Just over three months ago, I was the first to write about the merger of the Nature Conservancy and Rare, two successful and well established conservation organizations. I was particularly interested because I have had a long relationship with both organizations. Yesterday, the Conservancy and Rare reversed course and announced the organizations will not merge.
The merger was an exciting and interesting development, since it is unusual for nonprofit organizations, especially successful ones, to merge. I suggested at the time of the announcement that the motivation for the merger was an admirable one—a mutual belief that by coming together the two organizations could do more to advance conservation than they could working separately. So, what went wrong?
Merging is hard. Bringing together two organizations, their people, systems, and cultures, is simply not easy to do. In the for-profit world, the prospect of significant financial gain provides an incentive to push through these challenges. In the nonprofit world there is no comparably powerful incentive (except where nonprofit organizations are in financial distress). As a result, mergers among successful nonprofits are rare. The prospect of sacrificing organizational identity and autonomy can sometimes trump the prospect of enhanced mission impact.
This merger may have fallen apart as the organizations addressed the operational components of the merger and began to discuss, in earnest, questions such as: What level of autonomy would Rare enjoy within the Conservancy’s structure? How and when would systems be integrated? Although the Conservancy has a history of delegating significant authority to state and country programs, which gave me some confidence the merger might work, I suspect Rare was looking for a greater level of autonomy than the Conservancy was prepared to offer. And, integrating systems and processes is simply hard and expensive. One potential explanation might be that the costs of merging in the short term overshadowed the potential long-term benefits.
So, where do the organizations go from here? They say they will work closely to advance shared conservation priorities. I suspect they will, but some of the wind has certainly been sucked from the sails. It will be hard to achieve the level of integration and impact that the combined organization might have had. Both organizations have long traditions of successful partnering, so I hope the new level of familiarity and mutual respect developed through the process of exploring the merger will lead to even closer collaboration between the two.
Some will be deeply disappointed by the failure of the merger; others will wonder why the organizations didn’t better anticipate the challenges they would face from the start; still others will point out that bigger does not equal better and argue that this failure is ultimately for the best. As more information about the decision not to merge comes to light, there may be important lessons for others in the sector, and I hope that Rare and the Conservancy share more about what thwarted it. For my part, I have to confess a significant measure of disappointment. The merger was motivated by the right desire—to enhance impact. To see two successful organizations model such behavior was inspiring. Now they too have been thwarted by the organizational challenges of merging, and the opportunity to serve as an example and to chart a path that others might follow has been lost. That is unfortunate. However, let’s hope for a silver lining in closer collaboration and the sharing of what they have learned so that future efforts are better positioned to succeed.