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Merging infrastructure organisations to ensure sustainability

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By Tracy Rudling, CEO of Community 360. Two neighbouring infrastructure organisations in Essex and a training provider merge and create Community 360, a more sustainable organisation able to serve local communities more effectively and efficiently.

Background

Colchester Community Voluntary Services (CCVS) and Braintree District Voluntary Support Agency (BDVSA) were neighbouring infrastructure agencies, who had been operating in their respective districts for many years as independent charities, although they had a history of collaborating together through the Essex CVS Network, and CCVS had served as an independent examiner for BDVSA through their Community Accounts Service programme. Both were guided, as NAVCA members, by five core principles (Development, Support, Liaison, Representation and Strategic Partnerships), which directed some of their activities. They both managed volunteer centres and CCVS served as a lead provider of a time-banking programme in Essex, of which BDVSA was a delivery partner.

With these commonalities in place, the two organisations were very different in scale and reach.

  • CCVS had several supplementary projects alongside a large community development team, which contributed to a staff team of over 40 people, some of whom worked across Essex.
  • BDVSA had historically concentrated upon its core principles within the district and managed a team of three staff.

Both areas host a mixed urban and rural population, but Braintree is a particularly rural district; while Colchester is one of the largest growing districts in the UK. 

The issues we faced

The organisations were seeking to improve the sustainability of infrastructure services in Mid and North Essex by collaborating and exploring initially the potential of partnership working, before determining that a full merger would best support the aims of the board and benefit the local community. Both sets of trustees identified the need for something new to develop, and acknowledged the need to respond to the changing nature of contracts and running services (ie where contracts require flexibility in the way in which organisations can deliver and where borders should not serve as boundaries). The scale of BDVSA was beginning to affect its ability to bid for work, and CCVS could streamline project budgets by pooling resources with a colleague, addressing economies of scale.

As a county, Essex operates under a two-tier authority, affected by large populations and changing demographics. It was particularly felt that by working together, both charities would be able to better support residents through a more inclusive working method, which removed the issue of some boundaries and shared good practice and experience in everything that they did.

The actions we took

  1. The two boards met and established an action plan which included reviewing different ways in which the two agencies would be able to work together.
  2. Once it was agreed that a merger would serve as the most beneficial outcome, the senior leadership team members started to jointly complete the mechanics of the merger which included consulting with stakeholders, changing governance structures, introducing new financial processes, integrating work plans and teams, informing partners and assessing practicalities, such as venues for operating services. 
  3. We set up a new company and charity, and closed down the previous organisations.
  4. Importantly, the two boards also felt that a new brand should develop to reflect this significant change. Community 360 was established on 1 April 2017 and has been embraced by both districts.
  5. Whilst Community 360 is born from the principles of councils for voluntary service and still provides CVS services, it is not bounded alone to them and has introduced or supported new projects to meet its shared aims of 'thriving local communities’.
  6. An independent consultant and strong leadership principles enabled the smooth transition.
  7. Every conversation with funders / commissioners revolved around efficiency and sustainability.
  8. We ensured that commissioners would take account of the track record of both organisations in future tender opportunities.

Positive outcomes

Community360 has quickly become a new but well-respected organisation in both areas and by working together have:

  • identified new opportunities - ie new premises in Braintree; a second merger with a local training provider completed in September 2017; and bringing the services to a new base in Braintree
  • extended funded services across both areas where previously they only operated in one area - ie community learning and fundraising networks to support local voluntary groups
  • created a shared identity with the strongest attributes of each organisation
  • established cost efficiencies which can absorb changes in contracts as required
  • increased the capacity and type of activity undertaken in each district
  • developed a staff and volunteer team which can operate across the area, sharing skills and attributes.

Negative outcomes

Community360 have experienced some challenges as people and partners have queried why they felt the need to make such significant changes.  They have been asked to explain why they have moved in this direction and where they would like to move to in the future. It caused some anxiety amongst other charities as they consider their own future. This has sometimes been positive, as groups see new opportunities for themselves, and sometimes negative as change can cause unrest.

Lessons learnt

  1. Strong leadership and empowerment of staff and volunteers at the outset was important.
  2. Not to fear system change, just ensure communication at all levels is maintained.
  3. Accept that not all existing staff will embrace the new journey and may move on.
  4. Taking a risk in changing two well-known organisations and creating a new vision and mission but overall the response has been very good, and the board would have liked the security of knowing this before taking the leap of faith this required.

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Page last edited Jul 16, 2018

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