Unconventional, But Not Unexpected

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.

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