In an effort to highlight collaboration this month, we turned to one of the best examples of collaboration here in Atlanta. New American Pathways was born of the merger between two refugee services organizations. Here, Amy Crownover, Marketing and Communications Director, shares a few of the lessons they learned in the process.
Are you thinking about merging nonprofits? Or just investigating a stronger collaboration? Merging can be either terrific or horrific, and sometimes both at the same time, so stay calm and read on.
New American Pathways was created by the merger of Refugee Resettlement and Immigration Services of Atlanta (RRISA) and Refugee Family services (RFS) as of Oct. 1, 2014 – it seems like many years ago now, and it’s been an amazing journey. RRISA’s framework for refugee service spanned from resettlement to citizenship, but RFS had complementary services and expertise in between those milestones to help refugees sustain long-term.
Both teams were motivated by the people we serve: while new Americans arrive here from different places and travel along individual pathways, they share some common characteristics that got them here safely – namely, optimism, resilience, and resourcefulness. Our leadership had to model those characteristics to succeed in bringing a vision of comprehensive services to reality, a vision that neither individual organization could achieve alone.
If you’re going to pursue a merger, you also need to model these characteristics. As I reflect on our merger story, there are five things I’ll share that may guide your success:
1. Engage your board early and often.
You need their buy-in, support, and ambassadorship to make it happen. Your board should come from different backgrounds and expertise, and they can bring a perspective whether you’re in the weeds or in the clouds that you need to consider. We could not have merged without the attorneys from both organizations thinking along every potential roadblock when developing the merger agreement.
2. Be mission driven – not driven by financial need.
One of the things the philanthropic community told us made our merger unique was that we didn’t have to merge. We chose to merge. We saw the potential of bringing these two organizations together to fill service gaps for the refugee community. We were on equal footing, not one acquiring the other. Stay focused on the good you can do – develop your vision early and know what you want to accomplish. You must have a clear and measurable goal to make a compelling case for merging without losing the support of your donors. By the way, this is where I think consultants are best engaged – research and planning. They can be an objective expert in data gathering and consulting on decisions – but only the leaders in your organization can make the decisions.
3. Pace yourself.
The process of merging is a marathon that feels like a sprint. Creating your vision and getting the framework on paper is only Step 1 – and you have to maintain your everyday support aside from raising the merger budget. For RRISA and RFS, once we decided to merge, the first year was all about creating buy-in and raising the funds to merge. In the second year, we were physically merging our infrastructure and technology. There will be a million things to do and you cannot do them all. Plan for phases and give yourself and your team lots of breaks. You can’t run a new organization if your staff are exhausted and morale is at an all-time low.
4. Plan for change.
Best laid plans and all, right? The reality is … just making your organization into ‘one’ doesn’t actually make it ‘one.’ Be prepared for things to evolve and be honest with your team about it. Make sure you have the right people in the right places, but be prepared for discovering (or being mandated) the need for different staffing structures – people leave, funding changes, and so on. For us, in the third year, the dust has settled and we are really looking at morale of the team, seeking any underlying issues and evaluating how our pathway is working.
5. Give everyone else the credit.
You need a team that is bought in on the vision. You succeed together, and you take hits together. When people support you, give them the win. Thank and recognize those who help along the way – often. As you create your vision and make your plan, think strategically about how to take advantage of the excitement around the merger to build relationships with your community. Engage new support while you have something new and shiny to sell!
As the marketing and communications director, I get to tell stories about remarkable new Americans and, with each story, I am more impressed by their determination and resilience. I remain inspired by those we serve every day, but I now also relish in seeing the vision from our merger coming to life – and working – to help refugees and Georgia thrive. I wish you an equally successful journey.