It's helpful to think of the communications strategy involving “waves” of messages, as opposed to the "fire hose" approach. This way, decisions that have been long-in-the-making and thus, have as their foundation an evolution of understanding, may be communicated in portions digestible to those just hearing about them. Employees are particularly important to bring along since they will be significantly affected by the merger and are critical to its successful implementation.
In thinking about major initiatives requiring careful communication, it's useful to think in terms of principles that can be applied to any situation, rather than a checklist of specific steps. This is because each situation (as well as each nonprofit) is different and will benefit from different approaches to the principles.
The important thing is to think through the principles of great communication in developing the specific steps you will take in your particular situation. For example, in-person communication has different benefits than virtual communication (email, web posting, etc.) – one is not better than another, just better for certain situations. Also, inclusion in communication is an important principle – but more is not better than less, again because the value is situation dependent.
Here are a few things to think about in developing the communication plan for your merger:
1. Why is it important for nonprofit staff to be accepting of the merger? Can staff members who resist a merger hinder the success of the change?
A merger is a significant change in a nonprofit’s business model, so staff absolutely need to accept it and not only accept it, but truly understand and get behind it. Those who cannot, even with careful communication, may need to be removed so the new initiative can thrive.
2. When should the merger be communicated to the staff? Pre-merger when there is only talk? When an agreement is signed?
This depends on the reason for the merger – some mergers are the result of : a desire to move into new arenas of service, to combine forces with a like-missioned entity for greater impact, etc. Other mergers are the result of lack of capacity – the need to shore up resources, to decrease infrastructure costs, or even more difficult, to move past a poor reputation. Which category your merger falls in will dictate how much to share with the staff and when.
This also depends on the size of the nonprofit – larger NPOs may have a well-developed culture of strategic planning and new initiatives vested in the board and therefore, staff would not expect to be considered at the outset. Smaller NPOs with staff integrally involved in all aspects of the organization would do well to bring them on early in the decision-making process.
3. What information should be communicated to staff?
First and foremost the reasoning behind the merger (or the consideration there of) should be communicated – people generally do better with a change in what and how they do something if they understand and agree with why. This means it's incumbent on leadership to really understand their own reasoning for the merger – and usually, big decisions like this have a complex or matrix of reasons that may have evolved over time. This means it will be important for those developing the core messages to think through the order in which they are best conveyed – this is very much like developing a good story.
4. How should that information be delivered?
For large-scale initiatives, it's usually a good idea to communicate in person, especially at the outset. However, as said above, in large institutions this may not be practical or expected. Universities, major hospitals, etc. might be examples of nonprofits that would likely deliver information about this kind of decision in a virtual manner – letter, email, etc. However, if key staff or groups of staff will be significantly impacted, these folks should be messaged first – and in-person may be to the organization’s advantage. For example, if a position or group of positions will no longer be needed (and this is often the case in mergers), it will be important to have this communication handled early so that those leaving don't negatively impact those who will remain.
5. Should staff be involved in any part of the merger process? If so, what ways can they be involved?
Finance, marketing and programmatic staff all may be very helpful in decision-making as well as in crafting transition plans and then in implementation of new business process once the merger is complete. Getting people involved in designing how the merger will work is a sure way to relieve their anxiety and get them vested in making the change succeed.
6. What should directors do if there is staff resistance to the merger? How can they calm fear/anxiety?
All good leadership is about anticipating the response to new decisions – nonprofit boards are no different. Rather than know that staff may be upset or fearful or anxious and just ignore this fact, the board can use this as a way to develop effective communications plans. For instance, to go back to our prior example of someone losing their job – this is obviously going to cause anxiety. The board should prepare a clear transition and exit plan for those who will be leaving, including severance, letters of reference, job search counsel, etc. If the nonprofit is merging because of financial constraints, then plans that cost real dollars will likely not be possible – in this case, it is imperative that the board do whatever it can to ease the transition of these employees. And to communicate this to those who will be leaving.
7. What are the most important things board directors handling the merger should understand about guiding staff through the process?
Putting themselves in their employees’ shoes is the best way to anticipate and address employee concerns. Once these concerns are addressed, the board should show unanimous support for the merger, and be clear about the positive intent of it for the greater good of the nonprofit. Decisions like this can be easier for leadership to communicate to staff in nonprofits than in for profits because it is generally a given that everyone is there to serve a higher purpose. Helping staff see this desired outcome, even if it comes with some near-term discomfort, should go a long way with staff. Also, the board must have a well-considered transition plan so that the burden for its decision does not fall to the staff to figure out. This will demonstrate to staff that the board not only cares about the organization and advancing its mission, but also about those who actualize it on a daily basis.