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Merging Staffordshire infrastructure organisations to ensure sustainability

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By Garry Jones, CEO of Support Staffordsire. In January 2015, six district councils for voluntary service (CVS) merged to become Support Staffordshire. They were joined in October 2017 by the seventh and only remaining district CVS. Support Staffordshire has since re-secured investment from its county council, maintained local district relationships, seen an upsurge in membership, held onto local presence, and employs more than 60 people and turns over around £1.5m per year.

Background

The eight district CVSs had been working together and with a handful of other support bodies for over a decade, with some great successes, such as a more joined up volunteer centre offer, but also slow progress in other areas.

In 2013, despite their best efforts and the use of a special purpose vehicle (SPV), they lost their main contract with the county council to a neighbouring CVS, leaving a messy and fragmented support system in the county, and one of the district’s CVS closed.

By this point, our Transforming Local Infrastructure project had given a further nudge towards merger, though had achieved little more than a shared brand across the partnership; however this later proved rather helpful.

Eventually in 2014, with a few driven trustees and the financial pressures coming to bear, four of the remaining chief officers felt persuaded to take the plunge and go for merger. The trustees formed a new shadow board, registered a new company in the name Support Staffordshire and embarked on recruiting a chief executive to make things happen.

The issues we faced

There had been a long history of collaboration between the CVSs with the aims of:

  • improving consistency and quality of provision
  • having a more coherent service offer to member organisations operating across more than one district
  • having a single voice with respect to the county council and other larger statutory bodies
  • where possible, sharing back office costs and occasionally frontline posts.

Despite many successes, aspects of support remained patchy in both quality and capacity, there was a lack of complete agreement in some policy areas and the CVSs failed to convince the county council they were having a single conversation, whilst seven independent trustee boards and chief officers remained.

In the end, the financial pressures on several, though not all, of the partners risked further closures and a total fragmentation of the historic and well-trusted setup.

The actions we took

  1. Six proactive trustees took the bull by the horns, first in forming a shadow board and registering a new company, and then investing reserves into a new chief executive post to make the merger happen.
  2. I took up post officially in September 2014, though I began relationship building almost from appointment in April. I was incredibly lucky to find four CVS chief officers all committed to making it happen, despite the personal implications for them all. The support of two or three trustees also made the difference.
  3. I often now think of it as a ‘shotgun’ merger, as we did the necessary, merged within five months and then ‘tidied up’ afterwards.
  4. The existing joint brand helped enormously as many members and partners believed we had already been one organisation for over a year. The speed left some staff reeling, and a lot of gaps in policy and process, but it also made the pain short; placing more than 50 staff at risk of redundancy and making 22 redundant takes its toll if you let it linger.
  5. The biggest shift was of course the culture and to an extent that remains in a small way. We have done a lot of work with staff, communicated as much as possible, brought senior staff and trustees together frequently (though still not enough!), to constantly reiterate the Support Staffordshire way of working; alongside our commitment to localism.

Positive outcomes

  1. I was very lucky to retain two of the CVS chief officers as senior managers, which for me has been crucial (acknowledging for others it could be crippling, so choose carefully), and we have had a steady turnover of staff, enabling us to mostly retain local knowledge and relationships.
  2. The board commitment to retain a local presence has made balancing the books a longer journey – it’s taken three years and has eaten a substantial amount of reserves – but it was the right decision. I was reminded just this week, that where organisations merge and lose their local touch, it doesn’t take long for that need to re-emerge in your shadow. We have avoided others rising to take our ‘throne’ by ensuring we remain local, no ‘head office’ and staff spread across our geography. This has enabled us to maintain district relationships whilst winning back our county link, and investment alongside.
  3. There are of course financial savings, significant ones from IT, insurances, utilities and other services. And we are now finding a second wave of savings as our staff’s knowledge grows and begins to identify opportunities across districts that were previously hidden.
  4. The biggest boon is not financial, it’s about the sustainability of our cause. Being that bit bigger (though in reality we remain quite small) and not dependent on one source of income as our CVS predecessors became, we can make sure that our destiny is more firmly in our hands than it used to be.

Negative outcomes

  1. Change is hard. And some very wonderful staff with great skills and experience decided along the journey that it was time to get off. In each case I have not tried to persuade or cajole as I trust our staff to make the right decision for them, including am element of the right decision for us. But it doesn’t make losing good people any easier to swallow.
  2. I would strongly advise those thinking of merger to plan communications better than we did. Despite us remaining literally present, in a few places, rumours of our demise spread quickly and gossip overtook the messaging from us. In one or two places it has literally taken us years to recover our local profile, despite being there the whole time.
  3. Don’t underestimate the potential damage rogue former trustees can do in this regard; although I have yet to find a solution to this particular matter.

Lessons learnt

I’m not one for wishing a different history or being too dogmatic about the route others should take. Each of our localities is different with its own particular history and circumstances. You’ll need to find your own way through a merger if it’s the right course of action.

Do talk to as many others who have been through it as you can, but ‘pick and mix’ their advice as no one case will be the same as yours. I am very thankful to the chief officers of other CVSs who took the time and patience to tell yet another novice how they went through merger; but our journey was unique, and so will yours be.

I should say this of course, but I also mean it, make sure your board, especially your chair, has your back. Governance is your foundation. But also beware; the chair who drives through change is not necessarily the one who then embeds stability and peace in the aftermath. For us this was two different people, each as valuable to me at the time, and you might want to put that on the table nice and early.

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Page last edited May 18, 2018

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