In a tight economy, there has been increasing chatter about the potential for mergers in the nonprofit world. The social service sector has seen a slew of them. But the arts have seemed more talk than action. While not specifically promoting merger, the Lodestar Foundation recently encouraged collaboration more broadly through their Collaboration Prize (winners announced in March). Says the web site:
the efficiencies gained from working together, the Prize shines a
spotlight on collaborations among two or more nonprofit organizations
that each would otherwise provide the same or similar programs or
services and compete for clients, financial resources, or staff.
As it turned out, the two winners of the prize were both mergers. One was the merger of three museums into one: The Dallas Children’s Museum, The Science Place, and Dallas Museum of Natural History to become the Museum of Nature and Science. The other was a merger of a Jewish Community Center and YMCA in Greater Toledo. Both announcements hailed the savings generated by the combination, and the reduction in duplicated services.
Yet the urge to merge, especially among arts and culture organizations, can be more costly and less effective than alternative collaborative strategies (such as shared services, joint ventures, and the like). So said both the Nonprofit Finance Fund’s Clara Miller and the Kennedy Center’s Michael Kaiser at the Wallace Foundation convening I attended back in April (an audio clip on their merger conversation is available online). Said Miller:
[Organizational] culture eats strategy for breakfast. To the outside eye, it may look perfect to have X and Y merge, but in fact internally there are huge cultural differences that will make it hard. At arts organizations, in particular, we celebrate our individual artistic visions, and that’s manifest in many, many organizations. I think working together, thinking about the platform differently, pulling out all the unnecessary expense from your platform…those are the things to be looking for, those expense savings, not necessarily the mash-up of two very strong artistic personalities.
Kaiser concurred, stating:
The amount of time, energy, and focus it takes, it takes energy away from the kinds of activities that I think really help to create health for an organizations. I’m more interested in joint venturing and sharing certain costs than I am about merging corporate entities.
Mergers should certainly be part of the full palette of options when boards and funders and professional staff consider how to advance their mission most effectively…so should dissolution, for that matter. But there is a world of opportunity between isolation and consolidation that seems worthy of nuanced exploration.