Nonprofit mergers can be a bit like dating. Sometimes, as both parties get to know each other better, they discover that they are not well suited for a long-term relationship. In other cases, the parties might feel they’ve met their soul mate and, therefore, they decide to spend the rest of their lives together.
My last blog post looked at why the merger plans by Abington Health and Holy Redeemer Health System failed, ending with the alienation of the entire community. With this post, I want to explore the successful merger on July 1 of seven United Way chapters in Pennsylvania and New Jersey.
Why did the United Way merger come together while the Abington and Holy Redeemer effort failed?
I spoke recently with Jill Michal, President and CEO of United Way of Greater Philadelphia and Southern New Jersey. While Michal would not compare the United Way merger with any other nonprofit merger, successful or unsuccessful, she was willing to provide insights about what she feels allowed the United Way merger to come together so well.
In short, she indicated that the merger was made possible because of shared values and enormous trust.
Given that each of the organizations in the merger were all United Way chapters, it’s easy to understand that they certainly held common values. Unfortunately, while Abington and Holy Redeemer both operate hospitals, the core values of each system are quite different; Abington has secular values while Holy Redeemer has Roman Catholic values. Sadly, the leadership of those organizations did not seem to anticipate how this would lead to controversy.
The United Way chapters developed trust in one another in a variety of ways. For more than a decade, the United Way chapters in the region engaged in collaborative efforts. Volunteer leaders and staff knew many of their counterparts and had worked collaboratively with them.
The merger exploration was not rushed; Michal says it took two years of work to explore a merger and craft an agreement. The time allowed each of the chapters to become comfortable with the merger idea and to work through the many details.
Early on, the merger discussions involved key staff and board members. As the talks became more focused and serious, the United Way discreetly reached-out to other stakeholders, according to Michal. This engagement also helped further build trust.
Susan J. Alston is a development professional who wrote an interesting research paper while in graduate school at Bay Path College. Fundraising Data Analysis and Stakeholder Communications: Considerations Prior to a Nonprofit Merger looks at the role that communications play in nonprofit mergers:
Orchestrating timely and hierarchal communications about the impending merger with stakeholders (state and private funders, past board members, major donors, and other key volunteers, staff) in an effort to encourage positive and supportive engagement will retain loyalty to the mission and purpose of the newly merged organization.”
I thank Alston for sharing her paper with us.
The United Way seems to have understood the link between effective communications and trust that Alston explored.