The historic Collaboration Prize, sponsored by the Lodestar Foundation and Arizona-Michigan-Indiana Alliance, announced co-winners on March 5th this year for the best collaboration in the country. The award garnered 644 applications but ultimately the judging came down to a tie between the YMCA & JCC of Greater Toledo and the Museum of Nature & Science in Dallas, Texas. In March I wrote about the former winners of the $250,000 cash prize; this month I am writing about the Museum of Nature & Science, a merger of three museums in Dallas: The Dallas Museum of Natural History, The Science Place, and the Children’s Museum. I interviewed the board chair, Frank-Paul King, of the combined entity which is now three years old.
Mission Plus Strategy: You were the Board Chair of the Natural History Museum at the time the merger occurred. Why were you in favor of the merger?
Mr. King: Fundamentally the museums suffered from mission over-lap, and as a result you create for yourself a couple of problems. Number one, it becomes increasingly difficult for your donors, who are your primary providers of capital, to differentiate how your product is different form anyone else’s. Number two, it’s very inefficient to have three times the overhead, so anytime you can achieve the mission with more efficiency, it is massively beneficial to all that are involved.
Mission Plus Strategy: As the Board Chair of one of the merging entities, what was your role in supporting the merger and making it happen?
Mr. King: My primary role was twofold. Number one: I was one of the champions of the proposed merger within our board. Number two: I was one of the primary transaction facilitators of the mergers. That meant we didn’t have to hire a professional facilitator.
Mission Plus Strategy: How did you combine the boards?
Mr. King: Any institution wants everybody involved who’s interested in being involved. There are different levels of involvement in any organization; anyone who wanted to be involved at a governing board level we let in. We had some pretty high expectations, we need your time, talents and money, and anybody who held up their hand and said I believe in this mission we brought in.
Mission Plus Strategy: Why did your merger work?
Mr. King: The reason that this worked after it had been talked about on and off for a decade, was because we created a vision for the museum of nature and science for the next century. We asked ourselves: one hundred years from now, what will the iconic nature and science museum look like? That was our big expansive vision and that started us down the road and as we went with it, it made sense for each museum to be with it. The vision has never changed. All that has happened is that the assets have grown, fabulously interesting people have come on board, and the governance changed little.
Mission Plus Strategy: Overnight your job as board chair got much bigger after the merger. What was that change like for you, personally?
Mr. King: Operationally it’s much bigger, but my essential job did not change. My job is to help set priorities and fly the flag for the vision. In many ways, the jobs got easier because we had removed the impediments discussed earlier. We had huge donor support for this. From an operational perspective, it’s taken us two years to combine the cultures from the organizations; but today it is a rare, rare thing that anyone would say “I came from this or that institution.” It is only by virtue of the Lodestar Foundation that we have even talked about this in the last two years; we are so far beyond the merger; it’s old hat.
Mission Plus Strategy: Do you have any advice for others contemplating this move?
Mr. King: First, it’s all about the vision and the mission. That’s step one. Is the vision shared? The second is slowly developing trust: together we are better off realizing this vision than apart. One of the beautiful things about the economic reality today is that we are forced to think about our missions in a new way because otherwise they might not happen. Once you have vision and trust at a board level, the rest is blocking and tackling; you can hire consultants to help you get there.
Mission Plus Strategy: Why don’t more boards engage in mergers like yours?
Mr. King: Because as human beings we are territorial. It takes inspired thinking to say there is a better way. Let’s not talk about your way or my way; let’s talk about the best way. The for-profit world has the profit motive which can overcome the human issues and the territoriality; in the nonprofit world that doesn’t exist. The only currency you have in the nonprofit world to deal is this bigger vision. If it’s true that you can create something massively bigger by working together then let’s talk about that. We can get excited about that. Let’s just forget about where each came from and, rather talk about where we can go from here - then you’ve got inertia. Lodestar finalists created wonderful inertia. Once it starts, the naysayers were overwhelmed, and welcome to the advancement of civilization!
Jean Butzen, Mission Plus Strategy consulting, specializes in mergers and alliances in the Chicago area.