Monday, July 16, 2012

Thoughts on Association Mergers

image source
I've had reason to think more about association mergers in recent weeks. Not because my own association is contemplating one, but because I know of a few situations among people in my network, and I've been asked for my thoughts and perspective.

So here's what I've been thinking. The first question to ask of any leader contemplating a merger is: "Are you willing to create something new?"

Look at the image I choose to accompany this post. Google Images is rife with links to pictures of the more traditional merge sign--where one traffic lane comes in from the side and connects with the more dominant one moving forward. But I didn't select any of those. The image I chose I think is someone's own creation, because I've never actually seen it on the roads. Two lanes of traffic, coming together from opposite directions, equally contributing to a new and more concentrated direction.

That's what should happen when two associations merge. And the new organization that's created? It should be more effective at meeting the needs of the community than the two distinct organizations had been. If not, what exactly was the point?

Think of all the traditional reasons why associations contemplate merging with an allied or competing organization. Why does A want to merge with B? Because A is dying and linking to B will keep its brand alive? Because B is threatening A's market share and swallowing B will eliminate the threat? These may be legitimate business reasons, but do either better serve the interests of the community? And who makes that determination? The staff? The Board? Don't both have obvious conflicts of interest on the question?

It seems to me that this is one of those situations when the community itself has to participate in the decision-making process. Does the community agree that a new strategy is necessary to better meet its needs? Not A's membership and B's membership, but the actual community. Is it tired of paying dues to two redundant organizations? Or to two that provide unique and valuable services, but would it benefit from greater efficiency and effectiveness if the two merged into one? These are the far better questions to ask before staff and volunteer leaders start negotiating the terms of a merger.

And when those terms are negotiated, have them focused on creating something new out of the best pieces of the two. Bringing two organizations with different cultures together is hard enough. Don't force one to adhere to core principles of the other. Use the merger as an opportunity to create something that's better for everyone. If staff is to be consolidated, don't force A to move into B's offices or B to move into A's. Figuratively and practically, go find some new office space for both A and B to move into. It's meant to be a change for everyone involved, so shouldn't the new organization start from the different platform than that built and protected by either of the original two?

Anyway, those are my initial thoughts. I'd be interested in what others think, especially those who have actually been through association mergers in the past.


  1. Good observation, Eric. Merging associations often believe they are creating new organizations when, in fact, one is really absorbing the other.

    In a merger I was involved in, a hodgepodge of policies was created, but the larger organization culture dominated the smaller one. And the new name was a hyphenated combination of the two previous names.

    1. Thanks, David. Interesting point about how both parties may think that they're creating something new, but in fact aren't. How many times have we seen "the system" drive to certain outcomes, despite the best intentions otherwise of the people enmeshed in it?