When a Nonprofit Merger is Deeply Personal
Recently I had the privilege and pleasure to be involved in several negotiations processes that were deeply personal to the members of the boards of directors and leadership staff. All such projects have a certain level of personal involvement; board members and staff are naturally attached to their organization and its mission, and sometimes have family or friends that have utilized the services. The depth of attachment can vary depending on the mission, programs, and communities served by the organizations involved. One project in particular really drove this home for me.
While working with an organization that provided drug and alcohol rehabilitation, I became aware that several Board members and lead staff had been recipients of the services provided. The treatment and counseling these individuals received had saved their lives. Needless to say the prospect of merging this organization with another that provided support, counseling, and job training to the homeless was felt at a very personal level.
These individuals had serious—and understandable—concerns regarding the impact of a merger on the services that had so impacted their own health and well being. There were fears that the programs would either go away or change significantly and thus no longer resemble the services they themselves had experienced. Their allegiance to these services was deeply connected to their personal experience and the resulting desire to help others impacted by alcohol and drugs.
The ability to embrace the potential of a merger was deeply tied to the ability to trust that current services would continue. Building this trust required opening up and developing relationships with others who would have leadership roles (both board and staff) in the new organization. Those with concerns also needed assurance that the team managing the treatment services within a merged entity would be able to maintain a certain level of autonomy with respect to program delivery.
Fortunately, the leadership of the other organization understood this attachment and respected the life-changing nature of the relationship between individuals and services. They were also able to point out how those services might be improved, and how the merger could expand the opportunity for treatment to a new population—homeless in the community.
Through the process of building these relationships, the organizations were able to develop the mutual trust necessary to come to agreement, and as a result, increase their collective impact in the community.