A Conversation with Ene Underwood: Amalgamation in the Charitable Sector – Part 1

Ene Underwood

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David Hutchinson:

Hi, I’m Dave Hutchinson. I’m the host of Charity Executive TV. And our guest today is Ene Underwood. She’s the CEO of Habitat for Humanity GTA. And Ene comes to us from the private sector, the public sector, and now as a leader in the charitable sector. And in 2013, she became the CEO of Habitat Toronto. And in the spring of 2014 became the CEO of the amalgamated Brampton Caledon York region and the Toronto affiliate. So we’re thankful to have you here today Ene, thank you for your time.

Ene Underwood:

Thank you. A pleasure to be here.

David Hutchinson:

And we look forward to interviewing you. So Ene tell me about Habitat and how Habitat GTA fits into the organization.

Ene Underwood:

Great, well, as I’m sure your viewers know Habitat for Humanity is a big name. It’s a global organization building on every continent of the world and we have a vision of a world where everyone has a safe, decent place to live. And our mission is to mobilize volunteers and community partners to help working low income families realize safe and secure housing through homeownership. And what a lot of people don’t realize is that, although the name is a global name, it’s actually delivered locally. So around the world, there are 1,400 affiliates. Habitat greater Toronto area, as you said, was formed by the amalgamation of three of those affiliates: Habitat Brampton Caledon, Habitat York Region and Habitat Toronto.

David Hutchinson:

You used the term amalgamation. Tell me the difference between amalgamation and a merger.

Ene Underwood:

When you look at integration, there are a lot of different legal mechanisms to bring organizations together. A merger is one, asset transfer is one and amalgamation is one. Amalgamation was the truest to one of our principles, which was a merger of equals. So in effect, in legal terms, when you amalgamate organizations, it’s like a marriage. You’re bringing all the baggage, all the good and all the bad and we called it, the legacy affiliates bring and all of that continues in the new affiliate.

David Hutchinson:

What were the key drivers that brought about the initial discussions with the three affiliates?

Ene Underwood:

So, first and foremost, what brought the organizations to the table to talk about this was a real passion and desire to build more homes for more families. The view was that if we could have the critical mass by bringing three organizations together, we could have expertise in urban planning, we can invest in construction, more construction leadership expertise, we can invest in human resources expertise. And there was also a belief that coming together would create a larger profile, a stronger voice would enable us to provide more offerings to our donors and would also create a richer environment for growth, and development and retention of our staff.

David Hutchinson:

Can you describe some of the challenges and the emotions for not only the executive leadership but the boards of directors as well, when you had the initial conversations around amalgamation?

Ene Underwood:

I think there were two different complexions. So on the staff side, I think we always have to remember as leaders, it often does come down to it’s all about me. Like for individual staff, understandably, a immediate question is, well, what will this mean to me? What will change in my relationships? And of course, people worry about just job stability. I think it’s fair to say that there was a big dynamic. While staff were excited about the possibilities, there was also a real concern of, well, what will this mean to me? Staff in all three organizations were really proud of the culture and the organization they’d created and been concerned that that’ll change when we come together. Toronto in the Canadian context is the city we all love to hate. And so there was a lot for the folks in York Region and in Brampton Caledon, a lot of concern culturally, about what would it like to be part of this thing?

Ene Underwood:

And on the board side, because the board are volunteer board members, I think there was, we saw more of just kind of curiosity and I think the excitement about being part of something and contributing to something that could ultimately have a bigger impact. Having said that, board members for each of the three organizations were appropriately concerned about their staff, about their local culture, making sure that coming together wouldn’t subordinate the impact of Habitat for Humanity in their own regions.

David Hutchinson:

So while this was an amalgamation of three different organizations, you’re dealing with three different staff cultures as well. What were some of the challenges or the realities that you faced as a leader bringing together three cultures and what were some of the outcomes?

Ene Underwood:

And again, I think I’ll discuss that at two or three levels. So let me actually start again with the board because board leadership is so key. The boards established a joint board steering committee. So 4 members from each board, so 12 member committee, came together and were meeting monthly to talk about all the elements of amalgamation. The board also decided when it came to constitute, the new board that it would be an amalgamation of equals. So the new board would be a 15 member board with 5 members from each of what we call the legacy affiliates. And so what was really interesting culturally is when that new board came together, April 1st, 2014, first of all, a lot of those folks knew each other because they’d been sitting together on the joint board steering committee. Not everyone from that committee continued forward but most did. And so the board culturally very quickly embraced a, we’re Habitat GTA, as opposed to, we didn’t see factions on the board right out the gate, they were Habitat GTA.

Ene Underwood:

On the staff side, what did we do to sports culture and coming together on the staff side? We had a couple of different staff town halls, one during the process and one as the kickoff on the actual first day of the new organization, complete with a wedding cake that the three board chairs all sliced the wedding cake. We had a newsletter that we called Building Together to just keep staff informed. And it was known from the outset that if the amalgamation happened, the boards had decided that they would appoint me as CEO. And so I spent a lot of time with kind of leadership by walking around, getting out and getting to know and be seen by staff in the different affiliates. We also had great leadership from the executive directors of the other two organizations who also played a big role in listening and making sure that the concerns that staff had been being brought forward.

Ene Underwood:

So there were a number of factors leading up to amalgamation, and then the following amalgamation, there’ve been things we’ve continued to do to enable staff to have continued of the pride of whatever local is for them, whether it’s this restore, for the staff of [inaudible 00:07:30] restore, whether it’s the staff that are in Toronto in general or staff that are in York Region in general, to have that local pride, but also finding pride in Habitat GTA.

David Hutchinson:

So how did the discussions go with your donors for the three organizations? What was their response to the idea and how has that affected fundraising?

Ene Underwood:

I think again, for all of us in the charitable sector, it’s key to remember, first of all, we have to be number one focused on our mission, but number two is being donor-centric and listening to donors and what matters to them. So in the amalgamation process, for the most part, the feedback we were hearing from donors was, well, that makes sense. So I think in general, there was a recognition that okay, that’s a good thing to pool resources. We have quite significant relationships with municipalities who sometimes provide grants or land to make it possible for us to build. And so we had municipal leaders expressing concern of, but who will be in these homes?

Ene Underwood:

And at the time of amalgamation, Toronto had a number of approved families still waiting for homes. So there was a concern in York Region and Brampton that, oh, we’re going to build more homes and they’re going to go to Toronto families. So there was a real need to listen to that and make sure that we were demonstrating how the processes we would put in place, so that the intent of the donor, whether it’s a municipal government, an individual donor or a corporation was respected.

Ene Underwood:

Another key thing with donors is in the structure we put in place. We were very firm about the importance of a local presence, the local face of Habitat for Humanity. As you can see on the map, when you look at Toronto, York Region, Brampton, Caledon, Toronto is actually very small relative to the two other regions that came together. And it’s important to have a local face everywhere we are. So in our organizational structure, we have what’s called a regional vice president in each of Brampton Caledon and York Region. So they are there to deal directly with the faith group donors, with the municipal relationships, with local businesses. So those are a variety of ways of being responsive to the donors.

Ene Underwood:

Benefit for donors, so something that I’ve really enjoyed watching is Toronto had a couple of quite significant relationships with donors that quite honestly had a regional base. It was much more 416 and 905 than just 416. So it’s been really nice for those donors now to be able to sponsor home and go to a home dedication in York Region, in Brampton Caledon, and be able to have their commitment to Habitat for Humanity play itself out in a much larger geography.

David Hutchinson:

That’s great. Excellent. Thanks Ene.

 

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