Five tips on the road to merger success

Many long-standing YWCA members will tell you we’ve been talking about merging our local member associations for decades.

With a history that’s almost 140 years old, you can imagine that many women would have tried to achieve that goal. With disparate organisations across Australia each with their own board, constitution, programs, employees, volunteers and members – a national merger would be no mean feat.

As the President of YWCA Australia, I’m delighted that this month we’re celebrating the first year of our national merger! This historic amalgamation bought together eight member associations into one organisation to ensure our long term sustainability while scaling the positive outcomes of our programs and services supporting women, children, young people and families across Australia.

There is no doubt that this was a mammoth project that many people believed would not get off the ground. But the business case was overwhelmingly positive.

Mergers are on the rise in the not-for-profit sector and many organisations are seeing the potential to maximise their impact by joining with others. YWCA Australia’s merger was a four-year journey and many women were involved before us in building a strong foundation for a successful merger. Here are five tips that we learnt along the way:

Create a shared vision.

In 2014, YWCA member associations collectively realised that our federated structure was limiting and a merger provided an opportunity for bigger impact. Together we shared the same vision – to create the best possible YWCA to better support vulnerable women in our community and to advance gender equality with a focus on young women. With this vision clearly articulated, we were able to engage external consultants to help us build the business case – including a full understanding of the programs, services and operations of each of the respective parties. Importantly the business case identified revenue and cost opportunities and an appropriate blend of programs aligned with our mission and vision.

Bring together a dedicated team.

Mergers need resourcing beyond that which board members and employees who have day jobs can contribute. That means it’s integral to invest in a Merger Team to guide the process and maintain momentum. There are skills which are critical like change communications, stakeholder management, administration, governance and strategic leadership. It’s also important to access external advice when you need it. We were very fortunate to secure pro bono legal support through Norton Rose Fulbright on the legal transaction of the merger and with Clayton Utz on creating our new Constitution. In addition, we established a Governance Group which comprised board members from each of the member associations and an Operational Executive with CEOs and Executive Directors from each organisation.

Know that it’s not going to be perfect.

The path to the YWCA merger was anything but straightforward. While there are structures, processes and systems to follow, there isn’t always a formula that works and the Merger Team had to embrace the uncertainty and ‘messy’ reality of a complex amalgamation. In our case, there were certainly some surprises along the way including issues that had the potential to undermine the entire process. But our team worked through these issues with a sense of optimism, especially when the going got tough, and reassured the rest of the group that we were still on track, despite time delays.

Make sure you have a strong communication strategy.

Good communication is essential to a successful merger. Importantly, the communication strategy needs to start early and then continue throughout the transition period. Many organisations focus on external communication during a merger – but we focused our efforts on our members and employees for two reasons. First, members were critical to voting to accept the merger. We needed to ensure that members had a common understanding of the business case and vision for the future. Secondly, we aimed for our internal communications to be transparent and timely. Our people are paramount to the delivery of our programs and services. We aimed to address any anxiety about the merger upfront with timely information on the progress and impacts for employees.

Invest in building relationships.

The Governance Group, Merger Team and Operational Executive had regular meetings on face-to-face basis over a two year period to design and implement the merger. We cannot stress enough the importance of those face-to-face meetings which were integral in building trust particularly when there were tensions between the entities. Often meetings would focus on workshopping unresolved issues and exploring a range of potential solutions. These meetings became key to making decisions and communicating progress on the merger. In fact, representatives from these groups strengthened communication with their boards, employees and members.

In summary

A merger of this nature is hard work. We always knew that it was going to be difficult. It’s quite amazing to think that more than 120 people gave up their board and CEO positions because they believed in what we were aiming to achieve.

Today, YWCA Australia is proud to be a national organisation of 300 people focused on improving gender equality for women, young women and girls. Together we challenge the systems, structures and policies that act as barriers to women, especially young women, achieving their full potential. Our evidence-based programs and services aim to be inclusive of all women and offer support with housing, homelessness, safety and wellbeing, and leadership. We aim to positively impact the lives of more than two million women, young women and girls by the end of 2023.

It’s still early in our merger journey but I’m looking forward to seeing the evidence of our success in the coming years through increased outcomes for clients, improved financial sustainability and significant steps forward in gender equality for women in Australia.

Julie Boyd is the inaugural President of the newly merged YWCA Australia. Julie has extensive experience as a company director and was previously the Mayor of Mackay City. This article was first published on Pro Bono Australia.

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