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“Surviving a merger was the biggest test of my career”

“Surviving the merger process is down to commitment, a sense of humour – and a decent supply of biscuits.”

In 2017 – Rural Action Yorkshire and North Yorkshire and York Forum – merged to become Community First Yorkshire. Leah Swain, CEO of Community First Yorkshire, talks in the Guardian Voluntary Sector Network about her experience of leading this merger.

Read the article here.

Will this completely overwhelm my time?

We asked the leaders of three organisations that we have supported with merger to share their thoughts: 

 

Gillian Santi
Former Chair of the Independent Adoption Service (IAS)

 

‘Making the decision on merger as a sustainable way forwards for our adoption service was very time-consuming.

However, the Board engaged a facilitator to ensure that time would be effectively managed through a staged process, which meant that I, as a relatively inexperienced Chair, would not have an overwhelming time commitment.’

 

 

 

 

Laurie Rackind and Neil Taylor
Chief Executive and Trustee of Jami UK

 

‘Yes. It will overwhelm you and you will almost certainly underestimate the time and energy required to make it happen.’ 

 

 

 

Joanna Holmes
Chief Executive of Barton Hill Settlement

 

‘There is a lot to do but some of it is very administrative, especially the due diligence work, and HR focussed if you are transferring staff.

So it depends if you have someone to delegate the bulk of this work to. It is also important to follow a good process and it’s possible to bring in someone to help manage this as there are experienced consultants who do this. I think as CEO it’s important to keep a clear overview and to be very alive to relevant developments and this is harder if you are also doing the bulk of the detailed work. So the short answer is that it need not be overwhelming but it is an important piece of work and takes months not weeks.’

 

 

 

 

How will I know if it’s the right thing to do?

We asked the leaders of three voluntary organisations that we have supported with merger to share their thoughts: 

 

Joanna Holmes
Chief Executive of Barton Hill Settlement

 

‘It depends a little bit on the circumstances. However, you need to trust your instincts. 

Does it make you feel excited and give you a strong feeling that bringing the organisations together creates something more for the people you serve than you can achieve separately? Can you imagine describing the new organisation to different people quite simply so that it feels like a natural fit and a positive move? If you still have doubts I would advise listing them carefully and going through them with senior staff or Board members until you are sure, as it will be hard if you are not completely convinced.’

 

 

 

 

Gillian Santi
Former Chair of the Independent Adoption Service (IAS)

 

‘The organisation was under increasing financial pressure and the Board agreed that merger was the best way forward.

Structured conversations with IVAR assured me that I was making the right decision and that there was a good match between the two charities.’

 

 

 

 

Laurie Rackind and Neil Taylor
Chief Executive and Trustee of Jami UK

 

‘If you don’t already know if it’s the right thing to do … then it’s probably not!

We had a very simple vision – to create a single service. Had our vision included anything that needed debate, then we would most likely have failed to complete the process. Whatever the challenges and disagreements (and there were plenty), we never doubted that we were striving for the right goal. Four years on, we still question how we should do things and what we should do … but we never question why we did it.’

Strategies for survival

At a recent Roundtable discussion for CEOs of voluntary organisations, Arvinda Gohil, CEO of Community Links, discussed her organisation’s recent partnership with Catch22.


Context

 

 
Those present shared the challenges at the forefront of their minds:
 
  • Pressure/squeeze on time, space for planning and asking big questions about the organisation’s future. For example, when and whether to look at merger; and ‘lack of opportunities to have open discussions about challenges’
  • Lack of long-term funding; constant pressure to diversify/reinvent. Basically ‘having to find different ways of meeting the same objectives’, but paucity of alternative funding sources: ‘a drying up of funds; very difficult to find the equivalent elsewhere’
  • Competitive funding environment makes it difficult to judge what/when to share with others
  • Many organisations have no idea what their true financial situation is’
  • ‘The pace and scale of change makes it so difficult to plan or predict when everything is so uncertain’
 
Attendees acknowledged that it is difficult to find people who will tell you what to avoid, and very unusual to have ‘this kind of forum’ for discussion. They hoped to have an open conversation about the above challenges.
 

 

Key messages for organisations who find themselves in crisis

 

 

  • ‘Bumping along from crisis to crisis isn’t sustainable long-term’
  • ‘Comprehensive reviews of your organisation have to start with the finances: is there enough transparency, depth and credibility?’
  • ‘You need cash to downsize and then more cash to re-size’
  • ‘What should matter most is the preservation of the work, not saving the organisation. And if the work is still needed, your job is to find a way of delivering it. But there is no room for sentiment – with the organisation or with people.’
  • ‘In looking for a partner [as a means of keeping the work going], the key question is: what do we each bring and what can we each get out of it?’
  • ‘A crisis can be an opportunity: to focus your mind on what really matters [the work, not the organisation]; and to focus funders’ minds on what their priorities are’
  • ‘Questions about merger or other partnerships should be asked routinely: what is the most appropriate and stable vehicle for delivering our charitable objects and delivering our work – that is what should matter most’
  • ‘If you enter into a formal partnership with another organisation, you need to understand that it’s never going to be the same again. Change is unavoidable.’
  • You can cut things here and there – salami slicing – but at some point, you have to re-structure the organisation that sits at the centre
  • Advice when looking for a partner to work with:
    • Ask for serious technical advice from people who are experienced
    • Get to know the organisation informally – CEO to CEO and Chair to Chair
    • Sit down with the head of the organisation you are looking to work with and consider what the future could look like with that person
    • Carry out due diligence in both directions
    • Shop around
 

 

Messages for Funders

 

 

  1. Rethink Diversification: routine exhortations to diversify income and be ‘more sustainable’ are at odds with realities of the funding environment: competitive; limited opportunities; tendency towards short-term, non-renewable.
  2. Rethink Continuation: ‘if you still get value from your investment, why end it?’
  3. Invest in New Partnership Models: ‘fund a trial of shared services across a group of organisations in the same field/geography; share and promote the lessons to reassure and inspire others’
  4. Supporting Peer Exchange: create space for leaders to think and reflect together, and look at different options and approaches for keeping their work going; as part of that, being proactive about creating linkages between grantees.