Two leading racial justice organizations in the U.S., Race Forward and Center for Social Inclusion (CSI), are merging. While there are many reasons for the two organizations to join forces, Rinku Sen, Senior Strategist of Race Forward, told NPQ in an interview this week about the transition, “The urgency of the moment is real, and it overshadows everything else. We’re facing the worst attack on our people in 50-60 years. I don’t think we’ve gotten to the worst of it. We’re going to have to put everything we’ve got to use to face the threat that is coming—not a dollar, not a brain cell, not a unit of human energy should be wasted.”
CSI President Glenn Harris agreed. “We’re seeing the biggest roll back of civil rights in our history. Communities of color are in crisis. At this moment, we need greater scale to respond to what we see happening on the ground.”
The two started exploring the idea of a merger two years ago, in the middle of 2015, while having drinks at the last Kellogg Foundation American Healing conference in North Carolina. (“As so many great ideas begin,” Rinku quipped.) Rinku had been preparing to transition from Race Forward and thought Glenn Harris a very capable leader. However, at the time, he had only been at CSI for one year, and it didn’t make sense for him to leave CSI. Rinku said to Glenn, “I have this very crazy idea that may be awkward because you just started, but maybe we should merge.”
Glenn remembers them both laughing at the idea at first, but then he said, “That’s not a crazy idea.”
It was six months into the election cycle and it was looking unlikely but possible that Trump would get the nomination and win the election. Rinku noted, “It was fast and challenging—through the election, and last year’s Facing Race conference, and the holidays, and the panic in the movement, but we got it done and the election just confirmed that we needed to do it.”
Organizationally, the two nonprofits have a lot in common. Rinku said, “People often think of us as doing the same buckets of work: training, supporting folks moving the needle on racial equity, processing information and different ways of looking at information. We have these complementary programs, but different issues areas and different sets of constituents. Together, we just can take up more space.”
Glenn said, “Rinku and I have known each other dating back to the early ’90s and have worked on and off over the years. Having that history together, working together, was really important because the core element of thinking about merging is trust at the leadership level. We have board members that know each other because they’ve both been working on racial justice over the years. We both knew board members on each other’s boards, so that level of trust and respect for each other and the organizations was critical in making the merger even possible.”
Rinku notes that the two organizations had worked together even before Glenn, when Maya Wiley was heading up CSI. “We worked together on trying to understand the neuroscience and communication aspects of race—what rules get made, and what do individuals have to do with making the rules. A lot of it was convening meetings within the movement to talk about the implications of the neuroscience. It’s only the last ten, fifteen years that we’ve been learning about the science of people’s brain on race.” They did other projects together, including commenting on each other’s report and research projects. Maya also spoke at Facing Race regularly, and Rinku has spoken to the Governmental Alliance for Racial Equity (GARE), a CSI project.
Rinku asserts that in these times, nonprofits have to get focused on the most efficient ways to get to the scale needed to both play defense and advance a proactive vision of a multiracial, pluralistic democracy. Once the two leaders decided a merger was an idea worth considering, they quickly initiated exploratory conversations with leadership and the board at both organizations.
Glenn recalls, “That process took a couple of months to really have the discussion. ‘What are the benefits? What are the drawbacks? What’s the cost, financially and in terms of time and effort?’ It would take time and effort to even investigate the details of a merger.” In total, the two boards passed three resolutions. The first, in June 2016, was to explore the merger, after which the organizations hired a consultant to do due diligence—legal, financial, and programmatic.
The due diligence process revealed that both organizations were doing very well financially. Rinku said, “We’re are so fortunate that we’re both in strong positions. In both of our cases, we’ve reduced our dependence on foundation: 25 percent at Race Forward in the last eight years and 25 percent as well at CSI in the last three years. It would be higher, except that both of our budgets have continued to grow. So…increased budget, but reduced foundation support, either earned income or donations. We have a well-developed plan to continue reducing the dependence on foundations and continue growing our budget.”
“In fact,” she continued, “one reason for the merger, aside from political, is that fundraising capacity and infrastructure is just a challenge for our types of organizations. We tend to never put enough staff on it. For us to grow our earned income and donations and to do it separately, we would’ve had to both build the same kind of infrastructure. It just didn’t make sense.”
Glenn noted that the recognition that both organizations were thriving was an impetus to move forward with the merger. They also recognized how synergistic their work actually was. “Race Forward has done great work on contesting narrative and communications. CSI has been leading in policy development, as well as institutional and sectoral change. We recognized that to see the communities we want to have, folks need all those things.” With all of this, they knew they had to still do more to build capacity in terms of scale.
He added, “I think a lot of time when people hear the word ‘merger,’ especially in the nonprofit sector, people will assume something is wrong. It’s a tool people use to support two organizations facing a challenge, but in this instance, it was one of the things that made merging even more interesting, the fact that we’re both thriving.” In fact, CSI has been going through a period of rapid expansion.
The next board vote was in late September 2016, to begin the merger planning. The organizations then hired LaPiana Consulting, which specializes in mergers, to explore merger options. Over the next six months, the staff and board formed merger teams to do the initial planning. Rinku said, “Once both staff and boards knew—that’s about 100 people—both of us told all of our funders. After that, we’ve been sharing with our partners and constituencies as we see them.”
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Glenn recalled, “Once we got real, we put together a merger budget and process.” The organizations then launched into formal merger discussions. One of the issues that came up right away was that a key funder, while being very supportive of the idea of the merger, faced the challenge of not being able to release assets to the other organization without it having to reapply.
So, the conversation then became one about whether we wanted to take the risk of reapplying for a grant. It was a low-level risk, because the funder was supportive, but it was a risk. Losing funds was the opposite of what we wanted, so that forced us into a conversation about sole membership, which is a parent-subsidiary relationship. We decided on Race Forward as the parent organization, the name we would consolidate under.
In order to do this, CSI voted to change their bylaws to make Race Forward the sole member of CSI. This allows the Race Forward board to assign the CSI board and enables CSI not to close down, giving it time to finish and deliver on grants and to plan.
The decision allows the organizations to maintain two IRS 501(c)(3) public charities under sole control of one organization. Glenn noted, “It’s actually an unusual option for nonprofits. As we got deeper into it, even the legal team, they were drawing from for-profit situations to help us figure it out.” This merger solution addressed the concern for maintaining both organizations’ current grants until the end of their cycle, after which they would reapply under a singular consolidated entity.
It also raised interesting questions. As Glenn reflected, “Even though we were frustrated that we were heading down an indirect path, that we were extending out the merger period, it also opened up questions and possibilities about nonprofit structures. Are there other reasons to have two nonprofits? What are the benefits of a (c)(3) and how do we use it to achieve our mission?”
Finally, in February 2017, the boards voted on the detailed merger plan. Rinku said, “It will probably take about a year to make the transfer of assets and staff and program, and after that we’ll figure out what will happen with CSI. It may remain dormant until there is a future use of it. Then, we’ll be opening as Race Forward.”
As the legal transition occurs over the next few days, the boards of both organizations will resign and a new board will be formed at the new Race Forward, comprising all the former members of both boards except for the few that will term out. Though Glenn has already been working for both organizations, he takes over officially next week, on July 1st. Rinku has been on sabbatical since May 1st. She will shift into a contract role with Race Forward, as Strategic Advisor. She plans to launch a few writing projects, including a book with Michelle Alexander. She will also launch a content channel with a new media company starting up this fall.
Over the next few months, the staff will integrate operationally, craft a three-year vision that cuts across the programs, and develop feedback loops between the programs. The two organizations have offices in New York City, just four or five blocks apart, and they both have leases, so the new Race Forward will keep both offices and redistribute staff between them so that they are integrated. Rinku said, “That will buy us time to figure what kind of space we want in New York City and how to get it.” The other Race Forward office is in Oakland, California. CSI has staff in Oakland but no office, so the Oakland CSI staff will move into the Race Forward office there. Both organizations also have remote staff in other cities.
As the two organizations finalize the merger process and the consolidation timeline, there are issues they will be keeping their eyes on. For Rinku, it’s “bringing the government work, together with the nonprofit sector work, together with the academic workforce, and the organizing base.” Because of Colorlines, Race Forward has had a fairly big campus presence, as academics use the magazine as a resource on race.
Those are all pieces a larger movement has to have in order to succeed and there aren’t a lot of spaces that we share as equals. So that is going to be something to look at. Programs like ColorLines and GARE have to have a level of independence to do their thing. So, we have to have some clear lines of decision making and leave each other alone. It’s control, I guess. That will be fun to work on and interesting and different.
For Glenn, it’s organizational culture. He observed, “We usually think of organizational culture in broad terms of values, but I’m also naming the basics of how you run a meeting, how you do your budget report. So, in that way, our next steps are really trying to bring those parts in alignment and supporting staff in both holding the transition and being part of developing what this new organization is going to be. What is our identity, internally and externally?”
The political context that emerged as the organizations began their merger discussion is ever present. Rinku concluded, “Politically, I think that repression and desperation are going to be themes of the day, so keeping people well resourced in terms of defenses is going to be important.” Glenn said, “We started this conversation in the election last year, and now we’re in this moment of heightened persecution and expanded needs and real urgency. How are we balancing continuing to do the work that we’ve both done historically, even while we’re going through the integration plan? The beauty of it, which we’re so clear about, is that we have an incredible staff, people who are both deeply committed to the work and incredibly effective at their jobs.”
Reflecting on the merger process to date, Glenn concluded that it was a very valuable experience. “Even if we had decided to not go forward with the merger, it made sense to have a conversation to explore that.” He also learned that the field needs more resources to explore mergers as a strategic option. The organizations received support from existing funders that contributed above programmatic dollars to support the merger. For the merger process to date, the funders were NoVo, WildGeese, and the Annie E. Casey Foundation. Other funders will fund the remainder. Rinku said, “Our funders have been great. Whether they put money down or not, they’ve been unfailingly supportive of the idea and great advisors, just really helpful.”
Glenn continued, “Really thinking about what are the resources and tools available to support organizations going through this transition is critical. There’s no repository for folks who’ve gone through this kind of process, so I’ve relied heavily on my own network. I feel lucky I’ve known people who’ve gone through mergers, but the field could use more resources that help folks think this through.”
Over the next few months, Race Forward will host a listening project to gather best thinking about what’s most needed in the field moving forward. It also plans to do an assessment of the merger process at the end of it. Rinku is excited for the future of Race Forward under Glenn’s leadership. “I think we’re going to be well positioned to learn from the work in different settings, from political economic, to cultural, and I’m excited to see what that makes possible.”