Thursday, February 11, 2010

The Building Blocks for a Successful Nonprofit Merger

Greetings from the snow covered tundra of Maryland!  Just as we have found ourselves in a deep freeze with snow totals over 40 inches, some nonprofits are finding themselves freezing for lack of membership and funds.  This situation can offer opportunities to nonprofits and associations if they resist the temptation to sit back and do nothing or just conduct business as usual.  Brock R. Landry and Lisa M. Hix, of Venable LLP in Washington, DC, give us a glimpse into what it might take to bring two struggling organizations together to create a single but stronger nonprofit.  No doubt it's not an easy thing to merge two organizations who may have similar goals but very different cultures, however, in today's climate, we must all be ready to explore every option.  Bunnie

The Building Blocks for a Successful Nonprofit Merger
by Brock R. Landry, Esq. and Lisa M. Hix, Esq.
Venable LLP, Washington, DC

Financial imperatives, contractions in membership bases, and consolidation in industries have led to an unprecedented period of growth in interest in nonprofit mergers. As a result, many nonprofits are eyeing current competitors as potential partners. However, mergers can easily fail when organizations mistake a central fact: mergers occur between people, not organizations. Mergers can fall apart for a variety of reasons: unexpected discoveries in the due diligence process, intractable issues that have been ignored, and differences in organizational cultures, among others. The following is a list of "lessons learned" from two association attorneys who have handled a broad range of association mergers.

Establish a Core Group of Merger Stewards. Establishing a group of volunteer and staff leaders to act as stewards of the merger is critical to success. The merger stewards will have two roles: 1) to come to an understanding of the merger plan, and to communicate this plan to the association's stakeholders, including the boards, staff and membership; and 2) to work through the inevitable issues that will arise in the due diligence process and/or as the groups integrate.

Ask the Hard Question Early: Which Organization Survives? Strength of negotiation posture can be measured by financial assets, membership base, industry contacts, and depth of operational expertise. Deciding how, and whether, to acknowledge this power disparity can be key to success in the long run. Early on, the organizations should agree on whether one organization should be viewed as the "surviving" entity, or whether both organizations will combine as equals. Although most mergers are described as the marriage of equals, rarely is this, in fact, the case.

Ask the Harder Question: What Are the Roles of the Respective Staff and Officers? A clear understanding of future roles and authority is central to a successful integration.

Jointly Develop a Merger Plan. The merger stewards from each organization should jointly develop a merger plan. This plan should include an outline of the combined governance structure, mission, core activities, membership categories and dues, and a broad staffing plan. A critical component of this plan is identifying board appointment procedures and the key leaders of the combined organization. The merger plan should include sufficient detail on the hard issues, but should be broad enough to allow for revision and elaboration based on stakeholder input.

Understand Approval Requirements and Dynamics. Once the core elements of the merger plan are in place, each organization should undertake a careful analysis of its respective board and member approval requirements. These requirements will be outlined in the state corporate code provisions of the organization's state of incorporation, as well as each organization's governing documents, such as bylaws. Where high approval requirements exist, early and active communication to the board and members is essential, as is a thorough understanding of permissible voting mechanisms.

Coordinate Internal and External Communication. In organizations with overlapping membership, having a coordinated "sell" document for the staff, board and members of each organization is critical. Release of information should be carefully coordinated between the organizations and each party should agree to give the other notice before making any announcements to the public. Nothing kills a merger faster than being blindsided by an unauthorized communication.

Agree on Coordinated Due Diligence. Merger timelines must allow for thorough due diligence. Associations considering mergers face a multitude of legal, governance, financial, and administrative issues that must be carefully explored and coordinated. To facilitate this process, the parties should agree upon a scope of due diligence and a due diligence timeframe.

Culture Matters. Finally, while it may make good business sense to merge, key stakeholders – including members, staff, and volunteer leaders – will not shift allegiances if the combined organization fails to bridge the cultures of both entities. Mergers work only when associations take the necessary steps to build teamwork and a shared vision of the future.

Brock Landry and Lisa Hix have handled a variety of mergers, including the American Bankers Association/America's Community Bankers merger and the American Electronics Association/Information Technology Association of America merger. For more information, please contact or Mr. Landry at brlandry@venable.com or Ms. Hix at lmhix@venable.com.

This article is not intended to provide legal advice or opinion and should not be relied on as such. Legal advice can only be provided in response to specific fact situations.

5 comments:

  1. From the nonprofit conversations I've heard, they not only want someone dedicated to the cause, ...

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  2. I have volunteered to help a non-profit organization to help build ... this isn't likely to be extremely successful as a Data Merge project.

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