7 insights gained through a nonprofit merger

Nov 17, 2022

The 2021 merger of Youth Homes of Mid-America (YHMA) and Youth Emergency Shelter & Services (YESS) into Ellipsis was one of the largest within the central Iowa nonprofit sector in recent years, driven by a desire to align services to better support children and families in need. While the process has taken years to accomplish, the impact is already being seen in how the continuum of care works with individuals in crisis throughout their journey to success.

In this blog, Chris Koepplin, CEO of Ellipsis, shares the insights she’s gained through her experiences with the merger process:

1. Begin by having conversations with partners.

With state implementation of the Family First Prevention Services Act that focuses on keeping children safely with their families instead of foster care, YHMA and YESS leaders began talking with other provider organizations about how to expand community-based services. Providers recognized the challenge of providing more services when the state’s reimbursement rates were not keeping up with the cost of offering these programs. When the pandemic hit, organizations felt further strain on resources as the need for support increased. These factors encouraged YESS and YHMA to more actively consider what a merger would look like to accomplish their shared missions.

2. Give time to explore options.

Before deciding to merge, the agencies’ Boards of Directors and organizational leadership teams spent a year exploring in detail what a merger would look like and what it would take to accomplish. Another organization also was involved in discussions of merging, but later decided not to move forward.  Grants supported professional consultation to appropriately advise the agencies as they examined the merger process.

The experience was a great lesson in being willing to explore options, says Koepplin, especially when agencies doing similar work are struggling to sustain it.

“Whether the work brings a yes on a merger or not, it’s super helpful,” she said. “You learn a lot about yourself and your agency.”

3. Consider the benefits.

While the process has taken years to accomplish, Koepplin says the merger is already making a difference for the youth and families served by providing a more complete continuum of services. For example, a youth may more easily transfer from a shelter to residential treatment to self-sufficiency in the community through programs under one organization.

Koepplin says the merger also provided career growth opportunities for staff as more program and organizational leadership positions became available.

Finally, Ellipsis now has a stronger advocacy voice because of its size, allowing it to help shape state administrative rules and processes and to be heard by leaders making policy decisions. This stronger voice helped encourage an increase in reimbursement rates after a long period of stagnation.  

Chris Koepplin headshot
“I think people are listening in a way that is a little different and paying attention to what we’re doing and how to be supportive,” said Koepplin.

4. Consider the unexpected challenges.

The exploratory work helped both organizations prepare for the merger, but there were still unexpected hurdles. One major challenge has been the cost and time needed to integrate the two organizations’ IT systems, which include electronic medical records, phone lines, and other technology across three campuses. Koepplin also recognized the range of feelings people had about branding the new organization, with strong allegiances toward the original agencies they were a part of.

At one point, she heard from her team that the pace needed to slow down for a moment so people could catch their breath with everything happening at once. “We’ve done a lot of work to give each other grace,” she said, “and accept the fact that we can’t keep all the balls in the air as much as we’d like to.”

5. Seek community support.

Koepplin was surprised by the extent of the community’s support of the merger, with many funders, including Mid-Iowa Health Foundation, providing resources at levels that made it possible to have outside consultants manage the transition plan, legal details, and rebranding. While the upfront cost was significant, Koepplin emphasizes that it’s now leading to efficiencies and a greater return on investment.

6. Don't overlook the details.

Koepplin and her team had to be prepared for all the details that needed to be addressed, including legal issues, like which nonprofit tax ID to keep, and to ensure a thorough review of finances. The work also involved making sure Boards of both organizations were engaged throughout and that people’s feelings about some of the detail decisions were recognized.

Hiring an outside consulting firm helped the leadership team navigate through these decisions in a more neutral way. As the new CEO of both entities, Koepplin also had to shift her attention to more of the logistical tasks for a period of time, instead of visioning for the future.

7. Focus on culture.

The goal was to get program directors functioning as a unit versus running their individual programs and to see the bigger picture together. There were many intentional conversations to create the vision, mission, and value statements that now center Ellipsis’ work.

While Koepplin has also tried to encourage continuing the laid-back culture of the two organizations, she also recognizes that more structure is needed to manage and support 160 employees.

Through all these shifts, those making decisions continue to use this framework: What is best for kids and families?

More than a year after Ellipsis was introduced publicly to the community, Koepplin now sees the impact on her and her team’s ability to dream about possibilities. For example, they are having conversations about renovating a shelter building to add apartments for young people to transition into independent living.  

“We’ve been frugal for so long,” Koepplin said. “It’s not that we’re still not being careful, but because we are more efficient and more solid and we have a continuum of services and a bigger footprint, people are willing to trust us with thinking big.”

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