As of July 1, Maternity Care Coalition (MCC) has expanded its 150-member family to include the seven-person staff of Bucks County nonprofit Child, Home and Community (CHC).
And as always, there are plenty of lessons to be learned.
Talk of a potential merger began last summer, when CHC’s former executive director, Colleen Miller, brought the idea to CHC’s board — “to her credit,” said Lisa Farnin, who served as the VP of the board and has since joined MCC’s board.
Though CHC was in a good place financially, Farnin said Miller, who left CHC in May to become the assistant executive director of programs at Reading’s Supportive Concepts For Families, had taken note of funding trends that might make the org less sustainable in the future.
Specifically, much of CHC’s budget was made up of a large grant from the state — and with last year’s budget impasse, “we really got a good shake” and were forced to envision a future where CHC’s clients couldn’t get the care they needed, Farnin said.
And so in August, MCC Executive Director JoAnne Fischer got a call from Linda Abram at North Penn United Way (now a part of United Way of Greater Philadelphia and Southern New Jersey) asking if she would consider meeting with a grantee — that’s CHC — because “they saw a lot of synchronicity in terms of the work we were doing and our passion around pregnant women and families and young children,” Fischer said.
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The nonprofits’ missions are similar, but not identical:
- MCC’s goal is “to improve maternal and child health and well-being through the collaborative efforts of individuals, families, providers, and communities in Southeastern Pennsylvania.”
- CHC’s is “to ensure healthy births, enhance family stability and promote self-sufficiency,” with a focus on “at-risk teen and young adult parents.”
The two organizations set up as task force with board members and staff from each to discuss whether a merger could work.
“It was pretty quick,” said Fischer of MCC, which is headquartered near the Philadelphia Museum of Art but has offices across the region, including in Doylestown. “We decided this made a lot of sense. “They were getting a lot of pressure for more outcomes and a level of sophistication for data that they weren’t prepared for. We have a lot of experience [with those].”
The whole process took under a year. (Compare that with Fairmount Park Conservancy’s 2015 merger with the former Fairmount Park Historic Preservation Trust, which took something like seven years to actualize.)
To fund a strategic planning consultant, in April, the task forced applied for and received a $35,000 Implementation Grant from Nonprofit Repositioning Fund (NRF), the nearly two-year-old organization that contributes funding for nonprofit partnerships, mergers, acquisitions and occasionally, dissolutions.
But it wasn’t the first time MCC had considered a merger: In Dec. 2015, MCC received an Exploratory Grant from NRF to explore the possibility of merging with a different nonprofit.
“While it had initially looked like it was a natural fit, as they went through the exploratory process both parties concluded that they were not ready for a merger after all,” Director Nadya Shmavonian wrote in an email. “We considered that to be a good investment, however, in the belief that it is better that people go through a thoughtful process and make a fully informed decision to either go forward, or in this instance, NOT proceed.
“In discussions with JoAnne as she approached this new opportunity, it was clear that having been through that exploratory process in the prior year, she and the MCC board were in a better position to make and move a sound decision to advance the CHC merger.”
Here’s specifically what made this merger work:
- The missions were aligned — Both nonprofits served mothers and children. However, their programming didn’t overlap, so the implementation of those missions weren’t duplicative.
- Both were in good financial positions — The decision to merge wasn’t made out of desperation, so everyone involved could be appropriately focused on making the best decision on behalf of their clients.
- Both executive directors were committed — And “open and honest,” Farnin said.
- Both boards were dedicated — “Deep board investment in these decisions is critical,” Shmavonian said. Members came to each other’s fundraising events to get to know their communities. They also lent their professional expertise by putting in a ton of volunteer hours.
- They got pro bono help — Legal fees would have made up a big chunk of the smaller nonprofit’s budget. CHC worked with Bruce Fenton at Pepper Hamilton, a firm that regularly works in mergers and acquisitions with corporate clients, while MCC was aided by Richard Umbrecht and Richard Aldridge of Morgan Lewis.
- They worked quickly — “Setting a reasonable but aggressive pace on the evaluation is really important,” Farnin said. If they’d determined the merger wasn’t a good fit at the outset, they would have called it quits without wasting much time.
Still, as with any major organizational shakeup, challenges remain. Here’s what MCC is still dealing with:
- How much time it took — Within that quick year, both staffs and boards spent countless hours and sent “thousands of emails,” Farnin said. She recommends other nonprofits considering a merger decide early how much time they can afford to have staffers dedicate to the transition. (We’ve heard this before.)
- The website merge — The two had planned to publicly announce the organizational merger sooner, but the tech is tricky.
- “Little odds and ends” — For instance, CHC’s work week was shorter than MCC’s, so CHC employees will need to adjust, Fischer said.
Mergers can lend themselves to a sense of loss for the board and staff of the nonprofit being absorbed, and Farnin said that was present on the CHC side. There will inevitably be a culture shift when a small, tight-knit nonprofit joins one with well over a hundred employees.
“But we kept reminding ourselves, ‘Remember the clients,'” she said. “That’s why CHC exists, for the clients.”