Points Of Light, Hands Merger Moving Closer

June 1, 2007       Marla Nobles      

Volunteer Centers across the country are preparing for change as a merger between two of the nation’s leading volunteer service organizations, the Washington, D.C.-based Points of Light Foundation (PoLF) and Hands On Network (HON) in Atlanta, Ga., grows more likely.

The announcement this past December that Robert K. Goodwin would retire from PoLF after 15 years, effective last month, initially prompted speculation that ranged from some form of program integration to a possible merger between the two organizations. With no real search for a permanent replacement for Goodwin under way, the stage has been set for the merger.

Both organizations have been reaching out to their local volunteer center affiliates for input about the possible merger and to address concerns. According to PoLF, the 300 or so volunteer centers nationwide are free and independent, thus will not be required to join the new entity should the merger happen. A deal could be announced at the PoLF’s annual conference in July.

At its regional conferences, PoLF extended time to discuss the merger with affiliates. Interim CEO Terry Williams addressed the merger at a recent PoLF task force meeting in Washington, D.C. Hands On also has been meeting with its affiliates to begin discussing the merger, bolstered by ongoing telephone conversations with larger groups of affiliates.

Ellen Hargis, president and CEO of the Volunteer Center of Southern Arizona, among the 24 dual affiliates nationwide, lauded the openness with which both organizations have held the merger discussions. “Both organizations have really, really done a good job of communicating with their constituencies.” Hargis added that PoLF also has been “very open” about its decision to delay looking for a permanent leader during the talks. “I think that’s the best possible way to do it. It’s very difficult for two organizations to merge if two longtime CEOs are still there. When one leaves, it does open up that window of opportunity.” Of speculation that Hands On Network CEO Michelle Nunn will head the new entity, added Hargis: “I would imagine that they would be looking at that as a top potential.”

Williams commented on the merger talks in a late April edition of the foundation’s e-newsletter, To The Point, distributed to volunteer centers, donors and other stakeholders. Williams said the goal “as we consider consolidation and the possible merger with Hands On” is to strengthen the foundation and the volunteer sector as a whole.

Founded in 1989, Hands On Network was established under a more project-oriented, or hands on, model of volunteering and service, from serving food to the homeless to re-building homes in the Gulf Coast communities. Points of Light Foundation, its name inspired by a theme used frequently by former President George H.W. Bush, was founded in 1990 as a more traditional ongoing service organization. Through the years, however, the synergies between the two have grown.

Siobhan Canty, president and CEO of Greater DC Cares, the first center to become a dual affiliate, said it makes sense for the two organizations to merge. However, there is concern that the blend would affect the diversity in perspective that allowed the volunteer field to move forward more quickly. “Now that they’re so similar in terms of the services that they provide, merger makes sense. But who’s providing that alternate voice?”

According to Hargis, a merger would benefit the sector by erasing overlapping programs and initiatives run by both organizations. For instance, both PoLF and HON have their own volunteer-matching databases, with a third run by United Way of America. A merger would mean more efficient use of resources.

The merger would also facilitate at the national level a tremendous branding opportunity for the volunteer center arena, which consists of centers with more than 80 different names. “At the local level, we’ve never had a huge incentive to change our name to a national name,” said Hargis. “But if there is a very, very strong national organization that we could be seen as the local affiliate of, then there would be an incentive for us to do that.”

According to Canty, issues around a possible name change will inevitably surface. Greater DC Cares had been allowed to retain its name despite HON’s requirement that all affiliates going forward must have the words “Hands On” in their names. “Certainly it would be an issue for us had we been expected to change our name. It’s personal investment and it’s also brand equity,” said Canty.

A key concern of the affiliates, said Hargis, is getting lost in the merger shuffle, particularly for those volunteer centers that are not dual affiliates. Hargis said both organizations have done a good job of communicating with the affiliates, “and have talked about making sure that the tent is big enough for everybody.”

For the dual affiliates, it’s the possibility of no merger occurring that’s a concern. “Both organizations are very interested in ensuring that their affiliates meet a standard of service, which I really agree with. But it’s difficult if each organization develops separate sets of standards and we have to try to meet each of them, when, in the long run what we all want is the same,” said Hargis. NPT