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Musings on mergers

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This week brought the news of the planned merger of Vision Foundation with Fight for Sight.  I had the privilege of leading Vision Foundation as interim CEO in 2020, providing maternity cover for Olivia Curno.  That said, I had no inside track on the merger news.  While there I of course liaised closely with Olivia (CEO of Vision Foundation) and was in contact with Keith (Valentine, then at RNIB, now CEO of Fight for Sight).  These are two visionary leaders with a laser focus on making a difference for people affected by sight loss, which is reflected in their comments when announcing the merger

The merger announcement says “This isn’t a merger of necessity but one of opportunity. We know our work is urgent – everyday sight loss in the UK is increasing and more people are being left unsupported. Together we believe our combined knowledge, reach and influence will have far more impact for people with sight loss, changing lives and saving sight.”

I love the phrase “merger of opportunity” – the opportunity being that of greater impact.  Listening to Olivia and Keith talking about it, their passion for that opportunity is key – and they are clear that they are driven by the potential for greater impact – and by what the sight loss community want.   

Back in 2017 when I was interim CEO of Beating Bowel Cancer and we embarked on merger discussions with Bowel Cancer UK, that opportunity of greater impact was front of mind for the Board in their decision to pursue merger.  I was struck – though not surprised – when making calls to some of our key stakeholders and supporters (people affected by bowel cancer) to hear their response – overwhelmingly it was “at last”, “thank goodness” or similar responses.  They could immediately see that bringing the two charities together would create a charity that could co-ordinate services, campaigning and research to make best use of resources, and to deliver more impact for those affected by bowel cancer. 

The COVID pandemic affected many charities – making it harder to raise income while increasing the need for the support offered. Like many others, Bowel Cancer UK (the merged charity) had a challenging year in 2020 from a financial perspective, and while 2021 was not without challenges, funding and finances rallied.  I could not help but feel satisfied that we had progressed the merger when we did.  It reinforced to me the importance of that laser focus on beneficiaries, and taking decisions based on impact and value.

The role of Boards is so critical in merger decisions and discussions.  The strategic perspective they have means they can often see more clearly the right path to take.  And there are so many aspects to a merger decision and process – it is not just one simple decision.  Discussions have to be held and decisions taken about every aspect of the organisations – of course how core activities will be brought together and delivered, but also much about the organisational arrangements – from which IT systems will be used to the new staffing structure and who will be on the merged Board – and much more.  And while much can be done by charity executives, the Boards have to ensure their strategic considerations are addressed and the merged charity reflects their respective and shared priorities.

There are plenty of resources out there to support merger discussions.  Here are just a few:

Mergers can be demanding and stressful for all concerned – which is why keeping an eye on the prize of greater impact for beneficiaries is so important.  Once the decision has been taken, the merger process demands focus and determination.    My plea would be to ensure that there is also focus on what happens once the merger is technically complete.   How will the people from the two organisations be brought together – not just structurally but culturally?  What measures will be taken to ensure they share a common purpose and aspirations for the merged organisation?  How will they discuss and agree “how we do things round here” recognising that staff from both/all organisations need to shape the new entity?   In my experience, it is these cultural issues that can persist and pervade sometimes for years post merger, if not addressed from the start.  This is key to delivering the greater impact from the merger that all hope for.