Taylor Wood

Interdisciplinary, Interview, How To - Tips

March 6, 2020

Mergers and collaborations are complicated, and just like any union, it’s important to have an outside perspective. I recently had the opportunity to speak with John McCann of Partners in Performance about the role of a facilitator in non-profit arts partnerships. McCann has worked as a strategic thinker in the arts and culture field for 25 years with over 300 of the nation’s most well-known institutes. He also served as the Director of the Institute for Cultural Policy and Practice here at Virginia Tech. 

Partnerships and collaborations in the arts can take many forms and for many reasons. Organizations can engage in a merger, an acquisition, joint programming, shared services, associations, and more. Some reasons organizations choose to merge include broadening the reach of programming, sharing administrative systems, and consolidating resources. The terms can get confusing when they’re used interchangeably in the field, so I’ll be sticking with “strategic alliance” as the term in this post. Lehmann Strobel defines a strategic alliance as “an agreement between two or more organizations into one new entity.” This definition leaves room for the various levels of collaboration between organizations. 

Why is a facilitator a necessary part of a strategic alliance? 

According to “Success Factors in Nonprofit Mergers,” a report by MAP for Nonprofits and Wilder Research that explored 41 mergers, consultants or facilitators “played an integral role in the majority of the mergers. They did so by facilitating plans, meetings, and discussions or providing expertise and a third-party perspective.” These facilitators added experience and expertise in finances, legal aspects, and organizational restructuring. They also served the crucial role of taking an objective view as the “outside eye” in the process as well as being the neutral party between two or more organizations coming together. 

McCann took me through the process of facilitating a merger and the core duties of an effective facilitator. 

Act as a Neutral Figure and Provide the “Outside Eye”: It is not the job of the facilitator to say the organizations should follow a certain path from day one or side with one group over another. The first steps are convening leadership and facilitating initial conversations. McCann suggested approaching these early conversations as what you feel can be achieved by the organizations working more closely together. This allows for a wide range of ideas and ally possibilities without being burdened too early with the technicalities of a more complex merger. 

Design the Meeting: How can these conversations begin in a way that will produce fruitful collaboration instead of raising tension? Who should be present for what meeting? What is the goal of this particular meeting? When a meeting is well-designed, there can be an increased likelihood that the members will remain relaxed, collaborative, and willing to listen to one another. Beyond these joint meetings, the facilitator can meet with each organization individually to provide a safer space for honest conversations. “Design is everything” according to McCann. 

Summarize and Report: The conversations between CEOs, board members, and other stakeholders in the strategic alliance process are imperative for the development of a plan. The Facilitator is tasked with sending out a summary of each meeting to the individual organizations, so they have a record of the discussions to revisit and build off of. Another element of this is summarizing the agreements made along the way. Maintaining records will help the organizations keep track of decisions and identify what still needs to be worked on in order to finalize the partnership. 

Do Due-Diligence: One of the most crucial elements of a successful merger is transparency. The facilitator takes on the crucial role of ensuring each group delivers on their responsibility to disclose information on their financial realities, programmatic details, and other pertinent information about the inner-workings of the organization. This includes the good and the bad. Transparency is a necessary element to build trust between the groups as well as creating space for a real, honest assessment of how to implement the healthiest strategic alliance possible.  

Identify and Assess Core-Competencies of the Organizations: All organizations have core-competencies or strengths. The facilitator should be able to assess these core-competencies of each organization to find areas that overlap or identify potential for the different entities to fill in each other’s gaps. This gap-filling is the ultimate goal of nonprofit mergers according to McCann. He termed the phrase “2+2=5” when it comes to joining organizations. This occurs when the different core-competencies are brought together to form a broader set of core-competencies for all parties. 

Talking through this idea of 2+2=5 helped me frame the driving factors of nonprofit strategic alliances. In the for-profit world, economy of scale can work as the driving factor for merging. However, that usually doesn’t’ work out as well in nonprofits. In “Merging Wisely,” Nonprofit merging consultant, David La Piana, explains that “despite conventional wisdom, mergers themselves do not generate revenue or reduce expenses.” Strategic alliances may not save money, but they can provide an opportunity to create stronger financial management and more strategic leadership practices. 

Before consummating a merger or partnership, the facilitator should assess if the outcome will be a stronger organization than the two entities were separately. 

To wrap up, I think it’s important to share one more crucial bit of wisdom John McCann gave me. “Being neutral is one thing, being informed is another.” While the facilitator is the neutral, outside perspective, it is still their job to be informed of the outside market, each organization’s core-competencies, strengths and weaknesses, and all other realities that will factor into the process. By remaining neutral, informed, and doing their due-diligence, facilitators can work to ensure a healthy and prosperous strategic alliance.