Shared Learnings

Navigating Turf Issues

  • May 05, 2016
Anndee Hochman

Turf struggles—conflicts over funding, ideology, strategy and recognition among organizations with seemingly common goals—are often stumbling blocks in the work of coalitions. But “turf” does not have to be a four-letter word.

According to Larry Cohen, executive director of Prevention Institute, a national non-profit committed to fostering health and social equity, turf struggles arise because coalition members care passionately about the work they do.  Therefore, acknowledging the struggles can actually make the coalition stronger because you also acknowledge the commitment and specific goals of members in the process.

A frequent assumption among coalition leaders is that turf issues only concern two coalition members with competing agendas.  But Cohen notes that’s not always the case. Turf may also involve conflict between individual members and the coalition as a whole, or between members and the lead organization.  This means that leaders need to look carefully at their own roles and responsibilities as well.

Usually, Cohen says, turf struggles are rooted in questions of values, goals, funding, control, or credit:  Is it the coalition, the lead organization or individual members who reap accolades for successes, earn recognition in the media or win grants from funders? Apparent turf conflicts may also pre-date the coalition, mired in long-ago organizational struggles. Sometimes they simply result from different personalities.

Whatever the source, Cohen encourages coalition leaders to bring turf conflicts into the open rather than ignoring them. The challenge for coalition leadership, Cohen and co-author Jessica Gould write in The Tension of Turf, a 2003 Prevention Institute paper, is “not to work out how to successfully stifle turf issues, but rather to figure out how to acknowledge, accept and build upon them.”

“Coalition members are passionate; that’s why they’re there,” Cohen says, and deft leaders can harness the zeal of individual members into a sense of collective pride and responsibility.

When squabbles erupt over direction or credit, coalition members who don’t represent a particular organization—for instance, a mother whose son died in gun violence or a teenager struggling to finish school despite a history of trauma—can often remind participants of the bigger picture at stake.

And when the time comes for recognition and funding, coalition leaders must share the wealth, Cohen says. This means being humble about their own capacity and also paying close attention to opportunities and ways to acknowledge the credit due to others.  He notes that when the Los Angeles Violence Prevention Coalition became “the big kid on the block” and was frequently approached by funders, the coalition often responded by saying that the money should go directly to one of its members.

In The Tension of Turf, Cohen and Gould offer specific tips to help forestall and manage turf struggles:

  • Invite individuals whose job descriptions and personalities make them less influenced by what’s happened in the past and capable of seeing beyond their own organization’s immediate goals.
  • Allow time at an initial coalition meeting—and as new members join—to hear about each organization’s mission, funding sources, strategies and concerns.
  • Encourage relationship-building with breaks at meetings (refreshments provided!) and small-group work.
  • Allow members to participate at different levels—some may be able to contribute financially toward the coalition, while others offer time, in-kind support, expertise or essential research.
  • Share the limelight and assure an equitable distribution of credit by rotating responsibilities, including leadership roles, hosting and facilitation, and representation at political gatherings or media opportunities.
  • Create a clear decision-making process. Cohen suggests adopting a unique definition of consensus to arrive at decisions that “the majority supports and everyone can live with.”
  • Take time to celebrate the successes of both the coalition and its members.

“Perhaps the most important tip,” Cohen and Gould write, “is to maintain a positive outlook and never underestimate the value of comradeship and creative thinking.”



Anndee Hochman is a journalist and author whose work appears regularly in The Philadelphia Inquirer, on the website for public radio station WHYY and in other print and online venues. She teaches poetry and creative non-fiction in schools, senior centers, detention facilities and at writers' conferences.