By joining forces with like-minded organizations, we can win the battle against inactivity.
Over the past four issues, I have discussed why I believe fitness centers are well positioned to dynamically, aggressively and consistently inspire their communities to healthier lifestyles. Although there are certainly many ways we can provide more leadership in this area, there is one overarching strategy we can use to address all the variables involved. That strategy is to build a coalition.
Think about it. No single organization has the resources, expertise, reach or interest to simultaneously address all of the complex, interacting factors that keep people from becoming active and remaining that way. The task is just too daunting. A coalition, however, is another matter. Cohen and colleagues define a coalition as “a union of people and organizations working to influence outcomes on a specific problem”; they go on to say that “coalitions are useful for accomplishing a broad range of goals that reach beyond the capacity of any individual member organization” (Cohen, Baer & Satterwhite 2002).
Simply stated, a coalition brings together a group of partner organizations that work together, with each contributing its unique expertise and resources to a larger, coordinated effort.
Coalitions aren’t something new. They come in all shapes and sizes and have been used to successfully address many health-related problems over the years. They get their strength from their breadth, diversity and focus and provide many advantages over organizations working on their own (see “Advantages of Coalitions,” below).
But why should health clubs be the ones to spearhead this kind of initiative? Because health clubs
- exist in all kinds of communities;
- have a vested interest in people becoming active;
- have expertise and experience in fitness that others want and need; and
- are vital to building healthy communities.
What’s more, helping to create healthier communities is simply the right thing to do!
How do you decide who should be included in your coalition? The answer is simple: Include everyone. For a coalition of this nature to be successful, many partners are necessary. Some key groups that you should definitely consider inviting to the table are
- school systems
- transportation agencies
- the local Agency on Aging or Department of Aging
- the YMCA/YWCA/JCC
- academic departments (if you are located near a campus)
- parks and recreation departments
- the Department of Health
- the Minority Health Coalition
- retirement communities
- related advocacy groups, such as bicycle and pedestrian safety committees, walk-to-school committees, school health committees, etc.
- healthcare providers
Of course, not everyone needs to be included right from the start. First identify a lead agency (which might not be your club), and get together a small group of representatives to serve as a steering committee. The right mix of people at this juncture is a critical component of success. Each person must not only buy into the concept but be able to work well with others and make a rather significant commitment of time and effort. Look for organizational representatives with strong leadership skills. The steering committee can then identify organizations from different sectors to invite as members of the coalition.
The steering committee should also choose a few people to represent the coalition. Should these representatives be well-known leaders in the community or the line staff of member organizations? Leaders provide clout, but their attendance may be irregular and their ability to complete assignments may be limited. Line staff typically have more time to devote and can provide valuable insight into issues and programs, but line staff may not carry the same weight as administrators. The best option is to include both.
While some groups may be successful with little structure, setting some ground rules can be helpful. The steering committee should determine how leaders will be selected, what their roles will be, how new members will be brought into the group, how decisions will be made and how financial resources will be managed.
Having a consistent, dependable communication strategy in place from the onset will enhance your efforts. Communications should be frequent, varied in form (e-mail, face-to-face, telephone, newsletters, etc.) and purposeful.
Once your coalition is established, you will have multiple groups to keep up with, including the steering committee, subcommittees, coalition partners, the target audience, the media and other key individuals. Be sure to have someone stay on top of contact lists to keep everyone’s information current.
Data gathering is a critical first step for your coalition. You can probably find quantitative data—such as age and gender distribution, socioeconomic status, physical activity participation and disease prevalence in your community—through online resources such as the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (www.cdc.gov) or your local Department of Health. Scanning facilities, programs and resources for physical activity is easy to do and helps everyone understand better what is actually going on in the community. Valid and reliable assessments of such things as walkability and bikeability are likely just a few mouse clicks away on the Internet.
Qualitative data—information that is difficult to measure, count or express in numerical terms, such as the degree of collaboration that exists between organizations—can be collected through your partner organizations and the people they represent. This information can provide valuable insights into the issues that have been identified through more formal quantitative methods. Many organizations regularly conduct both quantitative and qualitative assessments and will be happy to share information with the group, giving everyone a more complete picture of what is happening and what needs to be done in your community.
After you analyze both the assets and gaps within your community, you need to identify the potential objectives that should be included in your community physical activity plan. Once objectives have been identified, your group can prioritize them and develop action steps. Get your partners to commit to accomplishing the objectives set out in the plan and to revisit the original plan regularly to gauge progress.
Your coalition’s objectives should include some activities that can be readily accomplished and others that are longer-term and more complicated. Experiencing initial success can be very motivating to your partners, especially if they have something unique to contribute to the effort. Producing a press release or newsletter, writing an article for the local newspaper, giving a presentation and simply having a presence at an event are all short-term goals that require minimal work and provide exposure for both the coalition and the individual organizations.
The multidisciplinary nature of the physical inactivity problem demands a multidisciplinary solution. A community coalition can address multiple issues in a comprehensive, coordinated manner by drawing on the diverse individual strengths of its partners. Health clubs are well positioned to be leaders in their community’s fight against inactivity. Building an effective coalition requires significant time, effort and enthusiasm, but it may very well be the only way we are going to make a real difference.