Literacy Council Gulf Coast Shares Merger Success

Posted on November 02, 2011 by Pam Truitt

Recently, Susan Acuna spoke to a group of La Piana consultant trainees about her experience going through partnership conversations. She shares her perspective with us today.

By Susan Acuna, Executive Director, Literacy Council Gulf Coast

In late 2010, the Literacy Council of Bonita Springs (LC) and the Literacy Volunteers of Lee County (LVLC) began to explore the feasibility of bringing the two organizations together. Although the conversations were encouraged by our local United Way, this exploration emerged from a common commitment at both agencies to excellence in literacy education in our coverage areas. These conversations ultimately led to a merger, and I'd like to share the process with you and the conditions that enabled it to be successful.

The merger was not about achieving cost-savings. Rather, the aim was to build on the significant areas of overlap in purpose, programming, and goals. Maximizing complementary strengths in this way translates into strategic growth in the literacy-based educational services available to the people of Lee County and ultimately a larger geographic area. Strategic growth is contemplated to include two dimensions

(1) providing existing students with additional programs (life cycle literacy services)

(2) adding new students

During the merger negotiation process, these key principles guided our discussions:

1. Mission and Vision: Both organizations clearly articulated missions, visions, and beliefs that are:

  • Devoted to improving the quality of life in the communities each agency serves by providing an array of literacy-education services
  • Committed to cultivating tutors and other partnerships necessary to deliver literacy programs
  • Dedicated to being recognized as leaders in literacy education in the state and nation

2. Programs, Staffing, and Facilities: The new entity created by the merger continues to provide current programs in existing locations, using existing staff resources to do so, although staff realignment is necessary to maximize skills and training.  The importance of retaining the expertise and institutional memory of all existing personnel at both agencies will be necessary and integral to the success of the new entity.

3. Board Structure: As in other areas, the boards of each agency complemented one another in terms of both composition and culture. Merging the two agencies presented opportunities for strategic alignment of the new entity’s board. Standing subcommittees were developed, reducing the need for meetings. The new board meets quarterly.

4. Technology: The new entity covers a vast geographic area and an array of student needs and organizational demands. Strategic use of technology offers the new agency an opportunity to maximize staff resources, internal operations, and the provision of programs.

5. Marketing: The range of students, partners, and funders key to the success of the new entity requires a multilayered marketing focus – one that targets students, tutors, grantors, businesses, and homes. This marketing focus must aim for resource development as well as raising awareness of the agency (its presence in the communities it serves); its work (the services it provides); and its purpose (what it does and why it matters).

6. Legal and Finance: A good bit of time was spent discussing the cost-effective approach to the merger.

Where are we today?  We are in the implementation phase. In this phase, the new combined entity focused on integrating the staff and Board members, programs, and processes of each original agency into a new merged entity. This phase also includes undertaking a long-range strategic planning process.

Looking back, it is easy to recognize and appreciate what each agency brought to the table:  a shared vision of literacy as a life skill that transforms the lives and communities of those who learn to read, write, and speak English.

Although the process is ongoing, we are seeing the benefits of being one organization, equipped to serve the entire county. Is it a challenge?  Yes, but we have good organizational skills and a committed staff.  As with any organizational change there are challenges with personnel, board assimilation and other unplanned glitches. But I believe we will be able to reach our goals of building a much stronger organization. The key to remember is that change is hard, but with strong leadership and a concern for the primary focus of the entity’s mission---the students---amazing things can be accomplished.

This new entity, Literacy Council Gulf Coast, is designed in a way that will allow expansion into other geographic areas if the right opportunities present themselves. We are now more than the sum of our parts when we were two organizations.

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