Before the holidays, I took some time to attend a two-day corporate merger integration seminar in Dallas. Although unconventional for a nonprofit, the successful meshing of any two organizations seemed more similar than not. And with a heavy focus on “getting it right”, I had a hunch there could be some important learning for HI-USA.
The seminar was sponsored by Pritchett, a firm with impeccable credentials both as a merger advisor and as a publisher. Before signing up, I called the Pritchett president to talk about my participation. He acknowledged that while more than 30,000 had participated in previous seminars, likely just a handful were nonprofits. Yet talking together, we both came to see how the Pritchett approach could be useful to HI-USA.
So in the classic nonprofit tradition, I found a cheap airfare via Charlotte outbound and Philadelphia returning, and I was on my way to Dallas. Rather than the preferred Westin Galleria hotel where others stayed, I checked into the nearby Springhill hotel under renovation. But the morning walk was invigorating, a Starbucks was on the way, and I was there for the knowledge, not a vacation.
I knew I had made the right decision about an hour into the seminar. I joined about 20 other participants, largely from pharmaceutical and technology companies and all with their own unique perspectives. The instructor was a “hands on” expert, who had flown in the night before from working on a Silicon Valley deal, and afterwards would be off to a client merger meeting on the East Coast.
I introduced myself to those in the room as CEO of the USA’s largest hostel network. Intrigued, a show of hands revealed most had heard of hostels; few had expected that any nonprofit would be halfway through a process to unify 27 separate entities. (“You should teach the seminar,” a tablemate whispered. “Not quite yet,” I bantered.)
As expected, I was the only nonprofit in the room, but after the introductions that was quickly forgotten. With the background of HI-USA unification activity, I was an eager and equal participant in the discussions. There was a need to engage in some mental gymnastics along the way. Of course, when I heard “merger,” I thought “unification,” and their “bottom line” included non-monetary “mission results” for me. When they talked of “deal drivers,” I mentally noted “staff and volunteer aspirations.”
Yet there were a host of useful takeaways. Among a few of the more immediate ones:
– The approach required for a successful merger varies dramatically depending on size and complexity (which we are finding as we move from unifying smaller councils to larger ones).
– More complex organizations benefit from an Integration Manager who can focus exclusively on keeping things on track (which we subsequently implemented).
– Communication is a major determinant of success (which we have invested in from the beginning, but need to continue to get better at).
– Many companies underfund the integration of operations, to the detriment of the final outcome (a useful reminder for budget planning).
With more than half of HI-USA councils now unified (15 of 26 at this writing), we are heading into the final stretch numerically. But by other measures, our unification – its implementation and its benefits – is just beginning. Looking outside our organization for best practices – while valuing our own strengths and mission purposes – is one way to help assure we fully realize success.