The Power Neutral Facilitation: Lessons from Smile Train and Operation Smile

Posted on April 06, 2011 by Pam Truitt

Several colleagues sent me alerts on the failed merger between Smile Train and Operation Smile. I thought it was curious that I heard about a failure through the media but hardly ever hear about successful partnerships that, when facilitated by a neutral third party, often result in greater mission impact for all involved.

So, here I am on a beautiful Sunday morning, enjoying fresh spring breezes and the call of a Carolina Wren somewhere close by. This nice writing environment makes it all more difficult to wrap my brain around today’s blog topic: What went wrong in the Smile Train/Operation Smile merger?

My initial assessment was that those involved in the merger did not employ a neutral facilitator. This might be true.  The New York Times article and statements on the Smile Train and Operation Smile websites point to other problems: changing demographics, trust, egos, historical hostilities, just to name a few.

With the help of a neutral facilitator, perhaps this proposed merger wouldn’t have ever even made it off the ground. We will probably never know. But I feel strongly that a facilitator could have made a big difference.

The facilitator’s role is to drive the process not the outcome. Judging from the New York Times article, it appears as if the outcome was pre-determined and the process non-existent. Was this a missed opportunity? Maybe. In this scenario, one of the primary roles of a facilitator is to guide the process toward a workable partnership.

As this blog and accompanying articles highlight, nonprofit board members and executives are sometimes a little too close to the trees to see the forest. This is why The Patterson Foundation’s (TPF) Collaborative Restructuring Initiative has made neutral facilitation for nonprofit /civic entity partnership conversations the centerpiece. To do this, TPF has partnered with La Piana Consulting to train consultants in the area of strategic restructuring to ensure they have the necessary personality and technical skill set. TPF is hosting training in Sarasota, Fla., in mid-May 2011.  To learn more please contact me:

In the meantime, I’m interested in your thoughts as to whether a facilitator would have made a difference for Smile Train/Operation Smile. Leave me a comment!

  • Learn about these and other concepts used in TPF's approach to philanthropy.


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