Cold Feet: Second Thoughts in the Midst of a Merger

In many merger explorations there is a time when one or both of the organizations experience some level of cold feet, usually toward the end of the process. This is understandable, given the serious nature of a decision to “get married.” Is this the right partner? Is this the right time? Will we be better able to meet the challenges of the future through this merger vs. staying independent? These are all questions that naturally come up in the process of merger exploration.

I remember my wedding day. I was standing at the altar, waiting for my bride to walk down the aisle. The organist was playing Pachelbel’s Canon in D (very popular 30 years ago). The organist played it through, and started again. No bride. He played again. No bride. My best man leaned over and said, “I think she has cold feet.” Yikes–now? Well, fortunately that was not the case. It turns out that the flower girl with a very nervous stomach had gotten sick on the wedding dress. So after a quick clean up, the wedding proceeded.

Nonprofits working through the issues of a potential merger often have some nervousness as they near a final decision. This could be due to a collective concern or may be an issue brought forward by an individual board member. It is to be expected, given that this may be one of the single greatest decisions in the life of the organization. Organizations are correct in questioning whether merger is the right move. But often the concern that is presented at the last minute in these cold feet situations is related to an issue that has already been thoroughly vetted and agreed upon.

When this happens, the best way to proceed is to acknowledge the reality of the concern, and not to make light of it but to treat it as a serious issue to be worked through. The consultant may go back over the issue with the group, confirm the original recommendation, and allow time to talk through the specific issue. Often the party or parties raising the concern just need time to get more comfortable with the final decision to merge, or it may be that a recommendation needs to be revisited and reconsidered in light of either new information or just simple nervousness.

In most situations, allowing the process to revisit areas of concern will help the organizations deal with the issue. At times, it can open up other concerns that had not yet been expressed. In either case, it is best handled with respect for the person(s) bringing up the concerns and the issues at hand. There may be a need for some one-on-one meetings and off-line conversations to consider the issues and to go back over the agreements and logic of the recommendations.

Ultimately, and in most cases, time and additional (sometimes targeted) discussions are all that is required to work through the issues–and finally say “I do!”

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