The literature highlights three functions of community coalitions that make them unique from other types of community organizations and entities. These functions contribute to their effectiveness in addressing their goals and creating improvements in their communities.
Create collaborative capacity. Community coalitions create collaborative capacity among coalition members, within member relationships, and through the organizational structure and programs of the coalition (Foster-Fishman, Berkowitz, Lounsbury, Jacobson, & Allen, 2001). By convening different organizations, community coalitions mobilize community resources to address a common goal (Butterfoss et al., 1993). Unlike other types of community entities, community coalitions are purposefully structured to foster collaboration (Butterfoss, 2007).
Build community capacity. Community coalitions help their communities develop the capacity to build social capital that can be applied to other health and social issues (Fawcett et al., 1995). Coalitions are able to build capacity because they facilitate interaction across numerous sectors of a community, which mobilizes human resources and better positions the community to respond to social needs (Fawcett et al., 1995).
Foster change at the local level. Unlike other coalitions, community coalitions are catalysts or agents of change at the local level (Fawcett et al., 1995). Compared to large-scale and state coalitions, which are positioned to impact higher-level policies, community coalitions are more focused on the implementation of services at the local level (Butterfoss, 2007). Thus, community coalitions are in the position to bring about social change and improve the health of communities (Wolff, 2001). Community coalitions are adept at creating change because they often represent the diversity of the community and include both professional and grassroots organizations (Butterfoss, 2007). Additionally, research has shown that strong multi-organizational working relationships increase opportunities for integrated service delivery and stronger local systems (Vicary, Doebler, Bridger, Gurgevich, & Deike, 1996). They foster changes through a variety of activities, including creating new programs or services, developing new or more coordinated systems or infrastructure, advocating for stronger policies, influencing individual health or behavior, and disseminating products or materials, among others.
Community coalitions’ ability to create collaborative capacity, build community capacity, and foster change at the local level distinguishes them from other organizations and entities. These functions are also the building blocks of two important theories of community coalitions, which are discussed next.