“Two Faith-Based Nonprofits That Trust Each Other and Communicate Honestly Can Do Anything”


On March 5th, the winners of The Collaboration Prize—the national competition with a cash award of $250,000 for the best nonprofit collaboration in the U.S.—were at long last announced by the Lodestar Foundation and AIM (the Arizona-Indiana-Michigan) Alliance. Appropriately, it was a tie! The blue ribbon panel of judges selected the YMCA & JCC of Greater Toledo and Dallas Museum of Nature and Science to share first place.

One of the most unique mergers I have ever seen is the YMCA & JCC of Greater Toledo. This collaboration of one Jewish nonprofit with a Christian nonprofit was truly inspiring to me. I asked Abby Suckow from the United Jewish Council/JCC and Connie Torrey, from the YMCA of Greater Toledo, the current professional leaders of this collaboration effort, if they would tell us how it came to be.

Mission Plus Strategy: How did this collaboration effort get started?
Abby: We had a long history of working together or in parallel ways.  In 1999 we began by doing joint programming and membership together.  The YMCA expressed interest in building a new facility with a presence in Sylvania, Ohio but we already had a campus with 44 acres, a pool, and a lot of what the YMCA was looking for in a facility. We realized there was an opportunity to work together to share what we had. We could provide them with a site and space, and enhance our services to our community; the YMCA could save the dollars it would take plus the effort of a capital campaign to build a brand new community center.
Connie: We went in steps beginning with an affiliation agreement in 1999, sharing offices, and doing joint programming. We dated, then engaged and finally married. In January 2004, we signed the actual integration agreement.

Mission Plus Strategy: Can you describe your collaboration–is this a merger?
Abby: Technically, we call this an “integration,” however it walks and talks like a merger. The JCC of Sylvania, Ohio (outside of Toledo, Ohio), is now a branch of the metropolitan YMCA of Toledo. We have a local board with both Jewish and non-Jewish representation and representation on corporate committees and boards of the metro YMCA board.

Mission Plus Strategy: What did each agency get from the merger?
Connie: The merger allowed each of our agencies to serve who they serve best, drawing from the strengths of each agency. The YMCA could handle all of the recreation activities, and daycare programs, where we are strong.
Abby: Because the YMCA was handling all the recreation and fitness programs that freed us up to completely focus on Jewish community programming and increase our services from cradle to grave. We now have two synagogues on the campus where we had one before. The United Jewish Council has built a beautiful state of the art facility where the YMCA offers expanded services for children including daycare and the Jewish Family Service has relocated to the campus.

Mission Plus Strategy:  What reactions have you gotten from long-time stake holders?
Abby: Both agencies had long-time stakeholders who, at the very beginning, felt opposed to this merger. The JCC members felt we would completely lose our Jewish identity. The merger has allowed us to re-focus our expertise on what we do well and to expand services to the Jewish community. We wouldn’t have had the resources to do this if it hadn’t been for the integration and people can see that now.

Mission Plus Strategy: What message do you think your selection as co-winner of The Collaboration Prize sends to the nonprofit sector?
Abby: The message is that two faith-based organizations that are well-respected, are honest with each other, communicate openly, and trust each other, can do anything. We were very fortunate that our lay and professional leadership at the time shared all of these qualities plus the vision to see it through.
Connie: I agree.

Mission Plus Strategy: Do you believe that more nonprofits should be collaborating the way your organizations have?
Abby: As they say, “My crystal ball is always foggy.” In these economic times where there’s opportunity to leverage resources I believe you’ll come out stronger if you do so. Where there seems to be a natural fit it should at least be explored.
Connie: Look for where you are similar to another nonprofit, rather than concentrate on your differences.

Mission Plus Strategy: What advice do you want to pass on to other nonprofits considering nonprofit mergers or partnerships?
Abby: It takes a lot of respect, camaraderie, honesty, and open communication to do this. With those things in place, you can build on that. Without the leadership of Joel Beren, former CEO of The United Jewish Council/JCC, Robert Alexander, President and CEO of the YMCA & JCC of Greater Toledo, Paul Schlatter, Chairman of the YMCA & JCC Corporate Board and the many other volunteers from both the UJC/JCC and the YMCA this would never have come to fruition.
Connie: With common goals, you can head down the same path. Trust is huge.

I want to congratulate YMCA and JCC of Greater Toledo for their exceptional collaboration and showing us that it’s the possibilities we need to concentrate on, not the differences between us. Readers who are interested in finding out more information about this merger can go here. Look for more information about The Collaboration Prize winners to appear in this blog.

imageJean Butzen, Mission Plus Strategy consulting, specializes in mergers and alliances in the Chicago area.