Charity mergers can be a sensitive topic. Organisations usually only talk publicly about them once the bumps have been ironed out and the deal is done. This is understandable, but it makes it very difficult for others to learn from the process.
We recently spoke to the CEOs of two charities, Francine Bates of The Lullaby Trust and Dr Clea Harmer of Sands, about their potential merger. Both are UK baby loss charities, and are bucking the trend by talking openly about the possibility of merging. Below are the highlights from the conversation. You can read the full interview here.
When we interviewed Francine and Clea, they had just got back from a joint staff Christmas lunch. Both charities have been partnering increasingly since moving into the same building, and this definitely played a part in triggering conversations about merging.
The Lullaby Trust have so far been successful in their mission to reduce sudden infant death rates, but neonatal deaths and stillbirths remain some of the highest rates in Europe. ‘The Lullaby Trust went back to their core mission and looked at what there was still left to do.’
To merge with Sands would widen The Lullaby Trusts’ remit beyond sudden infant deaths. For Sands, the motivation to merge is to align and focus the resources of both organisations on a reduction in the number of babies dying. The Lullaby Trust have evidently been successful in their preventative work, and it would make sense for Sands to harness their expertise. In short: together they could be greater than the sum of their parts.
On the reasons for merging
‘If merging means more impact for our beneficiaries, then we should do it—everything else is secondary.’
‘It was important to move in a direction to make a difference not just for bereaved parents now, but parents in the future too.’
‘When we [rebranded in the past], we saw another reduction in deaths, and it showed that if you are brave enough to put your beneficiaries first, you can save lives.’
On the approach
‘The first conversations we had, between the two CEOs and the two chairs, were whether we were ready to have “talks about talks”. It was important that everyone was very open.’
‘We focused on alignment of vision, mission and values, to see if it was sensible to continue discussions. We then identified and clarified red lines. And if there were lines we couldn’t mitigate, we knew we couldn’t go any further. ‘
‘Early on we agreed that we would not merge one charity into another, but create an entirely new charity. If we merge, we want to see an absolutely equal merging of two charities and their strengths.’
On involving beneficiaries
‘It was important to us that we didn’t disappear into a darkened room, coming out waving a piece of paper saying there was a done deal.’
‘We didn’t call the process a consultation because not only does it sound corporate, but it sounds like a decision has already been made, and it absolutely hasn’t.’
‘Many bereaved parents have felt that changing the organisation felt like reopening the grief. People find it difficult to think that, if we merge, the organisation they know—and helped them—might reduce or disappear in some way. We have found it helpful to talk about head and heart, to help people explore what they are feeling.’
The boards will be making a decision at the end of March on whether to proceed in principle, and this will be informed by current conversations.
Francine and Clea say that going through the process in public is so valuable because ‘one of our biggest challenges has been that there is very little out there for us to learn from because people tend not to talk about it till the final hour... the sector needs much more thought leadership on mergers.’
And it’s clear how much they value all these talks in their own right: ‘Even if we don’t merge in the end, this process will have been worth it. Talking about merging isn’t itself a risk, so if we don’t merge, our relationship as two separate charities will be stronger.’
I recommend reading the interview in full to get more of what they’re doing and learning.
We will follow up later in the year with updates on the progress of their conversations, as part of our ongoing work on mergers. In the meantime, share this blog, let us know your thoughts on Twitter @NPCthinks, or get in touch directly at info@thinkNPC.org.