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Case in Point: The Empower Yolo Merger Illustrates Survey Findings

 

Survey data is important but the story behind the numbers illustrates more, which is why we wanted to share a case study on one of our merger and alliance survey respondents, Empower Yolo located in Yolo County, California. Empower Yolo and the Yolo Center for Families are two nonprofits that worked with La Piana on a merger in 2016. Lynnette Irlmeier, Empower Yolo’s Executive Director, offered to share their experience with us after filling out our survey.

As a merged organization, Empower Yolo’s mission is to promote safe, healthy, and resilient communities. Empower Yolo was originally focused on providing crisis intervention and specialized services to victims of domestic violence and sexual assault. The Yolo Center for Families, which took on the Empower Yolo name post-merger, engaged families in accessing support and resources promoting health, stability, and self-sufficiency, so that children thrived in and contributed to a strong community.

The experience of Empower Yolo/Center for Families echoed the same successes highlighted in our survey:  improved brand/reputation, higher public visibility, expanded expertise, and stronger financial health. Empower Yolo’s positive outcomes were attributed to:

  • Building trust by starting with a larger effort around a four-way collaboration. As other partners dropped out of the process, Empower Yolo and Center for Families discovered deeper connections.
  • A departing CEO provided both an impetus for exploring collaboration and a finite timeline for decision-making.
  • Sharing space helped clarify that they served the same client base and could expand their impact by providing a wider range of culturally-appropriate services.

Lynnette Irlmeier, Empower Yolo Executive Director reports that evidence of their success is in the numbers. With eleven languages now spoken by staff, the program mix strengthened, more clients are being served, and more clients report feeling more welcome. Word-of-mouth from satisfied clients means more individuals and families are getting the support they need.

Empower Yolo also reported many of the same challenges noted in our merger and alliance survey. Irlmeier noted that creating a shared culture was a challenge that seemed far off in the distance during initial negotiations. One lesson learned was to “celebrate the legacy of any dissolving organization and to acknowledge that loss for staff.” Irlmeier also felt monthly communications with staff helped assuage fears and anxiety.

Irlmeier pointed out that she had many concerns about fundraising before the merger, similar to many respondents in our survey. However, like our survey respondents, Empower Yolo found that “the merger was a way for the money to go further, so people were overall supportive.” This is consistent with our findings that show pre-merger fundraising concerns are dispelled post-merger. Empower Yolo found success in fundraising once they gained economy of scale and “could raise funds for more causes and be a one-stop shop for donors who want to help on many different fronts.”

Empower Yolo finds itself in a solid financial position given the impact of COVID-19. Irlmeier notes that there were “minor savings as a result of the merger but mostly it changed the way money was spent.” With a combined budget approaching $2.5 million rather than two agencies with budgets just over $1 million, they were able to streamline operations as well as create a grants manager position. This is creating more opportunities for growth as Empower Yolo fills multiple voids in the community. “People want to give to everybody, but they can’t. Now they are able to make a difference in a lot of ways because we do something for everybody.”

Lynnette also shared her advice for other nonprofit leaders considering collaboration or partnerships:

  • Don’t start by thinking “merger or bust” – look at the many ways you can work together.
  • Look at the solutions rather than the problems.
  • It’s okay to step forward and explore the idea. You can always step back.
  • Don’t hurry and don’t merge out of crisis.
  • If you do merge out of crisis, then be open about it.
  • Having an outside consultant with no preconceived notions about either agency or what the ultimate arrangement should be helps everyone trust the process.

Next in our series is an exploration of the CEO/Executive Director role in mergers. If you have insights or input you would like to share, we’d love to hear it. Email us at info@lapiana.org or leave a comment below.

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