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How to build Coalitions:
Turf Issues

by the Iowa State University Extension Service

Organizations join collaborative efforts or coalitions because they see the benefit of combining resources to work toward a common goal. Dealings between organizations usually are harmonious. But on occasion, controversy develops between group members. Sometimes the controversy involves competition; occasionally it escalates into conflict. When left unresolved, this tension can seriously damage the efforts of partners to reach their goal. This fact sheet examines "turf issues" as one source of organizational tension. It will discuss what they are, how they happen, and what to do about them. The sheet will help members avoid "turf issues" and manage those already existing.

What is "turf-ism"

"Turf-ism" is the non-cooperation or conflict between organizations with seemingly common goals or interests.

The term "turf issues" is borrowed from street gang language. Every gang has its neighborhood or "turf" in which it operates, and it defends this area against intruders form the outside (i.e. other gangs). This idea has a parallel concept in the animal kingdom, that of "territoriality." Individual animals have their "home base" around their mating, feeding, or nesting grounds that they vigorously defend against others even of the same species. Organizational development theory concludes that each organization has its "domain" or field of operation. Organizations have human and material resources, goals, and tasks related to those goals. When relationships are formed by community, educational, services, and business organizations, they agree to exchange resources. In the effort to secure their own resources and reach individual goals, organizational "domains" may overlap in coalition work. This may make them reluctant to enter into the exchange. When this happens, a "turf battle" can take place.

Why do "turf battles" happen?

These conflicts almost always involve perceptions of incompatible goals and / or threats to relationships. These perceptions cause organizations to defend their domain rather than share part of it. Every time two organizations interact, they establish boundaries through "exchange" relationships. The basic factor in triggering a turf battle is the degree of power surrendered or gained by the organizations involved. Power as used here is ability to control or manage resources to accomplish a goal. If both organizations feel they have access to an equal degree of power, cooperation continues, but if one organization feels that it has too much to lose by continued cooperation, it begins to defend its turf.

Each organization has its 'domain' or field of operation.

The following fundamental reasons for turf battles are related to perceived effect on power:

  • One organization perceives the other to be a direct and regular competitor for resources that are not likely to be shared;
  • One organization perceives the cost of the proposed cooperation in money, time, or energy to be greater than perceived benefits of collaboration;
  • One organization perceives it can not change its current goals, tasks, and philosophy to adopt the course of action being proposed.

Another reason for turf battles is the lack of understanding or trust between organizations. Conversely, collaboration usually is easier if organizations have much in common and perceive an overlap in missions.

Conflict may result when there is a perception of unequal resource exchanges between organizations, or when on organization feels that the proposed course of action is unilateral, giving them no real choice in the decision.

What makes turf-ism happen?

The domains of organizations can overlap in several different ways:

Goals - General goals of organizations may seem to be interrelated. However, something about a particular goal proposed for joint action may be perceived to work against the overall interest of one of the intended partners, or against another limited goal.

Resources - Competing proposals, requests for public or private funds, shared staff, supplies, facilities, etc. can overlap. Sometimes one intended party is denied totally; sometimes distribution is to both parties but not equal. In other situations, conflict over resources might result from how much of their resources the organization should put into the joint effort.

Geography - One organization feels that they provide some service to or represent interests of an area exclusively; to allow another organization to operate in the area may suggest that the first organization is not doing an adequate job. It also may be perceived as a duplication of effort or a source of potential confusion to target audiences.

Methods - Organizations may generally agree on goals, but one may feel that the approach used to reach them would be ineffective or counter-productive. One group may feel a degree of ownership over an activity or technique that another organization plans to use.

Identity or public perception - One organization feels that the partnering would change the way its group is viewed by the public (i.e. less powerful, more or less conservative, or less successful than the other partner).

Personalities - Representatives of one organization are personally disliked by staff of the other or represent a political or organizational threat. Non-cooperation represents a chance for the first group's representative to "win" or "damage" the other party.

How do groups avoid turf battles?

Avoiding turf battles in not easy but certainly is preferable to "untangling" existing battles. These points should be considered before starting or joining a coalition.

  • The coalition goals never are totally compatible with the individual or group goals of members. Members must be prepared to compromise, modify commitments, and help other members adjust to change.
  • Members must understand the coalition mission, goals must be clearly understood by members, and time must be allowed to develop commitment to them. The group should establish its domain and how group resources relate.
  • Always relate needs to available resources to help build momentum and cooperation. Being "capacity centered" can help avoid tackling too vague or too large a problem.
  • Understanding the relationships between personal and group goals can help indicate results. Organizations with only a partial or slight relationship to the coalition likely should not be a part of it. Organizations should study these relationships to assess the possibility of a good match.
  • The advantage of large groups comes in brainstorming and supplying information. The difficulty in large groups is in reaching consensus easily. Excellent communication helps the members avoid being surprised and allows time for consideration. Using structured sub-groups sometimes can ease the strain for a large coalition.
  • Negative feedback is acceptable only when accompanied by a proposal for compromise or an attempt to build consensus. Active listening and effective speaking skills tend to eliminate misunderstandings. Raising questions versus stating one's opinion will help reduce disagreements.

One organization may feel that they provide a service exclusively.

How are turf battles resolved?

Group conflict can be divided into two basic dimensions that are labeled substantive and affective. Substantive refers to conflicts primarily related to task. Conflicts of goals, methods, resources, and geography fall into this category. Affective conflicts relate to socio-emotional or interpersonal relations. Turf battles related to identity or personality fit this type. The first step in handling a turf battle in the coalition is to decide whether it is substantive or affective.

If the dispute is task related, an orderly problem-solving method often will help the coalition focus on the problem and structure a solution. Incorrect or incomplete information often is a major contributor to turf battles. Coalition leadership should build information-seeking activities into meeting. Leaders also need to be sensitive to constantly improving communication within the group (questioning techniques and summary statements are most helpful). Leaders may need to appoint ad hoc committees to research and report on issues at a future meeting. Ad hoc committees also can be useful in working toward compromise solutions when conflicts arise.

Affective (psychological) disputes can best be resolved by

  • Translating the conflict to a task issue (to help reduce emotions).
  • keeping the coalition focused on common goals.
  • Helping members remain tolerant and restrain emotions.
  • Having a conflict management procedure developed.


Barker, Larry L., Wahlers, Kathy J., Groups in Process - An Introduction to Small Group Communication, 2nd Ed., New Jersey, Prentice-Hall, Inc., 1983.

Center for Urban Affairs and Policy Research, How to Find Out About Groups and Organizations in Your Neighborhood. Northwestern University, Evanston, IL, 1988.

Coser, Lewis., The Functions of Social Conflict., New York, Free Press of Glencoe, 1969.

Levine, Sol and White, Paul., Exchange as a Conceptiual Framework for the Study of Interorganizational Relationships, 1961.

Zald, Mayer N., Organizations as Polities: An Analysis of Community Organization Agencies, in Readings in Community Organization Practice, 1969.

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About the Author:

Adapted for use by Iowa State University Extension by Jim Meek, co-chair, abuse issue committee, from materials developed by the Ohio State University.

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