Mergers and Marriages

The economic, technological, and demographic changes that have happened over the past few years have led to several terrific collaborations, many thoughtful discussions, and some powerful partnerships within the nonprofit arts community. They have also led to some strange bedfellows. 

We have seen a higher-than-usual number of mergers among arts and cultural organizations over this time period.  Although I was not involved with them at the time of their mergers, I am now working with several of these organizations to help smooth staff, board, programming, and financial issues.  I’m also working to help them rebuild trust and regain their optimism.

I find myself comparing mergers to marriages. These organizations flirted with each other and then came together with a lusty attraction to something the other organization had that they wanted.  They may have been drawn to a more visible reputation.  They may have been assured of additional financial, real estate, or artistic assets.  Perhaps the attraction was to the other organization’s list of well-respected board members. 

Now, two or three years have passed since their merger, and reality has arrived in full force.  Plans and promises that were made during the soft light of courtship may not be going as expected, and ghosts from the past may be coming forward to haunt the newly merged entity. 

I believe that the root cause for many of these transition snags is a lack of absolute frankness and honesty between the arts organizations during their period of negotiation.

Flirting and casual dating are great fun, and all parties are on their best behavior.  But serious relationship building calls for transparency and truthfulness.   It also calls for a thoughtful examination of internal and external challenges. When an organization is frustrated with their leadership, decreases in audience numbers, or a shaky financial position, a shiny new collaboration or merger may not be the best solution for the long term.

Instead, start with a reexamination of your organizational mission.  Take slow steps.  Be honest, and demand the same from others.  Consciously make a commitment to let go of the “us vs. them” thinking.

And always get a prenup.

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Organizational Balance

When organizations go through transitions and changes, they often lose their organizational balance.  Whether the executive director has resigned or the term of a community-engaged Board Chairman has come to an end, the balance changes and an organization can find itself struggling for stability.  And it’s not just a leadership change that can cause this potential loss of steadiness.  This imbalance can also occur as the result of a public relations crisis, a dramatic financial change (either up or down), or the loss of a significant program, patron, or venue.

During my first year of college, several of my friends decided to help me recover from a breakup with my boyfriend.  To make a long story short – I drank way too much. They eventually took me to my room and put me down on my bed.   When they came back to check on me, I complained that the room was spinning and I couldn’t make it stop.  My friends explained to me that I had to put my foot on the floor in order to regain my equilibrium.

When an organization seeks to regain its equilibrium during times of change, transition, or crisis, all of the players need to put their feet down.  They need to find ways to be solidly grounded in the core mission.  Some organizations are best served by focusing internally and others succeed by going to their community and solidifying their role as part of that community.  Many organizations scale back and simplify their programming until they can stop the spinning and find their footing once again.

What’s your experience?  How does your organization maintain its balance?