Our experience is that mergers among associations are often acquisitions masquerading as consolidations. The ultimate result is too often a tragic loss of opportunity.
In fact, the Harvard Business Review reported research on Brand that indicates that, in business mergers, new brands are more successful than combined brands or the subordination of one brand to another.
Associations have choices. A good choice requires understanding the alternatives.
Two organizations come together around some defined equity. Organizations are pulled together by the power of what such a combination can produce and the cultures adjust. Issues related to distribution of power and existing assets tend to drive a negotiated organizational design. When mergers of associations are actually acquisitions disguised as mergers to be politically more palatable to the smaller group, the culture and interests of the acquiring group will dominate.
An association literally purchases the assets of the other organization – name, membership, bank account, functionality, program lines, etc. In this model, one organization assumes the other organization. Acquisitions tend to be considered when something occurs in the industry that requires a certain capacity to effectively respond. When the needed resources, competency, talent, etc. can be obtained from another organization with plateau or diminishing capacity, acquisition can be mutually attractive to both parties.
Unification occurs when an entirely new organization is designed by two or more parties to be a successor to existing organizations. Interested parties together answer the question: “If we could create an association for the future in a world where none existed, what would it look like?” Answers to the question “How would our relevant world be different in a better way?” shape goals, objectives, and strategies. Business lines (such as advocacy, education, publications, conventions, etc.) are then developed to achieve declared outcomes and provide defined value to those served. Organizations created through unification tend to employ more open membership models. For example, an organization with an inclusive strategy might invite a variety of groups to join a common community with the expectation that different groups may be involved in different ways. In this relationship alternative, resources are permanently pooled, groups do not necessarily need to give up their own identity, and all members do not have to be involved in the same way.
Through the process of unification, existing organizations “invent” a new organization that will be optimally positioned and shaped to meet the evolving needs of those to be served by the successor organization.
The approach involves examining the underlying external factors driving changes in each existing organization’s community and in the services provided by the organizations, and the opportunities and challenges these conditions will present to any new entity. An effective approach will include the development of assumptions about the relevant future environment; an envisioned future; mission, purposes and goals; and specification of major programs, organizational structure and key processes.
This approach to strategic design often includes the development of comprehensive transition and implementation plans. The transition plan represents a timetable for the execution of actions required to unify. The implementation plan constitutes the new organization’s “business plan” for its first two years.
Ultimate unification of the strengths of the organizations in a new organization is the working objective of such initiatives. However, because
- collaboration may be in the best interests of the organizations and those they serve, and
- the timetable for “start-up” of the new enterprise must remain unknown until later stages in the project,
a good design process will provide the added value of allowing opportunities for joint venture to be executed as soon as they are feasible, regardless of schedules necessitated by specifics of the transition and implementation plans.
Finally, if co-creating a new organization is determined to not be in the best interests of the community served, a well-designed process executed by well-intentioned people, will almost always result in cooperation, coordination or collaboration in areas of commonality discovered in the design work.