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.