Change Notes: Five Years Later, Reflections on a Merger

Feb 6, 2013



When President George H. W. Bush described his vision of 1,000 points of light, I was one of a handful of 20-somethings in Atlanta trying to build a movement of people who wanted to roll up their sleeves and solve local problems. It was 1989, and we were raising money by asking people to fill up empty beer mugs with small donations.

At the same time, President Bush was assembling an influential group of business and community leaders at Camp David to launch a new voice for volunteer service supported by millions in federal funding.

For almost 20 years, the group I helped to build, the HandsOn Network, and the group President Bush helped start, Points of Light Foundation, sometimes worked together and sometimes competed. Always, we shared a commitment to create change through volunteer service and civic engagement.

Five years ago, our two groups took a step that’s all-too-radical in nonprofit circles: We merged. It hasn’t been easy, but it has been effective. Together we mobilized more volunteers and created much more change than either organization could have alone.

In 2012 alone, Points of Light mobilized more than 4 million volunteers to serve 30 million hours. Over the years, we reduced our reliance on federal funding from 44% to 5%, while at the same time adding affiliates in 42 cities across the globe. We brought together four organizations to create generationOn, Points of Light’s youth service initiative, and added 500 kids clubs leading change.

We consolidated our Affiliate Networks into a single network with standards, benefits, and a return on investment of $27.61 for every $1 of dues. From 2009-2011, Affiliates increased volunteer engagement by 22% (an additional 460,000 people), added more than 17,000 new partners.

Our Corporate Institute, through an amazing coalition called Billion + Change, obtained commitments for $1.9 billion of pro bono service from over 250 companies to date. In partnership with Bloomberg BusinessWeek and the National Conference on Citizenship, we created the Civic 50 to recognize companies with the most robust civic engagement practices.

HandsOn Tech Corps, launched in 2011 through a signature partnership with Google, has trained 4,400 nonprofit staff in seven cities to date to leverage technology to engage volunteers more effectively. We have mobilized 68,000 volunteers in long-term recovery efforts in disaster response in 11 states. We are deploying VISTA members in 28 cities with HandsOn Schools Attendance Corps to increase school attendance. And we have partnered with Exelis and a coalition of veteran organizations to launch the Community Blueprint. Veteran Leader Corps members are serving veterans and military families in 35 communities in total with plans to grow to 200.

Clearly the whole is greater than the sum of the parts.

Is your organization ripe for merger? As competition for funds and attention gets tougher, mergers will be increasingly important and necessary. So what can make them easier?

  • Pro bono help. Points of Light was lucky to have the pro bono support of Accenture’s dedicated strategy team and McKenna Long & Aldridge’s extraordinary legal team. Their help was essential to our success. A pro bono bank of private sector resources combined with a philanthropic investment would create enormous leverage.
  • Patient funders. While funders unanimously herald the idea of consolidation and the cost efficiencies that mergers promise, there are precious few willing to invest the patient capital required for a successful merger. We need more.
  • Good will and honesty. I must have had a hundred people tell me that “culture eats strategy’s lunch” every time. And it’s true: Culture and relationships do trump all else. Mergers can only work when both parties share a vision and work to create a merged culture of honesty and good will.
  • Stamina. When we merged, people told me it would take three years to complete the merger. I couldn’t imagine it would take that long, but it took every bit of that and more. To make mergers work, we must focus on the horizon, with support from board members and other champions who understand the long-term nature of the task.

It’s been a long but rewarding journey, and I’m proud that we can call it a success. For more about what our merged organization has accomplished read our Five-Year Reflections on the Merger of Points of Light Foundation and Hands On Network.

In service,

Michelle Nunn

CEO, Points of Light