Anyone who’s worked in the nonprofit sector knows that the business of doing good can be cutthroat. Organizations are in competition — albeit often while friendly and collaborative — for resources, donors, and funding opportunities. So what are some of this area’s most respected and well-known humanitarian nonprofits, with wide-ranging missions, playing at by consolidating into one as-yet-unnamed service organization?
Turns out, it’s been a long time coming. The July 1 melding together of Tahoe SAFE Alliance, Project MANA, Family Resource Center of Truckee, and North Tahoe Family Resource Center is the culmination of established nonprofit cooperation in the region. Still, what they are doing is remarkable, because although nonprofit mergers are growing more common, a four-group consolidation of financially healthy organizations doesn’t happen every day.
Project MANA, which provides direct hunger relief service through healthy food drops, is the smallest of the four in terms of staff power but the group reaches the most community members through its work. They provided 148,358 meals last year alone according to their 2017/18 annual report. The two family resource centers provide varied services to their respective geographic regions including legal support and advocacy, parenting and health classes, and referrals to other support services. Tahoe SAFE Alliance, which works to support child and adult survivors of sexual and physical abuse, provided 795 community members with safety and support services and 1,320 legal consultations, as well as aiding 19 women and 17 children in finding housing last year in the area, according to their most recent annual report.
Each nonprofit is losing a name and a historical identity, but consolidation organizers say in exchange, the new entity will be streamlined and stronger, better able to serve more community members.
“It was a strategic direction we were heading in,” said Alison Schwedner, director of the Community Collaborative of Tahoe Truckee. The CCTT is a program under the umbrella of the Tahoe Truckee Community Foundation (TTCF), and together with the four partner groups, they devised this plan to join forces.
Schwedner is clear that while the proposal is special, it didn’t come about by magic.
“It was fortuitous, but it was also … in the works for a very long time and it’s really come out of 15 years, almost 20 years, of a very strong partnership. Of really being committed to collaboration,” Schwedner said.
A Habit of Cooperation
The story of that collaboration could be said to have begun with the CCTT. A network of 46 nonprofits and public agencies in the region that addresses the fundamental needs of families, the CCTT formed about 20 years ago. Schwedner, who previously worked for both the North Tahoe Family Resource Center and Tahoe Women’s Services (Tahoe SAFE Alliance before its name change in 2011), has been at the CCTT helm for 10 years. The partnership fosters sharing of resources and cross-promotion of each other’s events; it also identifies emerging community issues and trends, and compiles data into regular “community report cards.” In short, many of the players in the consolidation were already accustomed to working together.
The consolidation “was the next step in our evolution around how to best support our partners to work better together,” Schwedner said.
The narrative took its first tangible steps with the purchase of an old motel in Kings Beach. Around 2012, a number of the community foundation’s partner groups were struggling to maintain a presence in Kings Beach due to difficulty finding space. Although a large underserved population needed social services, some groups were considering moving out of the area. To help, TTCF purchased an old motel and transformed it into the Community House. All of the organizations that are combining, except the Truckee FRC, have been housed together in the space along with other groups and a few county services. For the foreseeable future, the new organization’s facilities will remain in the same office and service locations in which the current nonprofits are housed now.
The cohabitation coupled with the support of CCTT and TTCF provided ample opportunity for discussions about joining forces, according to Schwedner, yet she said the “stars aligned” when amenable administrative teams were in place at the same time.
Getting the Gears in Motion
“We’re stretched thinly, and to have the capacity to really take on looking at this and thinking about what it would take, it just never really came to fruition [before],” said Teresa Crimmens, executive director of the FRC of Truckee. The timing and willing leadership from boards combined with what Crimmens called an “infusion of resources” from the Blue Shield of California Foundation, the SH Cowell Foundation, TTCF, and the board members of the FRCs, to allow the plan to become reality.
“As we started to articulate what this could look like and the benefits of it — getting support from our funders and our donors to take a close look is really what made it happen,” said Crimmens, who is slated to become the deputy director of the new organization.
The move to create a new entity does not come from a place of financial hardship for any of the organizations, but rather will cost money in the short term. Yet all four directors told Moonshine Ink they and their boards jumped at the challenge.
While the financial cost of consolidation keeps him up at night, said Paul Bancroft, executive director of Tahoe SAFE Alliance for the past three years, he does believe that coming from a place of strength rather than a need for cuts will allow the new organization to provide better outcomes for clients.
“I can’t wait to hear everybody start referring to this as ‘we,’ as the collective ‘we,’” said Bancroft, who has been selected as the new entity’s executive director. “This is our organization, and that is my co-worker, that’s really exciting for me to start seeing that.”
As consolidation talks got serious, Bancroft reached out to La Piana Consulting, which he had discovered through his networks. The Marin-based firm has been in operation for 20 years and “literally wrote the book” on nonprofit mergers and partnerships, Bancroft said.
The nonprofits hired La Piana and firm partner Bob Harrington was put on the case.
“The first phase of any of this work is to assess readiness,” Harrington said. “We consider and assess for each of the organizations what they desire, what they need in terms of a partnership, what are their concerns and risks, what’s the level of trust and relationship of the organizations, are there any significant roadblocks that they would identify that could cause the partnership not to go through or to successfully go through.”
Once the assessment phase was complete, which took about six months, Harrington supported the groups in a negotiations phase, working through the issues identified and pinpointing solutions. Next came both financial and legal due diligence. The final phase La Piana will guide them through is integration, which will officially begin in July when the organizations announce a new name and begin to operate under one system.
“These four groups have been fabulous to work with. They were very dedicated to the process,” Harrington said. “I have high confidence that this is going to be a successful merger.”
Consolidation is a growing trend in the nonprofit sector, Harrington said.
“It’s become demystified,” he said. “People in the past thought that you only do this kind of work when one organization is looking at significant economic distress, maybe going out of business.” Yet all four of these Tahoe/Truckee nonprofits were doing just fine on their own, as each director made clear, according to Harrington.
What is unusual is the number of organizations that are combining. Harrington said that while they’ve done multi-party mergers before, joining four groups is remarkable. La Piana is working with the organizations to compile a case study on Tahoe/Truckee so that other communities can emulate the work done here.
In addition to La Piana and working with the CCTT, the directors hired a human resources consultant, a labor law attorney, and a cultural integration expert. They also hired Fresh Tracks, a Truckee strategic planning and communications business led by founder Seana Doherty, to help the new organization with its name, mission statement, core values, and official launch.
The New Face
All four nonprofits committed to retaining every current staff member, for a total of 70, and in fact new positions may be created. Each of the 37 board members were given the opportunity to remain, but a few dropped out, leaving the organization guided by a whopping 21-person board.
“Same services and locations, better outcomes,” read a simple postcard that the North Tahoe FRC sent its members to give a heads up about the plan. Executive director Anibal Cordoba Sosa said, “a bigger organization will have the scale to do things that right now we can’t.” Cordoba Sosa’s new role will be director of family support.
The leaders each expressed wishes for expanded services. Cordoba Sosa is hopeful that the consolidation will allow them to hire more promotoras, which are part-time staff that both FRCs hire to go out into the community, on a ground level, to spread information and awareness about available services. Deidre Ledford, Project MANA’s current executive director, looks forward to working in proactive solutions to community issues that the other groups specialize in like education and outreach, rather than what she calls reactive solutions to poverty like direct hunger alleviation. In the new group, Ledford’s role is still being defined, but she will be in charge of grants and facility operations.
The four individual coffers will be combined together, but the overall budget will increase, Bancroft said. The first year’s “transition budget” is still loosely defined, he said, and nothing financial will be set in stone “until we’re living in it.”
“It’ll take us a year to grow into our new budget and really have a grasp of everything involved because there’s so many different grants and contracts with varying levels of complexity,” Bancroft said.
To display some measure of the scale of spending, Tahoe SAFE Alliance spent $2,258,983 on programs, while Project MANA’s budget was $688,248 in 2017/18 (according to each groups’ annual reports).
Part of the reason that the overall budget of the new organization will be higher than just the combined total is that all staff’s salaries will be brought up to a specific data-determined baseline, and they will receive a benefits package.
Bancroft acknowledged along with his future colleagues that the transition will not be seamless and that “there will be bumps in the road.”
He is excited and ready. “And I’m scared shitless too,” Bancroft said.
What’s in a Name?
As anyone who has christened a child, pet, or car knows, to name is thrilling yet often quite difficult. A name reflecting a broader mission is imperative. Several options are floating around like “Stronger Together,” “Resilient Tahoe,” or something relating to the concept of “thriving.” Ultimately, the board of the new organization will make the decision from a narrowed-down list of favorites.
“You want a name that’s easy to remember, that really means something to people that can be understood by non-English speakers,” Cordoba Sosa said. He discussed going back to something similar to his organization’s original name from its foundation in 1991, La Comunidad Unida. It welcomes the Latino community, which Cordoba Sosa estimates is roughly 70% of their current clientele, and it’s an easy cognate meaning “the united community.”
Cordoba Sosa has one main priority: “I would really like a name that doesn’t have Tahoe/Truckee in it. That’s too restrictive, when you just mention an area. I wouldn’t include geography in the name.”
Overall, the process recalls the renaming of Tahoe SAFE Alliance, which highlighted how humans invariably struggle with change.
“It’s just part of the process; there’s a mourning component. Folks are attached to names, and names have identities,” Bancroft said. “I know when we moved away from Tahoe Women’s Services there were folks who were not so happy about that because that was the original name and there’s history and legacy and context within that, and so that is a challenge for folks to be able to let go of.”
Bancroft feels that the most important aspect of a healthy transition will involve “letting go, honoring, and moving and growing into the new entity.”
What’s important, Crimmens says, is that the new name “resonates well, most importantly with community members, so that they feel like we are still that welcoming, supportive place that they’ve known.”
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