out the scope of the campaign and the responsibilities of parties to the MOU.
- The memoranda of understanding included up-front details large and small – the name of the campaign, the investment level for each member, the process for decision making, the role of the campaign board or steering committee (consisting of representatives of each of the partners), the role of the campaign manager and how she / he would be selected, who would serve as spokesperson, what kind of financial reporting there would be and who was accountable for the finances of the campaign. The MOU spelled out clearly what the joint campaign would do together, and what it wouldn’t do and thus would be left to the individual partners. And it addressed up front two of the thorniest issues that keep joint campaigns from happening—how to distribute remaining funds (there were almost never any funds left over) and email and fundraising lists generated during the campaign (usually much less valuable than people think).
Expectations of partner organizations
- Partner organizations each assigned a point person to the campaign. That person would participate in steering committee calls and be empowered to make decisions for their organization.
- Partner organizations were also expected to communicate campaign activities to their membership and engage them in action. The campaign would suggest email blasts and social media pushes, often providing templates to make participation as simple as possible.
- Partner organizations were also expected to devote staff resources in areas where they had expertise. Freedom to Marry, for example, provided all digital and design support for state campaigns through the Digital Action Center. The Human Rights Campaign would often provide additional field organizers to buttress the lead local groups and help ensure the campaigns had a strong ground game.
- Even as they did their own work, coalition partners agreed to come together in a shared campaign to speak with one voice for the duration of the campaign effort.
Key Lessons Learned
- Collaborate as early on as possible: While it can be difficult with organizational imperatives to forsake self-promotion and one’s own branding in a state, a unified, coordinated campaign is so much stronger. In some cases, where certain organizations feel they have an imperative to be a public voice, come up with a creative solution that still allows maximal collaboration. For example, in New York we engaged a shared communications shop, coordinated in daily calls, had a central campaign strategy and media plan -- and the central partners agreed to rotate spokespeople.
- Put it down on paper: With groups that often compete for resources and attention, there’s often deep mistrust. By using a memorandum of understanding, the issues that could become hang-ups are negotiated and agreed upon up front. Working through these issues up front enables a focus going forward on the real work at hand, rather than on organizational issues.