April 1999 // Volume 37 // Number 2 // Research in Brief // 2RIB2

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Community Coalitions: Identifying Changes in Coalition Members as a Result of Training

Educating citizens to be better able to serve on community coalition members is an important role of Cooperative Extension. The purpose of this project was to identify changes community coalition members perceived as a result of training and being a coalition member. Areas measured were changes in: (a) skills in coalition building, (b) actions on public policy, and (c) knowledge of community needs related to youth issues. Results of paired t-tests showed that participants had significantly greater coalition building skills and increased actions on public policy. Implications of these findings and ways to effectively implement coalition member education are discussed.

Georgia L. Stevens
Extension Family Policy Issues Educator
Internet address: csed007@unlvm.unl.edu

Kathleen Ann Lodl
Extension Specialist, 4-H Youth Development
Internet address: fhyd019@unlvm.unl.edu

University of Nebraska-Lincoln
Lincoln, Nebraska


A coalition is broadly defined as an effort to bring individuals and organizations together to work for a common purpose. Coalition building is appropriate when an individual or group recognizes that they alone do not have the technical capability or people power to effect a real impact on an issue (Stevens, 1990). As people work together, they expand their individual views of issues to a broadened perspective influenced by their coalition companions. In order to effectively carry out coalition work, community members often need training in both the process of public policy and the content of the issues to be addressed.

Review of Literature

Gratto's (1973) model of issue evolution provides the foundation for supporting a community coalition. The model helps people to identify problems, examine alternatives and consequences, understand how a choice is made and how it will be implemented. Hahn (1988) expanded this educational intervention model by guiding educators with desirable outcomes and possible indicators that allow coalition members to evaluate their progress before moving to the next stage.

Stevens, Rockwell, Daberkow, and Furgason (1992) identified factors that enhance coalition development in rural areas of the Midwestern United States. Three themes developed. The first two themes occur in sequence and the third is continuous, or at least a recurring activity, throughout coalition building. First is foundation building, a time for getting acquainted and providing a base for functioning. Second is implementation, a time for putting plans into action. Third are the on-going processes, the management factors that enhance coalition formation and the outcomes of coalition work.

Study of the value of training citizens for more active roles in the community has developed over the last twenty years (Doble & Johnson, 1991, Mathews, 1994, Rich & Garino, 1979, Seltzer & Clugston, 1977). With the need for more sophisticated competencies at the local coalition level, training strategies must also be created to meet the needs of leaders from a variety of backgrounds facing a myriad of issues (Slotnik et al., 1979, Weaver, 1979). One example of a training plan for coalition members has been implemented in KIDS' TEAM.


KIDS' TEAM is a five-year project of University of Nebraska Cooperative Extension funded by a grant from the United States Department of Agriculture. The project's goal is to empower local communities to form coalitions which address the needs of youths and families at risk.

Coalition Training

KIDS' TEAM designed a coalition development and training program to create and sustain community coalitions throughout Nebraska's rural Third Congressional District, which covers the western two-thirds of the state. This training program was based on Hahn's Educational Intervention Model (1988). Hahn's process was used for training because it details a fundamental model for examining how issues evolve in a community and how a local coalition can empower itself to take action. Another strength of Hahn's process is that it ties decision making to citizen action on public policies. This is the foundation of viable community coalitions that address complex issues. The steps of Hahn's model as they relate to the KIDS' TEAM process follow:

Step 1: Recognize and express concern about the problem. Assess local needs to verify the extent of youth at risk issues.

Step 2: Become involved and identify all players. Community coalitions are encouraged to be inclusive and expand their membership base by partnering with businesses, schools, parents, and youth.

Step 3: Clarify the issue. Learn the extent of the problem and consider all sides. Remain open to new ideas by setting aside personal biases.

Step 4: Consider alternative solutions. Examine all alternatives and encourage coalition members to identify existing solutions and brainstorm new ones.

Step 5: Consider consequences for each alternative. Explore the positive and negative consequences for people on all sides of the issue. Doing nothing is an alternative.

Step 6: Inform others of the choice. Learn how public decisions are made, who makes them, and how citizens can participate in the process.

Step 7: Activate the choice. Provide input to policy makers, or carry out the plan.

Step 8: Evaluate the choice. Evaluation occurs informally throughout the process. Formal evaluation at the end of the project may lead the coalition into new concerns and problems.

To facilitate coalition development, Extension educators served as area coordinators to recruit, train, and provide overall management of the community coalitions. The coordinators were trained via six hands-on workshops focusing on the Hahn model. After training, area coordinators were expected to train potential coalition members in their own communities. Once local coalitions were established and began to function, additional training was provided. For example, interactive satellite conferences provided content on various concepts of interest to coalitions. Topics included:

  • approaches for addressing youth at risk issues,
  • school-age child care,
  • family communication,
  • public policy involvement and
  • sustaining coalitions through grant-writing.

In addition, newsletters were mailed to each coalition member to apprise them of what was happening in coalitions across the state and of overall project goals. Monthly conference calls among area coordinators linked geographically-distanced coalitions and their projects. This allowed for personal dialogue on the trials and successes being experienced in local communities. Additional resource materials, including coalition building fact sheets, videotapes, and lists of potential coalition members were used to supplement the training.

An evaluation study was designed to assess whether this method of coalition member training was effective. This study was designed to measure changes in coalition members in three areas related to youth-at-risk coalitions: (a) skills in coalition building, (b) actions on public policy, and (c) knowledge of community needs related to youth issues.


The Design

To measure the success of the coalition building process, a quantitative study was conducted using post- then pre-design methodology (Rockwell & Kohn, 1989). In the post- then pre-design, the participant answers two questions. The first question asks about behavior as a result of the program. This is the post-test question. Then the participant is asked to report what the behavior had been before the program. This second question is really the pre-test question, but it is asked after the program when the participant has sufficient knowledge to answer the question validly. That is why this approach is called post- then pre-. This method is especially adaptable with learners exploring new or complex issues (Chapman-Novakofski et al., 1977; Duncan & Goddard, 1997 Rockwell & Stevens, 1992).

The retrospective pre-test at the end of the program is more accurate because it is answered in the same frame of reference as the post-test. Thus, the problem of what is called "response-shift bias" in self-report, pre- post-test designs is minimized. The tool is specifically useful for evaluating the impact of Extension programs by asking participants to report actual changes in behavior (Rockwell & Stevens, 1992).

Many people have a limited understanding of some of the concepts and terminology related to public policy. Hence, the educational process may actually enlighten the participants so they have a new or different understanding. This makes the post-then-pre-design especially useful in evaluating the coalition building processes.

The Instrument

The survey instrument was divided into three areas: (a) knowledge of youth-at-risk issues, (b) skills in coalition building, and (c) actions on public policy. Questions from the youth-at-risk area were developed from research identifying such issues (Bogenschnider, Small, & Riley, 1991; Dryfoos, 1990) and on-going dialogue with youth development experts. Hahn's Educational Intervention Model (1988) was used as the basis for specific questions related to coalition building skills. Questions related to public policy actions were adapted from research on public affairs and involvement (Stevens-Neruda, 1979). In each area, participants were asked to evaluate their skill/knowledge currently and before their involvement in the coalition process. Examples of questions from each of the three areas are presented in Table 1. Other questions addressed potential topics for additional training, when and how coalition members would like to receive additional education, how much time they spend on coalition activities, and selected demographic information.

Table 1

Knowledge of Youth-at-Risk Issues in the Community
To what degree is there a need in this community for:
  child care services for substance abuse
appropriate youth activities/facilities
teen guidance
positive role models for teens
Response choices: low, moderate & high.
Skills in Coalition Building
What is your level of ability:
  to guide a group toward a collaborative goal
to manage consensus building
to work through small group process
to acquire knowledge about organizational resources
  in the community
Response choices: low, moderate & high.
Actions on Public Policy
How frequently have you:
  expressed concern to policy makers about
  local youth/family issues
become involved in local youth/family issues
considered various alternatives to local youth/family issues
talked with others and tried to share your opinions
  on public issues
Response choices: hardly ever, sometimes, frequently.

The Sample

Coalition members from 13 different community coalitions, who had been involved in a coalition for at least one year, were the target sample for the study. The coalitions were selected because they had the most longevity with the KIDS' TEAM program. Area coordinators distributed the survey at coalition meetings and asked participants to either fill them out after the meeting, complete them at home and turn them in at the next meeting, or send them directly to KIDS' TEAM project directors identified on the survey.


Fifty-seven coalition members participated in the study, a response rate of 84%. This was determined to be a reasonable response rate for a population consisting of volunteer participants. By nature, volunteer coalition members already have full agendas and are focused on the cause at hand. They may not take the time to respond to a survey.

Each of the respondents had been a member of a local coalition for at least one year. Over half (54%) had attended more than nine coalition meetings in the past year, and one quarter (25%) reported spending more than one day per month on coalition activities. Just over three-fourths (75.4%) of the coalition members were female, and the majority (68%) were college graduates.

Paired t-tests were run to determine if significant differences existed between respondents' scores on the pre- and post- answers to each question. Significant differences (at the .05 level) were found in two of the three areas: skills in coalition building and actions on public policy.

In the area of skills in coalition building, respondents reported having significantly greater skills in coalition building (t-7.35, p<.05). The skills that were improved upon most included: group leadership, consensus building, negotiation, collaboration, and communication.

A significant difference was also found in respondents' actions on public policy (t = 7.90, p <.05). Specific skills which improved included talking to others about public opinions, considering various alternatives to local issues, contacting policy makers, and becoming involved in public policy. Results of this survey indicated that respondents' knowledge about youth at-risk issues did not significantly change as a result of coalition building training.


The results of this study indicate that coalition training is effective in helping coalition members become more active in public policy issues and more skilled in working within a coalition. This is exciting news for public policy educators, as it reinforces the belief that with training and education, those skills and behaviors essential to an informed citizenry can be developed.

The process used for empowering coalition members to address youth-at-risk issues used in this project could be modeled to develop other coalitions addressing other goals. For example, in many communities, local issues concerning welfare reform, zoning issues, or tobacco usage by youth are being addressed by community coalitions. This study would indicate that expanding the training and mentoring of these groups may result in more active members and more effective impact on public policy.

This study did not indicate a significant change in respondents' knowledge of the issue being addressed (youth-at-risk). It is possible that people joining the coalitions did so because they already had an interest in this area. Hence, they may have already had some background of the issues and did not experience a significant knowledge gain.

Coalition members, in this study, became more comfortable about taking public policy action as they were more involved in the coalition. With training and encouragement from the group, coalition members moved from beginning level actions (talking to others about public opinions, considering various alternatives to local issues, exploring the consequences to alternatives) to more complex actions (contacting policy makers, becoming involved in policy). It is this kind of process that can help citizens be empowered to use the democratic process as it was designed.

While this study supports the effectiveness of programming related to public policy issues, there are limitations. The population for this study was limited. Replicating this study with larger populations would strengthen the findings. The post- then pre-test is one method of evaluating coalition training and the effectiveness of coalitions.

Other approaches, such as longitudinal, would be more effective at looking at long-term changes as a result of training. Studies that examine the effectiveness of specific aspects of public policy training would allow public policy educators to provide the most effective educational methods. Methods other than self reporting, such as results of resource development efforts of coalitions, would provide more objective measures of program effectiveness. Additional research in these areas could add to the theoretical base and provide further insight into how to better empower community coalitions.


Bogenschneider, K., Small, S., & Riley, D. (1991). An ecological risk-focused approach for addressing youth-at-risk. Paper presented at the National Extension Youth-at-Risk Summit, Chevy Chase, MD.

Chapman-Novakofski, K., Boeckner, L. S., Canton, R., Clark, C. D., Keim, K., Britten, P., McClelland, J. (1997). Evaluating evaluation -- What we've learned. Journal of Extension. [On-line serial], 35(1). Available http://www.joe.org

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Dryfoos, J. G. (1990). Adolescents at risk: Prevalence and prevention. New York: Oxford University Press.

Duncan, S. F., & Goddard, H. W. (1997). Training in evaluation of parent education programs using the national Extension parent education model. Journal of Extension [On-line serial], 35, (2). Available http://www.joe.org

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Matthews, D. (1994). The Promise of democracy. Dayton, OH: Kettering Foundation.

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Rockwell, S. K., & Stevens, G. L. (1992). How accurate are pretest self-report measures that assess adults' knowledge and behavior? Paper presented to the American Evaluation Association.

Seltzer, M., & Clugston, R. (1977). Planning and conducting education and training programs: A seven step process. Minneapolis, MN: Center for Youth Development and Research, University of Minnesota.

Slotnik, W. J. (1979). Training volunteers in community education: A manual for staff members in community decision-making settings. West Newton, MA: Newton Community Schools.

Stevens, G. L. (1990). A process for building coalitions. Lincoln, NE: University of Nebraska NebGuide G90-988.

Stevens, G. L., Rockwell, S. K., Daberkow, W. D., & Furgason, J. (1992). Using concept mapping research to identify factors that enhance coalition development in rural areas. Presented at Midwest Research-to-Practice Conference, Manhattan, KS.

Stevens-Neruda, G. L. (1979). A survey of extent of involvement of professional home economists in public affairs activities. Unpublished doctoral dissertation, University of Maryland, College Park.

Weaver, D.C. (1979). Graduate training for developing community. Kalamazoo, MI: Community Leadership Training Center.

The authors acknowledge the contributions of Kay Rockwell, University of Nebraska-Lincoln Extension program evaluation specialist and Cheryl Burkhart Kriesel, educational consultant.