Leading by Example
The merger of the Alliance of Arizona Nonprofits and Arizona Grantmakers Forum is a story of how a partnership can grow into a single, stronger organization to increase value to its members and the community. It’s also a story of leading by example for the nonprofit sector—how two organizations were willing to think about whether there’s a better way to do what they were doing and how they could do what’s best for the community.
The Alliance and Arizona Grantmakers already had a strong relationship when new CEOs started at both organizations. Kristen Wilson, CEO of the Alliance, and Laurie Liles, CEO of Arizona Grantmakers, started their positions within two weeks of each other in 2015. They quickly recognized their personal strengths and the strengths of the organizations as they worked together on Arizona Gives Day and other projects.
With Kristen and Laurie’s relationship and three shared board members between the organizations, there was synergy that led to discussion about joining forces in a more strategic way.
“From the beginning, the goal and the vision have always been how can we, together, create a more meaningful impact in the community than we could apart?” Kristen said.
She added, “Philanthropy and nonprofits are different sides of the same coin. We have similar aspirations and desires for what we want to do for our community. We just have different roles that we play. What we aspire to do with this merger is to elevate voices from both sides, change systems and make resources flow more quickly, more efficiently and in a more integrated way than we can today.”
The Alliance and Arizona Grantmakers engaged their members and community partners in the process in 2022. Stakeholder meetings built trust and empathy. Grantmakers started to see and understand what it was like to lead a nonprofit, and nonprofit professionals gained insights into challenges funders face. The feedback from both grantmaking organizations and nonprofits was positive.
Ultimately, both boards voted unanimously to approve the merger and it became official on August 1, 2022.
Prior to the merger, neither organization had a team member dedicated to advocacy on staff. With the merger, Laurie Liles became chief public policy officer, a role for which she is ideally suited after many years of working in public policy.
“Our activities, our coordination, our communication, and even our relationships with policymakers were instantly improved,” Kristen said.
One of the new organization’s first focuses, and a key strategic direction for the merger, was thoughtfully integrating advocacy and policy engagement. The two organizations’ separate public policy committees were combined into one group.
“I think both grantmakers and nonprofits appreciated being around the same table, having the same conversation, in the same space,” Kristen said. “Now we have nonprofits and grantmakers together talking about how we solve community issues.”
The timing of the merger was optimal because both organizations were preparing for their annual planning for the next year. The newly integrated Arizona Nonprofits + Grantmakers Policy Council developed a public policy agenda for 2023 that reflects the interests of both nonprofits and grantmakers. As the midterm elections approached, the Policy Council developed positions on several ballot propositions connected to voting issues. Each position was consistent with the Alliance’s support for voters’ education and participation in the democratic process including individuals who face historical underrepresentation or marginalization.
That support led the Alliance to endorse Proposition 211, which voters overwhelming passed. The citizens’ initiative gave Arizonans the right to know the original source of all major contributions used to pay for campaign media spending. Former Arizona Attorney General Terry Goddard, who spearheaded Prop. 211, said the Alliance’s support helped the campaign overcome misinformation about the initiative’s potential impact on small nonprofits.
“The Alliance took the time to research our initiative and understand that it was carefully tailored to only apply to donors of money spent for political campaign ads and that small nonprofits and public interest organizations would not be impacted,” Goddard said.
Moving forward, the Alliance will focus on how federal, state and local governments can work more effectively with nonprofit and grantmaking sectors. Especially with a new governor and many newly elected officials, Kristen said the Alliance wants to create relationships with them from the very beginning.
“We want to make sure that nonprofits and philanthropists are at the table when policies are being considered that could impact the work of either of these constituencies, or ultimately the people that they serve,” Kristen said.
She summarized the impact of the merger: “There are two ways to look at the change. From the beginning, we’ve wanted to move the relationship between grantmakers and nonprofits from transactional–always around the ask and the gift, someone has money and we need money, and reporting and the outcome–to a relationship that’s truly transformational, where we are working collaboratively outside of a grantmaking cycle.”
“The other side is tearing the wall down between nonprofits and grantmakers, allowing those organizations to work together more efficiently and effectively, creating shared spaces for things to happen, while preserving the safe spaces that both types of organizations desire and need,” Kristen said. Sometimes grantmakers need to just talk to grantmakers and nonprofits just need to talk to nonprofits.
“And then there’s that magic space in the middle where we can create change,” she said.