Editors’ note: The following mini–case study is part of a series of studies submitted as part of the graduate course “The Nonprofit Sector: Concepts and Theories,” taught by Chao Guo, associate professor of nonprofit management in the Penn School of Social Policy and Practice at the University of Pennsylvania. This article was featured in NPQ’s winter 2014 edition, “Births and Deaths in the Nonprofit Sector.” (Click here to read part one, part two, and part three.) It was first published online on March 9, 2015.
Addendum: After the online publication of this article, we were fortunate to be contacted by Musimbi Kanyoro, CEO of the Global Fund for Women, and Claire Winterton, former executive director of the International Museum of Women and current VP of Advocacy and Innovation at the Global Fund. They shared with us their impressions of the key elements that made their merger a success. You can find their thoughts appended to the end of this feature.
This case study looks at the factors that led up to the decision of the International Museum of Women (IMOW) to merge with the Global Fund for Women (GFW) in March of 2014. While we reached out to previous IMOW staff—now at GFW—for a firsthand account of the events that led to the merger, we were unsuccessful and had to rely upon secondary information for evaluating the two organizations’ financial and strategic decision to merge their staffs, boards of directors, and operations under one shared mission.
The International Museum of Women
From 1985 to early 2014, the International Museum of Women operated as a digital museum, curating exhibitions, producing physical installations and events around the world, and developing an educational curriculum, all in aid of inspiring creativity, awareness, and action on vital issues for women. According to IMOW, approximately 70 percent of visitors surveyed reported changes in their opinions about global women’s issues, and up to 60 percent reported taking action toward gender equity as a result of engaging with IMOW’s digital content.1 But in March of 2014, the museum announced it was shutting down operations as an independent entity and merging with the Global Fund for Women, the largest public foundation in the world dedicated to advancing women’s and girls’ rights through an international network of women-led organizations, advisors, and supporters. But if IMOW was so successful in achieving its mission and advancing global gender equity, what events led to its decision to merge?
A Museum without Walls
IMOW was originally founded, in 1985, as the Women’s Heritage Museum, and for over ten years it operated as a “museum without walls,” producing exhibitions and resources for the public. Jeanne McDonnell, the museum’s executive director in 1995, articulated IMOW’s mission in the following statement: “We have been working for ten years in the field of public education in women’s history. We have not limited our subject boundaries geographically because we believe that women’s mutual concerns transcend political boundaries.”2
Growing support from the community led the museum’s board of directors to begin plans to create a single-destination women’s museum in San Francisco. In 1994, the museum submitted an application to build a physical space in the Presidio. The plan, which they titled “Shooting for the Stars (A Plan for the Women’s Heritage Museum at Presidio) 1995–2035,” was an ambitious one. The museum envisioned not only building the physical location in the Presidio but also simultaneously building a coalition of similar women’s museums in South America, Africa, China, Japan, and Eastern Europe—along with creating its own television channel, developing a series of educational programs and scholarships, and creating partnerships with other global cultural organizations. However, although its application to lease one of the Presidio buildings was initially approved, political changes derailed all nonprofit efforts to lease space there, and the museum was forced to move in another direction.3 Despite this setback, the board of directors stuck to its decision to look for a physical home for the museum. And, in 1997, the board decided to change the museum’s name from the Women’s Heritage Museum to the International Museum of Women, to reflect the museum’s focus on global women’s issues.
Following the Presidio project, the museum developed a $120 million campaign to build a 100,000-square-foot museum on Pier 39, in San Francisco, with a targeted opening date of 2008. The museum continued simultaneously to develop its global program, holding thirteen major exhibits focusing on such topics as women and political participation, global motherhood, and women’s role in the global economy.
In 2005, after the museum had invested nearly $1 million in site evaluation and raised cash and pledges of $7.5 million, site inspectors uncovered significant structural problems with the pier that would cost an additional $20 million to correct.4 The additional costs were too exorbitant, and the museum canceled its plans to build a physical museum and refocused on the original mission of running a “museum without walls.”
Partnership with the Global Fund for Women
That same year, IMOW began a relationship with GFW that would prove to be very fruitful for both organizations. With funding from a GFW grant, IMOW was able to produce a large-scale virtual exhibition, Imagining Ourselves: A Global Generation of Women. The exhibition included an intersection of film, photography, music, poetry, and personal essay—all responding to the question, “What defines your generation of women?”5 GFW promoted the exhibit to its stakeholders, allowing IMOW to tap into a much larger network and increase global exposure to the virtual exhibit. The result of their collaboration is an ongoing, interactive, multilingual exhibit that has thus far received over sixteen million visitors, and more than one million people representing 230 different countries have participated in producing content—personal stories dealing with war and peace, cultural conflict, motherhood, identity, and other experiences important to women globally.
The exhibit received worldwide attention and, in 2007, led to IMOW’s winning the Anita Borg Social Impact Award, which recognizes the accomplishments of women leading in technological innovation. As the institute expressed it at the time, “[IMOW] amplifies the voices of women worldwide through history, the arts and cultural programs and exhibits that educate, create dialogue, build community a