Marcia Mintz knows a thing or two about the difficulty of making a nonprofit merger work. “You’d think nonprofits merge to save money. We’re doing this as a growth platform,” she said. For Marcia, CEO of the Boys & Girls Clubs of the Valley, that growth platform had only one focus: serving more kids.
Marcia had been with the Boys & Girls Clubs of Metro Phoenix for a few years before the conversation of a merger arose. Yet this marked the third time Metro Phoenix and the Boys & Girls Clubs of the East Valley had explored joining forces.
What changed? “There was an appetite for partnership that didn’t exist before,” Marcia said, “and the reality was that if we can answer two questions consistently at every meeting, we have to move forward with this merger.” Those questions were, “Can we serve more kids? And can we serve them better?”
From the first exploratory session of the subgroups from both Metro Phoenix and East Valley in October 2018, those two questions began and ended each meeting. Fifteen months later in January 2020, the two Boys & Girls Clubs merged, creating one of the largest Boys & Girls Clubs in the United States. Now the Boys & Girls Clubs of the Valley (BGCAZ) serve more than 16,000 members across the Valley, with an additional 35,000 other youths in other clubs.
Despite both being Boys & Girls Clubs and having the same general mission, there were still plenty of challenges along the way.
“I had just as many moments of ‘I didn’t realize we were this aligned’ as I did moments of ‘I didn’t realize we did things so differently,’” said John Scola, senior vice president of advancement of BGC of the Valley. “While a lot of our programs are pretty much universal across every Boys & Girls Clubs in the country, the implementation may change from organization to organization.”
The differences between the two groups came down to culture and operations.
“We didn’t even realize the East Valley had a charter school until we started diving into the merger. And the East Valley didn’t know we had a dental clinic,” Marcia said. Several months into completing the merger, BGC of the Valley is still combining systems. For Marcia, that is secondary to making sure the two organizations blended culturally.
“Culture eats strategy for breakfast,” John said.
Making sure the two cultures melded required a lot of meetings with board members to alleviate their concerns.
“Board members take their positions very seriously when they are involved with nonprofits,” Marcia said. “It’s a good thing that they are so engaged, but they can also be over-protective.”
That’s why coming back to the central questions of “Can we serve more kids? Can we serve them better?” was so key for Marcia. It also took some incredible leadership from the merger design team and the invested board members to, in Marcia’s words, “make the personal case after the business and mission case. And be fearless.”
Both Marcia and John believe that fearlessness paid off. Despites COVID-19’s rip through Arizona only 74 days into their merger, the BGC of the Valley never had to close.
“The crisis allowed everyone to step up and create a unified culture. We consolidated to 10 sites, intentionally mixed our staffs, and became ‘we’,” Marcia explained. “Normally it takes two to three years to move a culture. We did it in four months.”
The future of BGC of the Valley is bright, and they hope to be an example for other nonprofits looking to combine forces.
John, who also teaches Fund Raising and Resource Development at the Watts College of Public Service & Community Solutions at Arizona State University, said “As a teacher, my students often come into class saying they want to start their own nonprofit. My goal is to convince my students otherwise, to find a way to take their skills to the 1.8 million nonprofits that already exist in the U.S. and help them.” For him, there is strength in collaboration that is streamlined for effective leadership. This targeted strategy ultimately wins the day.
For Marcia, that effective leadership occurs when everyone is involved, and everyone is in on the mission. Whether two nonprofits merge to save money or to grow in order to succeed, the mission is the most critical thing to get right.