A Cross-Disciplinary Partnership
Enhances Services, Sustainability, Advocacy Voice
In Stockton, California, the July 2012 merger of the Women’s Center of San Joaquin County (the Women’s Center) and Family and Youth Services of San Joaquin County (FAYS) has created an integrated community resource for homeless and runaway youth and victims of sexual assault and domestic violence. Precipitated in part by the retirement of FAYS’ executive director and inspired by the story of another successful merger, this partnership brought together two strong nonprofits with a shared vision of providing outstanding services to their interrelated client populations. This profile of the recently merged Women’s Center - Youth & Family Services is not only about how strategic restructuring has led to better access to shelter, clinical services, and case management for its clients, but how the organization proactively engaged in post-merger implementation activities to effectively integrate its operations and programs.
Making the Connection
Prior to the merger, the Women’s Center provided sexual assault and domestic violence services to more than 20,000 children and adults each year, as well as community education and prevention. FAYS served more than 2,100 through programs for homeless and runaway youth and families in crisis. Once the two began to meet to discuss the overlap between their respective missions, including the fact that approximately 80% of the youth served by FAYS were also victims of domestic violence or sexual assault, the case for working more closely together became very clear.
Having broached the topic of merger a couple of years prior, it was FAYS executive director Linda Mascarenas-Colgan who originally planted the seed. Later, when Joelle Gomez, executive director of the Women’s Center, heard a conference presentation by a domestic violence organization that had merged with a family services agency, “it was like a lightbulb went on,” she says. The presentation, by Gloria Sandoval of STAND! For Families Free of Violence, demystified merger for Gomez and gave her confidence that the impact that could be achieved would be worth the amount of work that would likely be required. Picking up the merger conversation over coffee in the fall of 2011, Gomez learned that Mascarenas-Colgan recently announced to her board she planned to retire by the year’s end — and it was off to the races!
Negotiating a Future Together
“We took on the negotiation process at what was really a neck-breaking pace,” recalls Gomez. “We came together in November, and needed a vote by January 2012.” Fortunately, their respective boards had a high level of trust in the two leaders and were open to the recommendation that they explore a possible merger. Seeing the potential for enhanced services, capacity, and community voice, the negotiations committee of 11 was able to shape an agreement at a brisk pace. Due diligence was completed, the boards voted in January, Gomez was named CEO of the new organization, and the official date of the merger was set as July 1, 2012, to coincide with the new fiscal year. The Women’s Center announced this major milestone at their signature annual luncheon on March 28, 2012 before an audience of over 750 community members and revealed their new logo and name.
Tackling Post-Merger Integration
A thorough and well-executed negotiation process is critical to success, but getting to a signed merger agreement is not the end of the journey. The work of integrating the governance, programs, and operations of the merging organizations is where the real heavy lifting begins.
For the Women’s Center - Youth & Family Services, the creation and ongoing use of action plans specific to each functional area (eight in all, including program, finance, information technology, etc.) has helped board members, staff, and volunteers track every detail of the transition, share ownership of the work, and be accountable to one another in getting it done. Using a basic matrix that identifies task assignments and deadlines, and tying this to frequent and ongoing communication about progress and next steps (delivered in staff and management meetings, board meetings, staff and board retreats, and electronic newsletters), has helped keep everyone on the same page and moving forward for a smooth integration.
Program integration has been a key focus, and staff development and cross-training has played a critical role in this area. Gomez explains: “All our staff and volunteers are thirsty to learn about our new expanded scope of services, and we’re taking time to make sure that they have the training and case management support they need.” Although she says the organization is still “just touching the tip of the iceberg” when it comes to fully integrating its services, the benefits are already being seen and felt. For example, staff are now able to immediately mobilize to meet the multiple needs of a runaway youth who has been sexually assaulted, whereas before, relying on cross-referrals could have delayed response times up to 24 hours.
Communication is Key
“Even prior to announcing the merger, we were committed to open lines of communication. “We were really open and clear with our staff and board, with the community and with our funders, so everyone knew at every step of the way where we were, what we were thinking, what decisions were being made, and why.”
- Joelle Gomez, CEO
An Outstanding Reception
Community response to the Women’s Center - Youth & Family Services merger has been extremely positive, a credit to the organization’s proactive communication throughout the process. In March 2013, a fundraising luncheon featuring reports on the merger’s progress to date drew more than 900 community members, raising over $70,000. Gomez cites this as just one example of how “the community is not only interested in, but really invested in, our new partnership.” And invested, they have! Donor response to the merger has been nothing short of phenomenal. One donor committed $200,000 in unrestricted gifts over 2012 and 2013, plus another $50,000 to provide bridge funding for a youth transitional living program for which expected federal funding had been delayed. Another donor made a $280,000 bequest to support services in the northern part of San Joaquin County. In 2013 and 2014 another donor made a $266,327 unrestricted bequest.
Even what had originally appeared a setback resulted in a dramatic show of support. Nine months into its post-merger integration work, the Women’s Center – Youth & Family Services was told that the landlord of its shelter in the City of Tracy wanted to tear down the building. “Our hearts sank,” recalls Gomez, faced with the prospect of losing a facility in such a critical location — until the building owner provided a check of $100,000 to help the organization buy its own building! Then, to further bolster the organization’s ability to remain in Tracy, the City awarded the Women’s Center - Youth & Family Services $460,000 in redevelopment funds to put toward the new shelter. In Spring of 2014, Women’s Center - Youth and Family Services is scheduled to open Serenity House, a new undisclosed emergency shelter for battered women and their children. Serenity House will have nearly double the capacity of the previous shelter.
Lasting Community Impact
The success of this merger is due in large part to the strength and reputation of both constituent organizations, which has buoyed community trust and goodwill, and to the compelling case for cross-sector partnerships in enhancing services for clients with multiple needs. For the Women’s Center, the merger with FAYS brought with it access to licensed therapists and county contracts to provide clinical services to Medi-Cal eligible clients, as well as expansion to 11 sites throughout the County. For FAYS, the alliance with the Women’s Center has lifted the profile of youth programs, which hadn’t had as strong a community voice prior to the merger. Services are now provided by more than 75 staff at eleven locations throughout San Joaquin County.
The Women’s Center - Youth & Family Services has an operating budget of over $4 million and draws on almost 80 years of combined experience serving women, children, youth, and families. Gomez says the merger “has created new opportunities to talk about the needs of homeless and runaway youth and to work at the nexus of sexual assault and domestic violence,” and that the Women’s Center - Youth & Family Services is now “a stronger organization with a broader platform, better able to serve the needs of the community.”