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Behind the Merger of Two Fairmount Park Nonprofits

April 30, 2015 Category: Results

For over a decade, the Fairmount Park Conservancy and the Fairmount Park Historic Preservation Trust worked to maintain and improve the massive, city-wide park. The Conservancy served as a steward of its natural resources. The Preservation Trust worked to preserve its many historic buildings.

While their missions were closely aligned and they often competed for the same funding sources, the nonprofits remained separate entities. That changed last week with the announcement of a long-awaited merger, which brought both nonprofits under the Fairmount Park Conservancy name. The Preservation Trust’s programs are being reorganized as a department within the Conservancy, and all employees will remain on staff.

Officials from both organizations have described the merger as a win-win situation, especially for the park itself. But bringing the the two nonprofits together didn’t happen in the space of a few months or even years. The process dragged out over several years, with talks beginning as early as 2007.

“It all started because the Trust was embarking on a new strategic planning process, and at the time we were looking at our own organization and we didn’t have any development staff,” said Lucy Strackhouse, former executive director of the Preservation Trust and now director of preservation at the Conservancy.

The Trust operated like many small nonprofits: It specialized in its programming, not fundraising or administration. Its time, energy and money went into restoring historic interiors and preserving crumbling masonry and wood. Strackhouse and her small staff squeezed administrative tasks into the narrow margins of time leftover between doing what they did best.

“It has always been difficult to find funding for preservation, and we really needed some staff dedicated not only researching grants and writing grants, but also helping with our annual benefits,” Strackhouse said. “Looking at the Conservancy staff, it really just made sense to do this together instead of the Trust hiring our own development staff and then competing with the Conservancy for the dollars that are out there.”

She added that they were already competing for some of the same donors, including from major philanthropies such as the William Penn Foundation.

Other reasons for the merger include ending some public confusion over the difference between the two organizations (they sometimes received each other’s checks in the mail) and presenting a united front to the larger community.

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There are a lot of organizations and cultural institutions that work in Fairmount Park, but both the Trust and the Conservancy served the entire park, according to Tim Clair, director of operations and planning at the Conservancy. “Programmatically, it made a ton of sense,” he said.

As the deal was forming, however, so was the worst economic downturn since the Great Depression. By the 2008, the organizations “decided that we should put it on hold while we continued to talk and work together,” Strackhouse said.

How was the deal able to survive after such a long break?  In addition to the economic climate finally improving, both organizations had grown stronger since the initial talks. They also remained committed to the idea of a merger.

“I think it happened because there was such strong leadership in both organizations at the board and staff level that submerged any personal interest to say ‘we can create a more powerful organization,’” said Don Kligerman, president of Fairmount Ventures, which served as a consultant through the merger process.

While factors like personal ego may seem minor, they can make all the difference in a nonprofit consolidation process, especially when it comes to issues like what the new organization will be named.

“Early on we asked, ‘what’s the name of the organization going to be?’ It’s just one of those tactical things. And although I hated to see the Trust name not be used anymore, the Conservancy name really fit the organization,” Strackhouse said.

There are also a number of precedents, Kligerman explained, for combining park organizations that deal the built environment (historic buildings and public art) with those that deal with the natural environment. The Central Park Conservancy in New York City, for example, does both.

Kligerman noted that the merger is a part of larger trend in the nonprofit sector towards consolidation.

“Fairmount Ventures has been around for 23 years, and 20 years ago I did my first nonprofit merger,” Kligerman said. The number of deals since then has increased substantially, he added.

There are number of reasons why this is happening: one being that the nonprofit world tracks the for-profit world, just a bit slower, Kligerman noted.

“It has to do with a whole host of things, everything from the availability of capital to the need to invest in technology, which is expensive, the availability of talent, the complexity of issues,” he said.

From Clair’s perspective, who has worked in the sector for over a decade, mergers and other forms of collaboration still aren’t happening enough.

“Philly is a place that is wonderfully rich in nonprofit organizations that too often don’t look for these kinds of opportunities, especially at a time when its more challenging to get individuals and foundation dollars,” he said.

“I think that there are other parts of the nonprofit community that maybe could use this as an example to set aside territorialism and look at what’s best for the city.”

Photo via Flickr user Gary Reed

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