Nonprofits around Washtenaw County could learn a thing or two from the merger between Leslie Science and Nature Center (LSNC) and the Ann Arbor Hands-On Museum (AAHOM).
"Things we thought would be easy were really hard, and some of the things we thought would be difficult turned out to be easy," says Susan Westhoff, executive director of LSNC.
The two Ann Arbor organizations announced their merger in May last year, and a little more than a year later they've accomplished a great deal. But Westhoff and AAHOM executive director Mel Drumm think at least two more years of work will be needed to complete the merger.
In the meantime, the partnership has brought out many innovative ideas from staff and sparked ideas for further collaborations with other nonprofits. And on the financial side, LSNC and AAHOM are expecting to save about $4 million over the next 10 years without having laid off even one employee during the merger.
AAHOM opened its doors to the public in 1982 and quickly became popular, with more than 5 million visitors over the museum's lifetime. Its focus is on interactive science and technology exhibits. LSNC started as a nature-based program of the city of Ann Arbor and was spun off into a standalone nonprofit operating out of a city park in 2007.
The two organizations had already been cooperating with each other for award-winning distance learning programs and other collaborative events when Westhoff moved into her role as executive director at LSNC in 2011. She continued that cooperation, meeting with Drumm for coffee about every other month. It was during one of those coffee meetings that the idea of combining operations came up.
AAHOM staff had received requests for nature programming, and both organizations needed more fundraising and marketing support. Merging operations and sharing a grant writer seemed like a smart move.
"Right away, we thought this made a lot of sense," Drumm says. "Why reinvent the wheel or act in a competitive way instead of a collaborative manner?"
Each executive director brought the idea to his or her board of trustees, formed a subcommittee composed of members of each board, and brought on a consulting firm to talk through legal and financial aspects as well as community and public perception.
David Esau, chair of the merged organization's board of trustees, was on AAHOM's board before the merger. He says all board members thought it was a great idea from the beginning.
However, LSNC board member Becca Nielsen says she doesn't want to give the impression that the decision to merge operations was casual.
"The due diligence process was extensive, and both boards spent exhaustive hours making sure that we had thought about all of the angles and that both organizations would indeed benefit from the merger," Nielsen says.
One big concern was making sure each organization's identity was preserved. Esau says the AAHOM board didn't want to turn LSNC into simply a northeast satellite location of AAHOM.
Another concern was making sure the move made financial sense for both parties. AAHOM has been financially stable for many years, while Esau says LSNC had been operating "a little closer to the edge of stability," but the opportunities to cross-market for both organizations made sense.
The final of the big three concerns for board members was the operating agreement between LSNC and the city of Ann Arbor.
"There were clauses in that agreement that could have killed the merger if it was determined they would be applied to the larger merged organization," Esau says. Those clauses related to the city's responsibility for maintenance at LSNC, which would have been too burdensome for the city if extended to the larger, combined nonprofit. Esau says the merged organization is continuing to negotiate for a simplified and more flexible agreement with the city, and in return, the organization is taking on some of the city's former responsibilities for maintenance at LSNC.
The boards eventually agreed to the merger, and a combined board of trustees met for the first time in November 2016.
Since then, the merged organization has hired a grant writer as shared staff, and Westhoff says that employee has written more grants in six months than Westhoff was able to do in a full year. Additionally, the merger means they can attract funding from new sources.
"Today, with our grant writing, we're getting interest from funders we've never been able to reach before, because they're interested in our combined program," Drumm says.
The two organizations now have a combined staff and payroll as well and are jointly marketing their programs to local schools. The time and money freed up by being able to share staff and tasks is already paying off.
"Many nonprofits are in a mode where they're constricting and getting smaller, but this merger really put us into growth mode," Drumm says.
Additional partnerships bloom
The merger has also helped to inspire multiple other innovative new plans for both LSNC and AAHOM.
"We have phenomenal staff at both institutions, and they've generated a million and one fantastic ideas," Westhoff says. The combined organization is currently filtering and prioritizing those ideas and looking for grant matches for new programs.
One new program inspired by the merger is a seven-week after-school pilot program regarding the exchange of energy in the natural world. The program is scheduled to kick off this fall, utilizing instructors from both AAHOM and LSNC .
Further in the future, LSNC and AAHOM will be partnering more deeply with the Yankee Air Museum (YAM) in Belleville to expand summer camp opportunities. AAHOM has partnered with YAM on science programs in the past.
"Leslie is known for having a strong summer camp, but it sells out every year," Westhoff says. And both LSNC and AAHOM have limited space and parking.
YAM, however has plenty of space and plenty of free parking. And YAM executive director Kevin Walsh says he was "beyond excited" to talk about offering that space up to LSNC and AAHOM.
"It's such a natural fit," Walsh says. "We have the market cornered on aerospace industry technology and military aviation history. That's something they are not subject matter experts on and we are, but they are subject matter experts in so many other fields."
Walsh says the conversation transitioned very quickly from "What do we think about this?" to "When are we going to do this?" Tentatively, the summer camp program collaboration with YAM will kick off in summer of 2018.
More work, public input still ahead
Dennis Norton, a founder of YAM and current president of the board for the Michigan Aerospace Foundation, says he wishes more nonprofits would adopt LSNC and AAHOM's model of cooperation. He says it doesn't make sense for nonprofits to stick to old patterns and look at other organizations as competitors.
"With what it's costing now for nonprofits just to stay in business, it doesn't make sense not to collaborate. Why not join hands, double your resources, and double your reach for less cost?" Norton says.
Westhoff says the merger is necessarily going to be a "marathon, not a sprint" and it will be about two years before the merger is complete.
"There's so much left to integrate," Westhoff says. "Our cultures and missions are aligned, but the ways the programs and staff function are different."
During the initial announcement of the merger, the two organizations indicated there would be public input sessions regarding the merger. Those haven't happened yet, but they are on the agenda. One big concern for LSNC is making sure the center's neighbors understand what's happening, since the nature center is in the middle of a residential neighborhood.
"We want them to know the culture of the center is not going to change," Westhoff says. "If anything, we're going to invest more in the site and create more resources for the community."
Both organizations have a cycle of strategic planning that is coming to an end. In the next few months, they want to invite community input as they plan their next strategic cycle.
"Community ownership and engagement is so important," Drumm says. "We're nothing without those who visit us and believe in us."
Sarah Rigg is a freelance writer and editor in Ypsilanti Township. You may reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org.
All photos by Doug Coombe.