Sunday, December 7, 2008

Plotting the Perfect Merger

Well, if you don't believe me, that well-known third sector prophet-of-doom Dame Geraldine Peacock (winner of the most Wonderful Person in the Universe, several times) said last week that about 60,000 UK charities would `wither on the vine' very soon.

This is bound to happen. In 1994, when I first started Speaking Up there were about 90,000 charities. Now there are almost twice that number. 1994 was also the year the economy really got going again after the recessions of the 80s and 90s

Therefore, I believe 2009 will be the Year of the Merger. There is nothing like the threat of imminent vapourization to get people over themselves and into a sensible conversation with the organisation down the road with a similar name, mission and area of concern. And not before time. Our supporters have for too long been paying for too many organisations, all with their own CEOs,offices, IT systems and so on.

One of the biggest barriers to charity mergers is, I believe, ego. The people who found and run organisations tend to think, on some level, it is about them. I know this because I am one such person myself. My ego is, in many ways, tied into the continued success of Speaking Up. Left unchecked (and mine is pruned constantly by my excellent board and senior team), this is dangerous and leads to Little Republics.

So if you're going to merge with the people down the road, what's the best way to do it? Well, the first is to pick people you feel you can work with and a culture which blends well with your own. A fratricidal feud will create mutual destruction very quickly.

The second is to pick an organisation that has something you want (a great infrastructure, a good balance-sheet, a sexy brand or great reputation)and which also views you as desirable in some way. Don't merge with a Titanic - or wait till you're so badly-holed that no-one will throw you a line. Act early.

The third is to get some of the big questions out of the way first. Is this a merger or a takeover - be honest. If you're more than three times the size of the other organisation, it is probably a takeover. Call it spade.

The fourth is to sort out who gets what jobs. Ideally a new organisation will take the best people from both sides but fear about this gets in the way of even the most logical mergers.

Fifthly, involve as many people as you can in the actual decision. Mergers can feel the ultimate in being `done unto'. Let this not happen to you. Give people a say - a vote even.

So, if you do find the perfect merger partner, how should you behave? I would say that if you are the larger party it is vital to behave with grace, respect and generousity. For a merger to work the smaller party must never feel bullied or dominated. Be open to ensuring your partner's identity finds its way into the new identity. Indeed there may well be a case for keeping their brand, as has happened with two charities recently merged into a much larger one.

The final thing I would say is that you might want to find some help. Mergers are difficult to get right. Due diligence is important and some facilitation will be needed to get to the issues. Sadly, there's not a lot of good stuff written. But there's plenty of CEOs out there doing it now. So talk to them.

Whatever you think about mergers they are going to become the norm in the coming year or two. We are entering very bleak times, the depth of which few yet appreciate. The trouble this time is that it isn't clear we will come out into clear growth in three or so years. We just don't know. Such is the crisis.

In this environment, we must behave responsibly - and this means many more mergers.

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