Photo courtesy of the Fairmount Park Conservancy
Moving On is a series of Q&As with social impact leaders who are leaving their organizations for new opportunities. Here, they will share what they learned and where they’re headed.
Kathryn Ott Lovell knows better than most that the merging of two well-established nonprofits can be a hell of a process.
Talks for the merger of the Fairmount Park Conservancy, of which she has been the executive director for the past five years, and the Fairmount Park Historic Preservation Trust lasted for approximately seven years before it crystallized.
The Conservancy serves as a steward for the natural resources of the city’s vast park system. It finally adopted the Trust’s mission of preserving the system’s historic buildings this past April — a move that turned out to be “as close to seamless as a merger could possibly be,” she said.
Ott Lovell, who previously worked as the chief advancement officer at the City of Philadelphia Mural Arts Program, will become the commissioner of the Department of Parks and Recreation under the Kenney administration at the end of January. Generocity Editor Julie Zeglen spoke to her about how the Conservancy changed under her watch, what organizations need to do to merge well and what she expects the challenges and rewards will be for serving in a new mayoral administration. Their conversation has been edited for length.
Generocity: Can you describe what you did in your role as executive director of the Fairmount Park Conservancy?
Kathryn Ott Lovell: I started at the Conservancy almost five years ago, when it was a much smaller and different organization. When I was hired, the Conservancy was focused almost solely on fundraising. My heart certainly is in working more closely in community neighborhoods with citizens, and so we did a new strategic plan within my first three months here and really changed the whole focus of the organization. We [now] exist to champion the park system of Philadelphia and to not just provide resources, but to plan [and] implement projects and programs that support the advancement of the park system.
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We’ve been incredibly successful with that. We’ve grown our staff from three people when I started to we now have 21 full-time staff in five years. It’s a big jump. We went from a $750,000 annual operating budget to a $5 million operating budget in five years. We’ve been able to build an incredible amount of support, and also we’ve been able to build a real, vibrant constituency base of folks who understand what we are, who support what we do and who give voice to the vision behind what we do.
G: This year, the Fairmount Park Historic Preservation Trust merged with the Conservancy. And this was after a seven-year process — is that correct?
KOL: [Laughs] Well, yeah, we had been in conversation for probably about seven years. The merger process itself was probably only about a year. So, we were courting. We were dating before we got married.
The merger was a long time coming. For the most part, we were two organizations with very similar missions. A lot of people thought we were the same thing. We would get their phone calls, they would get ours. And we at the staff and certainly at the board level didn’t see a need to separate the natural and physical aspects of the park.
The merger has been as close to seamless as I think a merger could be. Our boards have merged really well together, and our staff have merged incredibly well together. The former executive director of the Trust, Lucy Strackhouse, has come on as our senior director for properties and preservation. In many ways, [the merger] just made the Conservancy a more robust organization and built a tremendous amount of capacity for the preservation work, too.
G: It seems that a lot of nonprofits are very hesitant to talk about mergers or entertain the concept because they’re worried there could be a loss of mission or loss of the history of the organization. In the case of this merger, what are some things that both organizations did really well to make sure that both missions were still supported?
KOL: I think the leadership is really important, in terms of making sure that organizational leaders both at the board level and the staff level have real buy-in to the process and that neither mission is being lost in the process. I think that balance, equity — there needs to commitment to that from the beginning of the conversation. And just a real openness, and mostly just trust. We trusted each other implicitly and wanted to work together.
A real turning point for us [was], at one point in some of our discussions around the merger, someone on the former Trust board said, “Look, all we need to do is ask ourselves, before we get to the room for the meeting, is what is best for the park? It’s not what is best for the Conservancy, it’s not what is best for the Trust, but every decision we make, we need to ask ourselves, what is best for the park? And if we begin every conversation with that in mind, then we sort of check our egos at the door, check our allegiances at the door. We pledge allegiance to the park.” And that was a really important shift in the mindset and really helped to focus us.
G: Sure — “It’s not about us, it’s about the mission itself.”
KOL: That’s right.
G: Were all staff members retained? Are they just working within different departments now?
KOL: Ours is a unique merger in that there were no jobs lost. If you look at the Conservancy like it was the larger agency, it’s like we added a department onto what we do.
I think it’s very brave for organizations to consider mergers and partnerships, especially for organizations that are founder-driven and for organizations that have really strong leaders. But if the economic downturn a few years ago taught us nothing else, we have to be stronger together, and if we’re going to do things that are best for our organizations and the city and the constituents we serve, every option has to be on the table.
G: You will be commissioner of the Parks and Recreation department. How did this opportunity come up and why was that move attractive to you?
KOL: I’ve always wanted to work in city government. That’s really why I’ve worked in the two organizations that I’ve worked in. I worked for six years with the City of Philadelphia Mural Arts Program, which is a quasi-city agency slash nonprofit, and then here at the Conservancy, we work incredibly closely with the Department of Parks and Recreation. With the new Kenney administration and with Mike [DiBerardinas, the existing commissioner] moving into his new role as managing director, I thought this would be a really unique opportunity.
G: So, you’ll still have a relationship with the Conservancy there?
KOL: Absolutely, yeah.
G: The big-picture position for your new position: What do you foresee being some of the challenges as well as the rewards of serving in a new mayoral administration?
KOL: Let’s start with the rewards. I think Mayor-Elect Kenney has a huge vision for serving neighborhoods and giving voice to people in neighborhoods, being responsive to citizens, and I think that in every neighborhood in the city, there are parks and recreational resources and assets. It’ll be really critical to see how we can lift up those forces in communities to help build that vision in the Kenney administration. I think that’s incredibly exciting.
And then I think the challenges are that there was a merger in the department five years ago. The Fairmount Parks Commission was dissolved and there was a merger of Parks and Recreation. That merger’s not done yet. In a lot of ways, the departments have been functionally merged, but culturally, I think there’s still some work left to do. So, I think that’s going to be a challenge, is to build a unified vision for the department, one that is something that is about creating equity in neighborhoods and really great resources for everybody in the system.