Can a Merger Achieve Greater WASH Impact?

Editors Note: This post was authored by Lisa Nash, executive director of Blue Planet Network,and highlights a recent merger between Blue Planet Network and East Meets West, two global WASH organizations coming together to combine their respective strengths in driving innovation and learning to deliver improved clean water and sanitation solutions to more people worldwide. The post discusses the motivation to merge, lessons learned, and some of the challenges inherent to the process.

Blue Planet Network, a division of East Meets West

After sharing the news of our merger last month with WASH industry leaders, we heard many of the same questions. We thought our answers could spark some interesting discussions:

How did the idea of a merger begin?

Jin Zidell, founder of Blue Planet Network. Credit: BPN

Jin Zidell, founder of Blue Planet Network. Credit: BPN

From the beginning, Jin Zidell, the founder of Blue Planet Network, has been committed to doing whatever has the greatest potential to bring safe drinking water to the most people. In December 2012, John Anner, president of East Meets West approached Blue Planet Network about merging.

Jin came to see the merger as a natural evolution of his original vision. Having started Blue Planet Network in 2002 with an aim to raise awareness and funds to help solve the global safe drinking water crisis, he considered the merger to be the smartest way to reach his original goal. East Meets West was delighted that Blue Planet Network saw the same opportunities for synergy that had prompted them to broach the subject of a merger.

Why did merging make sense for your two organizations and what lessons can be learned by others?

There are three important lessons we can share about evaluating merger as a growth strategy:

1)     You have to be aligned in your goals, there has to be concrete benefit for each organization, and a sense of “magic” doesn’t hurt.

We knew we shared the goal of bringing sustainable safe drinking water and sanitation to people in greatest need around the world. We also shared a belief in innovation, collaboration, and results-based learning.

The team at East Meets West. Credit: EMW

The team at East Meets West. Credit: EMW

EMW decided it was time to expand their successful Southeast Asia programs worldwide through partnerships. They also knew they needed a robust technology infrastructure to support their growth. Blue Planet Network’s global community of 100+ member organizations provided deep knowledge of WASH strategies, common cultural practices, and meaningful relationships with local communities. EMW saw the advantage of Blue Planet Network’s online platform and mobile services to support growth.

For our part, Blue Planet Network saw the merger as a way to help us grow as an “innovation hub,” moving from one to two cross-member pilots at a time to 15-20, with all the learning that would result. While we remain a collective impact network, driven by the needs of our members, the merger gives Blue Planet Network the ability to reach new audiences of donors, implementers, and advocates active in WASH and add deep sector experience to our own resources.

The “magic” happened during a long evaluation session, when we couldn’t look at another spreadsheet. We began to talk about our vision of what we wanted to accomplish together. We knew if we kept that “magic” in sight, no amount of paperwork could stop us.

2)     In the end, it all comes down to a shared confidence in the partnership.

Shared belief in a combined vision is the fuel that brought the merger to life. We were fortunate to have worked with East Meets West as a member of Blue Planet Network and knew that we had similar values. Having experienced that level of partnership made us confident we could count on each other going forward.

3)     Patience and the ability to adapt, helps just as much as big ambition.

Blue Planet Network staff. Credit: BPN

Blue Planet Network staff. Credit: BPN

You have to invest the same level of effort in a merger as you would in a new venture…and still get your day job done. Bringing together two organizations, two boards, and two sets of systems and processes is a huge challenge. Integrating financial systems, agreeing on how to describe our combined organization, communicating with donors and partners…all took conscious thought and agreement across many people.

After eight months of negotiations, rigorous financial reviews and the approval from both boards of directors, the merger became official on September 6, 2013. We know this merger will be a learning process. Even after months of preparing for the integration, this year will be filled with challenges as we work to retain the autonomy and cultural norms of both organizations, while also bonding together and learning to say “our organization” and “we.” Our work on the merger will continue over the next year — team building, communications, IT integration — but we have agreed on clear success metrics. We need to be just as innovative, collaborative, and results-based about achieving our merger goals as we are about our WASH programs.

One of those metrics is that, by the end of 2014, we will develop a case study on the reality vs. the expectations of the first year of our EMW-Blue Planet Network merger. We hope this can be a useful resource for other nonprofits looking for innovative ways to deliver more value to the communities they serve.