In the closing plenary session at our November quarterlies, we heard about the challenges and possibilities of community legal centre mergers.
Thank you to the speakers – Louise Coady (Western Sydney Community Legal Centre), Claudia Fatone (Fitzroy Legal Service), Blake Powell (Environmental Defenders Office), and Helen Liedel (Community Legal WA) – for being so frank and open in sharing their experiences, as well as to Nassim Arrage for facilitating a lively conversation.
Here’s a short summary of some of the key takeaways, but you can watch the full recording at a later date on the Community Legal Centres Australia website.
When done well, mergers can:
- Strengthen organisations’ effectiveness: for example, the merger of eight independent Environmental Defenders Offices into a national organisation was based on the idea that “nature isn’t jurisdictionally bound, and we can’t be effective if we are”.
- Create more resilient organisations, especially when it comes to questions around funding security. Amalgamated entities are able to absorb sudden staffing changes more easily, thus affording some security to smaller centres who might be struggling to survive.
- Give staff more opportunities for career progression and widened legal expertise.
- Enable organisations to provide more holistic services through backroom sharing of expertise, increased collaboration, and dissolving of silos.
- Free up solicitors and CEOs to spend more time with clients and on casework by centralising functions (e.g. in administration, compliance, finance, fundraising, media, etc).
- Alleviate a bottleneck or backlog of cases.
- Strengthen our relationships with like-minded organisations. Mergers don’t just need to be between community legal centres, but can also include non-legal organisations (e.g. health-justice).
The risks and challenges of mergers include:
- Splintered sense of organisational identity, and less of a sense of community embeddedness.
- Leadership chaos, widespread anxiety, uncertainty among staff, hostility between clashing organisational cultures, and change fatigue – particularly when merger processes are rushed.
- Potential conflicts of interest, particularly between specialist centres sharing offices.
- Administrative and financial mess.
- The question of how to merge or amalgamate is critical: Will one organisation be the merger vehicle, or will each organisation dissolve and become a new entity? Each process can have its own difficulties and power-struggles.
Top tips for organisations considering merging:
- Communicate effectively and have open conversations. What will the merger look like? What is the benefit? What is the identity of the organisation? What is the community impact, and how will it affect clients?
- Make a commitment to maintaining people’s ongoing employment arrangements – it is critical that staff have a baseline of support and surety. Everyone needs to be consulted and heard.
- Don’t underestimate the sense of loss that staff will feel. It is a process of grieving and rebirth; recognise the emotional side of mergers, and support staff throughout the process.
- Do pre-amalgamation work: bring together staff in group meetings, create heaps of communication opportunities, allow people to get to know one another.
- Mergers shouldn’t be forced or rushed. If it is an external person or funder is driving the merger, and the sole reason is to cut administration costs and create efficiencies, it will likely be a very difficult process.
- Funding the merger process is essential. Change management and administrative functions people management take a lot of time, energy and resources.
- Speak to people who have already done it: don’t reinvent the wheel, and learn from past mistakes.