December 14, 2017; Crain’s Chicago Business
Nonprofit mergers are an oft-discussed strategic move toward stability and growth. Particularly, those outside the sector looking in see them as a solution to the perceived problem that there are “just too many nonprofits.” Still, undertaking a successful nonprofit merger is tricky business that requires a defined set of conditions from both organizations to ensure success.
Two Chicago-based nonprofits, Chicago Cares and WomenOnCall, having recently announced plans to merge in January, are trying to get it right. The two organizations share a mission to increase Chicago residents’ civic engagement, with slightly different approaches: Chicago Cares connects nonprofits to volunteer labor, while WomenOnCall connects legal, human resources, finance, and other professionals to skilled volunteer work at nonprofits needing functional area support. WomenOnCall will become the Skills for Good program of Chicago Cares, and its current executive director will lead that program under Chicago Cares CEO Jenne Myers.
The two groups’ merger centers on combining their hands-on and skilled volunteer networks. Much of the work will involve consolidating their massive databases, an initiative funded by Forefront and SeaChange Capital Partners, two of the few entities that support nonprofits in exploring and implementing strategic partnerships. The WomenOnCall staff will set also up shop in Chicago Cares offices, reducing expenses.
Leslie Bluhm, cofounder and current board member of Chicago Cares, points to a strengthened ability to meet the mission of both organizations through the combination. “By combining forces, we will be able to enhance our efforts to build the capacity of local nonprofit organizations while bringing people together across lines of difference through the volunteer experience.”
This “stronger together” approach was one of the key factors to a successful merger outlined by the 2016 Chicago Merger Study. In that study, which examined 25 Chicago-based nonprofit mergers between 2004 and 2014, 88 percent of the mergers examined were successful because of belief that the intended impact of the involved organizations would be better achieved as a combined entity. Other success factors—strong board advocacy, donor funding for implementation, and both organizations being in a strong financial position with solid leadership—also seem to be present in the pending Chicago Cares merger.
While one of the most challenging elements of this merger—namely, building common staffing and culture—is still to come, these two organizations are on track to serve as another case study of merger as a successful growth strategy. Chicago, with its track record and research, is an important city to watch on this topic.—Danielle Holly