I am the Executive Director of RISE and responsible for overseeing all of its program and administrative management. Previously, I was the Executive Director of the North County Women’s Shelter and Resource Center (NCWSRC) and, prior to that, I was the Executive Director of the Sexual Assault, Recovery and Prevention (SARP) Center for six years.
RISE is the result of a merger between those two organizations to create a new community resource serving both victims of domestic violence and sexual assault, as well as their loved ones. The merger is an important step in providing comprehensive services to victims of violence in our community while also consolidating administrative activities. Together, the agencies have over 65 years of experience and will provide the following services to those affected by intimate partner violence and sexual assault/abuse: 24-hour crisis line, crisis intervention, case management, restraining order assistance, accompaniment and advocacy, prevention education, two safe houses and individual and group counseling. All services are provided confidentially, free of charge and in Spanish to anyone (adults and children, women and men) who has been directly or indirectly impacted by intimate partner violence or sexual assault/abuse.
What was the original goal tied to your HINDsight? What did you set out to do?
For years, Kristy McCray, my successor and the new Executive Director at the SARP Center, dreamed of a dual agency able to address both domestic violence and sexual assault issues. There is much crossover between the domestic violence and sexual assault victims. Sixty percent of intimate partner violence survivors served by the NCWSRC have experienced sexual assault. Likewise, verbal abuse or physical abuse are regularly evident in sexual assault, rape and molestation. Statistics also show that two out of three sexual assaults are committed by someone known to the victim. Our programs are further aligned by the fact that both types of programs draw from the same federal funding sources.
When Kristy decided to return to graduate school to obtain her doctorate, she wanted to leave SARP in good hands and positioned for success. She started to explore the idea of a merger with a few close confidantes – she even called Spokes for some references and advice. TheSARPCenterand North County Women’s Shelter already had a strong programmatic relationship; it seemed a natural like a natural next step to start building a more formal operating relationship to better support our joint programmatic efforts. So, that became our goal. To merge our organizations. And, in four months.
What actually happened?
We did successfully merge, but not by the process or timeline we had originally anticipated. Under the guidance of a specialized consultant, we quickly learned that there were many questions that had to be answered before a merger could be considered. Kristy and I thought that we could make this merger successful through our own sheer will. In fact, successfully merging to organizations is a highly complex process with numerous variables. Yes, there are situations when one organization takes over another, especially in the corporate world. Those are called “hostile” for a reason. We were seeking a true collaboration – a merger designed to benefit and strengthen both organizations. And, toward that goal, there was much work that needed to be done to really understand the strengths and needs of each organization (and the people behind the organizations) to ensure that the decisions we made were the right ones. It’s a process that can’t be rushed – and can’t be ignored.
What was the final outcome?
We did it! Our organizations effectively merged on January 1, 2013 and on August 22, 2013 we unveiled our new brand to become known as RISE (www.RISEslo.org). Our new brand reflects a significant organizational shift and redefinition our combined vision and mission. It stands for: “Respect, Inspire, Support and Empower.” References to gender or roles was purposely omitted. It is often forgotten that there are many men who are victims of sexual assault and domestic violence. And, there are many others beyond the victims who are affected by incidents of sexual assault and domestic violence including the victims’ parents, children, friends and other loved ones who often feel powerless to help. At RISE, we believe that respect is the cornerstone to ending violence and creating peace. We inspire the community to be active in the movement to end gender-based violence. We support the loved ones of those affected by sexual assault/abuse and intimate partner violence. We empower victims to heal from trauma and transform their lives.
Long after Kristy has started her doctoral program and our four-month timeline has passed, we have finally refined our organizational structure, worked through the bumps and are excited to demonstrating to our community that one (organization) can be better than two!
What did you learn? (What would you do differently going forward?)
As I mentioned earlier, I learned to change my expectations and would advise others to do the same. Our consultant helped us to understand that positive, mutually-beneficial mergers are like marriages – not something to entered into lightly. On one end of the spectrum is dating, akin to program partnering. And, at the other end of the spectrum is marriage/merger. Essentially, there are five key lessons I learned:
- Don’t rush it. Merging is a huge commitment to everyone is involved. Staff may feel vulnerable as some job duplication, shifts in chain-of-command, and changing job responsibility is inevitable. Board members also feel tremendous risk. They are volunteers stepping in and out of the organization for a few hours each month. It’s not fair to expect them to take on the responsibility of making enormous, complicated management decisions without allowing them sufficient time to gather all the information they need, develop a comfort level with the proposed changes and, then, lead the implementation the proposed changes.
- Use a consultant. I don’t believe we could have accomplished this process without the help of our consultant, Bob Harrington of La Piana Consulting. He is the one who helped us understand that our organizations needed to “date” before getting “married” and advised us to start by solidifying programmatic partnerships first. Then, once those were successful, we looked for ways to further tie our organizations together without formally incorporating as one entity. Again, very similar to dating. Our organizations became progressively more entwined with each successful partnership milestone. And, our consultant’s coaching and objectivity in the process was invaluable to helping us identify the middle ground between our organizations and moving through differences when they cropped up.
- Culture is critical. Just as in dating, sometimes cultural differences can be impassable barriers to a successful union. Be honest about your organization’s culture as well as the culture of the organization with which you intend to merge. Even if your missions are aligned, the culture and values by which each organization seeks to fulfill those respective missions may be dramatically different. Which culture will the combined organization follow? How much of that culture is defined by the executive manager? The Board of Directors? Fortunately, NCWSRC’s and SARP’s cultures were very similar, so we did not have a significant hurdle to overcome. However, I can see now, how different our process would have been if our cultures were very different.
- Communicate, communicate, communicate. Change is always scary. Change takes time. Change relies on the willingness of your staff, Board, donors, clients to be willing to dive into the unknown and trust the process (and the folks leading the process). The only way to help folks embrace change is to be as transparent and open as possible. For executive managers, make yourself available. Make it safe for folks to be honest about their worries. Make sure that everyone knows as much as possible so that they feel empowered to contribute to the change process – rather than feel like victims of it.
- Celebrate! As I just mentioned, change is hard. This process will take time. Keep your team motivated and engaged through the marathon of merging by looking for every possible opportunity to celebrate. Reflect often. Recognize everyone for their contributions – big and small – to this enormous effort. Have fun!