Literature Review: Developing a Conceptual Framework to Assess the Sustainability of Community Coalitions Post-Federal Funding. B. Theories of Community Coalitions


Theory-based approaches attempt to identify the conditions needed for community coalitions to create sustainable community change. They also help to explain why some coalitions are successful in addressing their goals and others are not. In addition, theory-based approaches are integral to the evaluation and improvement of community coalitions.

Two prominent theories of community coalitions are the Community Coalition Action Theory and Empowerment Theory. These theory-based frameworks illustrate the different stages of community coalition formation and the dimensions and factors that can facilitate and impede a community coalition’s ability to address its goals.

The Community Coalition Action Theory. The predominate theory of community coalitions is the Community Coalition Action Theory (CCAT) (Butterfoss & Kegler, 2002). The CCAT highlights several important factors that affect a community coalition’s ability to conduct its core functions of creating collaborative capacity, building community capacity, and fostering change at the local level. The CCAT is viewed as an important framework for building and evaluating coalitions. 

The CCAT builds on a number of existing models and frameworks including the Community Organization and Development Model (Braithwaite, Murphy, Lythcott, and Blumenthal, 1989); the Framework for Partnerships for Community Development (Habana-Hafner, Reed, & Associates, 1989); the Framework of Organization Viability (Katz & Kahn, 1978); the Community Coalition Model (Butterfoss et al., 1993); the Health Promotion and Community Development Model (Francisco, Paine, & Fawcett, 1993); the Typology of Community Organization and Community Building (Minkler & Wallerstein, 2005); and the Model of Community Health Governance (Lasker & Weiss, 2003). Together these frameworks have informed the CCAT’s presentation of the stages of development and implementation, core components of effective coalitions, and the interaction of context and outcomes that impact a coalition’s formation and success.

The CCAT models the progression of community coalitions from formation to institutionalization and includes a feedback mechanism that loops back to earlier steps in response to new issues and changes in community context (Exhibit 2.1). The theory takes into account the numerous factors which impact community coalitions, such as the community’s social and political climate, history, and values.  

Exhibit 2.1: Community Coalition Action Theory Model

Exhibit 2.1: Community Coalition Action Theory Model.

Exhibit 2.1 recreates the Community Coalition Action Theory Model from Butterfoss, 2007. It depicts the progression of a coalition through the formation, maintenance, and institutionalization phases as described in the text following the exhibit.

The CCAT begins in the Formation stage, where the lead agency or convener group builds a collaboration to respond to a particular community need or mandate. The lead agency identifies and recruits the coalition membership, and leaders are selected to develop the coalition’s operations and processes and structures. Operations and processes are the coalition’s mechanisms for communication among staff and members, decision-making, and conflict management. Structures are the formal rules and procedures that facilitate the coalition’s activities. These components make synergy within the coalition more likely.

With members and systems in place, the coalition then goes through the Maintenance stage, which involves the pooling of resources to maintain its activities, the engagement of members, and effective planning strategies. Finally, community coalitions move into the Institutionalization stage, in which successful coalition strategies, such as community policies, practices, and other activities can facilitate community change outcomes. Community change outcomes can increase community capacity (i.e., the community’s ability to respond to its own needs) and create health and social outcomes (e.g., reductions in mortality, progress towards social goals). The community coalition may institutionalize its activities within the community to build community capacity. Throughout this process, coalitions may return to earlier stages as a means of responding to changes in the coalition or community. The community context can affect the coalition at any stage.

The CCAT introduces several important coalition characteristics (e.g., leadership, membership, structure) that affect a community coalition’s ability to foster changes in the community. The theory highlights the idea that a coalition’s strategies can create community capacity outcomes as well as health and social outcomes.

Empowerment Theory. Empowerment Theory explores the process of gaining influence over the conditions that matter to people who share communities, experiences, and concerns (Fawcett et al., 1995). By definition, Empowerment Theory is central to the core functions of community coalitions: creating collaborative capacity, building community capacity, and fostering change at the local level. Empowerment Theory suggests that community coalitions empower their member organizations to collaborate effectively and their communities to build the social capital necessary to address emerging issues. Additionally, this theory focuses on the different factors that facilitate or impede a community collaborative’s capacity to bring about community change. 

Interest in empowerment as a research concept has evolved gradually since the 1970s and is now a mainstream multidisciplinary concept. Perkins and Zimmerman (1995) highlighted two synthesized definitions of empowerment:

  1. An intentional ongoing process centered in the local community, involving mutual respect, critical reflection, caring, and group participation, through which people lacking an equal share of valued resources gain greater access to and control over those resources.
  2. A process by which people gain control over their lives, democratic participation in the life of their community, and a critical understanding of their environment.

Building off of the empowerment concept, Fawcett et al. (1995) developed a model of community empowerment and a framework for the process of empowerment in collaborative partnerships. This model and framework provide an understanding of Empowerment Theory in relation to community coalitions. The Community Empowerment Model consists of three dimensions: person or group, environmental, and empowerment capacity and outcomes (Exhibit 2.2). The factors in each dimension can interact in various ways to foster or hinder a partnership or coalition’s capacity to impact the community and create change.   

Exhibit 2.2: Dimensions of Community Empowerment Model
Dimension Factors
Person or Group 
  • Experience and competence of individual leaders
  • Group’s knowledge of community, initiative, problem
  • Group’s structure and capacity to develop a strategic plan and plan for goals
  • Social and/or environmental resistance and conflict
  • Support and financial resources
  • Cultural values, policies, laws
Empowerment Capacity and Outcome
  • Ability to influence programs, policies, and outcomes related to the mission
Source: Adapted from Fawcett et al., 1995.

Person or group factors. The competence of the collaborative’s leadership can play an important role in the functioning of the collaborative partnership. The partnership’s knowledge and recognition of the community and its challenges, or its structure and capacity, may also impede or facilitate empowerment capacity.

Environmental factors. The environment can affect a community collaborative’s capacity to create changes. For example, if there is a high degree of conflict in the environment due to social issues or cultural values, it may be difficult to create change. The extent to which the collaborative has support and financial resources, and the types of policies or laws in place will also facilitate or impede capacity.

Empowerment capacity and outcome. These factors relate to the ability of the community collaborative to influence community conditions at a point in time. This capacity may change as other factors in the community change. 

Fawcett et al. (1995) also developed the Framework for Collaborative Empowerment in Exhibit 2.3 to illustrate the process of community empowerment. The five interrelated elements of community empowerment are: collaborative planning; community action; community change; community capacity and outcomes; and adaptation, renewal, and institutionalization.

Exhibit 2.3:     Framework for Collaborative Empowerment

Exhibit 2.3: Framework for Collaborative Empowerment.

Source: Fawcett et al., 1995.

Exhibit 2.3 This exhibit, from Fawcett et al. (1995), shows the five interrelated elements that form the process of community empowerment. They are collaborative planning; community action; community change; community capacity and outcomes; and adaptation, renewal, and institutionalization. Each element is explained in the text following the exhibit.

Collaborative planning involves bringing together organizations from diverse backgrounds to collaboratively plan for changes in the community. Community action is the action taken by the leadership and membership of the collaborative to create changes that are in line with key goals. Community change is the result of community action and may include new policies or practices at the community level. Community capacity and outcomes are the ultimate goals of the collaborative, with the community having the ability to pursue its own goals in the future. Adaptation, renewal, and institutionalization are the efforts that the collaborative makes to address new issues in light of new conditions.  This framework is particularly relevant to community coalitions because it shows that adaptation is a part of community empowerment. The coalition’s goals and activities are responsive to the needs of the community. Therefore, if the community’s needs change, the coalition’s planning and action must also change to address the new environment.

Empowerment theory and the CCAT provide useful frameworks for understanding community coalitions and the factors that affect their ability to successfully perform their core functions.  These theories indicate that coalitions are able to create change in communities by building community capacity and improving health and social outcomes. They also suggest that coalitions must react to the needs of the community and adapt their collaborative activities according to new community conditions. A number of important coalition characteristics emerged from these two theories. These characteristics and their impact on coalition effectiveness are discussed in greater detail in the next section. 

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