A successful merger needs commitment from all sides

A joint belief that merger is for the best, as well as a mutual respect between the teams, is very helpful, says Peter Gotham, principal at MacIntyre Hudson

Peter Gotham
Peter Gotham

It was increasingly obvious when the scale of the government's spending cuts began to emerge that many, if not most, charities would be forced fundamentally to reappraise how they operate. Few charity boards can afford to look ahead calmly without challenging complacency from trustees or staff.

As Keith Hickey, now group director of resources at the Royal National Institute for the Blind, said at the Charity Finance Group conference at the start of this process, this has generated opportunities for some - but uncertainty and pain for many more. The sector is largely unrecognisable compared with when I joined it some 40 years ago, and collaboration is often a key part of a proactive approach nowadays.

I wrote last July about trust being the key to successful mergers. My practice had just merged into MacIntyre Hudson and I was advising a client who was going through the same process, so the issue was at the top of my mind.

It is now 10 months later and we are preparing for a seminar on mergers on 19 June at our office, where one of the contributors, Debbie Lindsey of Blenheim CDP, the substance misuse charity, will be talking about Blenheim's experience after another merger last autumn.

Blenheim believes that mergers are an important way to achieve the type of scale that London commissioners want, and it also has a positive track record that leads it to believe that mergers work. Why is this? After all, many do not work or, like the charity I was advising last summer, one partner pulls back.

Obviously there should be a strategic logic for the merger, and the people and ethos need to be able to gel in pretty short order. It is not easy to move from "them and us" to being one team. A joint belief that merger is for the best in terms of delivery of the mission, as well as a mutual respect between the teams, is very helpful to smooth the transition.

The most successful mergers I have seen have all involved teams that knew each other reasonably well beforehand - at least among the top people. This meant that both sides had a reasonably clear view of each other's strengths and weaknesses - and the basis for ongoing trust (that word again). Even in these cases, however, one key issue was the inevitable sensitivities of the smaller partner, and maybe some staff in the larger as well, about being marginalised.

Many of the same issues arise when considering collaborations and partnerships, including those with commercial participators. However, size does not, in and of itself, bring economies of scale - it can also bring the need for a more formal infrastructure, particularly in the case of a partnership. A post-merger (or partnership) review is helpful to make sure that issues are clearly understood and embedded into future efforts. It also helps to reinforce a helpful impression that the new entity is listening and not just informing.

Mergers, especially the first one, can take a great deal of time, although the time required diminishes with practice. All, however, need significant work and patience before the transitional costs and issues work through the system.

As a postscript, the charity that pulled out of talks last July is now close to a merger. The drivers for change did not go away, and trust is much more evident this time - fingers crossed.

Peter Gotham is a principal at MacIntyre Hudson

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