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In 2019, Jeremy Robbins and his staff at New American Economy began gaming out the organization’s strategy for the outcome of the coming year’s election. Whether Donald Trump or Joe Biden won, the landscape looked rough. The country was highly polarized, anti-immigration forces were highly mobilized, and while his organization’s work was helping, it wasn’t enough.

“We weren’t at the scale we needed to be to meet the sort of global, xenophobic, uncertain moment that we’re having,” Robbins said.

That realization led to two years of calls and conversations that culminated in the merger of New American Economy (NAE) with the American Immigration Council (AIC), announced last month. Robbins is the executive director of the combined organization, which retained the latter’s name.

Their union is a rare example of a step that several grantmakers told me they support, even try to encourage, yet remains rare across much of the nonprofit sector. As far as the individuals I spoke to could recall, the only recent merger within the broader immigration space was when a group of nonprofits joined to create People’s Action, the organizing network. That was in 2016.

This new merger offers a window into the possibilities and challenges of choosing to unite two organizations—and how funders view such a decision. Most of the grantmakers I spoke to felt the immigration space is less effective because it is highly fragmented, though all were hesitant to push such unions from above. The challenge, as in other sectors, appears to be allowing philanthropy’s unique bird’s-eye view of a field to inform its players while not resulting in dictates that are uninformed by realities on the ground.

In this case, the decision to combine forces was sparked by the potential for greater impact, as well as the organizations’ similarities and complementary programs. American Immigration Council’s litigation, policy and advocacy work can now benefit from the data expertise of New American Economy’s research team, and from NAE’s arts and culture staffers, who can tell the migration stories the AIC’s lawyers know intimately.

There’s more in the works. “Now that we’re in the process of doing it, we’re finding a whole host of things we hadn’t even thought of,” Robbins told me in our conversation last month.

What was most important? Money—and flexibility

Nonprofit mergers can save money. There are many potential economies of scale. Certain functions—development, communications, operations—can potentially be handled by a smaller joint team.

With a long runway, as in this case, natural churn can reduce or eliminate the need for layoffs during the process. Robbins said no one was let go as a result of the merger, largely because New American Economy cut its budget by 40% in the last two years. By the time the union was formally announced, it had no duplicative positions, including no full-time development or communications staff.

Yet mergers also cost a lot of money. Robbins and his team have an estimated budget of $1 million for the process, which is expected to take a year. American Immigration Council had a $9 million budget in 2021, while New American Economy’s budget—after cuts—amounted to $4 million. So the merger budget represented nearly 8% of the groups’ combined spending. “And, to be totally honest, I’m sure that we’re missing things,” Robbins told me. Funding for organizational unions is extremely rare, so unrestricted dollars were particularly essential. “This merger simply would have been impossible without general operating support grants,” he said.

Experienced guidance was also vital. Robbins and other staff consulted widely with other groups that had gone through mergers and with experts on such unions. They also consulted with their own organizations’ funders, many of which overlapped. And the plan got some welcome votes of confidence: two prior funders—the San Francisco-based family foundation Crankstart, as well as an anonymous backer—increased their support after hearing of the merger, according to Robbins, who declined to provide figures.

Several efforts have emerged in recent years to help either with nonprofit collaboration explicitly or with flexible funding more broadly. For example, six place-based organizational support initiatives joined last year to launch the Sustained Collaboration Network, which aims to help more groups consider long-term unions, whether that involves actual mergers or in-depth coordination of certain functions. Ford Foundation recently put another $1 billion into its BUILD initiative, launched in 2015, which offers five-year unrestricted funding for grantees, along with other forms of support.

Support for mergers may be stronger than believed

Taryn Higashi has decades of experience in the immigration field. She is the executive director and first employee of Unbound Philanthropy, one of the few foundations focused primarily on immigrants and refugees. Yet she told me no grantee had ever asked her about a merger until Robbins phoned her a few months ago.

“We both thought this is fantastic, this is great news,” she said, referring to herself and her colleague, Adey Fisseha, U.S. senior program officer. Unbound is a longtime supporter of both groups, sending nearly $1.7 million in grants to the American Immigration Council since 2008 and almost $500,000 to New American Economy over the past seven years. Half or more of such grants were unrestricted. “We think the whole will be greater than the sum of its parts,” she later added.

There are several reasons this merger worked so well, according to Higashi. The two organizations’ areas of focus are complementary, they have a like-minded approach to the field and their cultures are similar, she said. Other funders of the groups expressed similar feelings. But she cautioned against funders pushing for mergers. It’s an important option, but entirely dependent on the organizations involved.

Robbins echoed that sentiment. At the same time, he also voiced a concern that lack of scale is holding back the immigration field, with too many similar groups pursuing similar ends. He sees the merger as a bold move and potentially as a model, given the rarity of such unions. But through many conversations with grantmakers, he said there’s much more support than he imagined.

“It is not novel thinking, because almost every time I’ve talked to a funder, they’ve said, ‘Oh, I’ve been thinking for years more nonprofits should merge,’” he said. “What I hadn’t realized is that there really has been a conversation in the philanthropic community… that [more nonprofits should merge] is much more of a dominant belief in the funder world than I realized.”

A funder perspective on the need for consolidation

One such funder is Gregory Maniatis. Currently the director of the office of the vice president for global programs at Open Society Foundations, he came to philanthropy in 2010—initially as a consultant, but later full-time—after stints at Columbia University, the United Nations and the Migration Policy Institute. Maniatis, who also serves as director of OSF’s International Migration Initiative, says those experiences left him with a mission.

“If I’m in philanthropy for only one thing, it’s to defragment the progressive field and not have it be a series of well-intentioned, wonderful people running fiefdoms,” he told me when I spoke with him last month. He emphasized that he spoke only for himself, not OSF as a whole. “Philanthropy, sometimes individual philanthropies, but certainly collectively… has the power, if they want, to use it to compel that consolidation,” he said.

OSF, by the way, is a supporter of both New American Economy and the American Immigration Council. It has made regular grants, mostly in the low-six-figures, to AIC at least since 2017, and it granted nearly $140,000 to NAE in 2020 for COVID-19 rapid response work.

While it’s not a merger, Maniatis gave the example of the coalition, which OSF and other funders helped launch amid the chaos of the Afghanistan withdrawal. It serves as a clearinghouse for anyone—from “Starbucks to an individual in Iowa,” as he put it—wanting to get involved with the resettlement process, instead of contacting one of the coalition’s many local and national organizations.

When it came to the AIC-NAE merger, Maniatis said it was key that the merger came about through a long-term process led by Robbins and the organizations’ other leaders, and not imposed by philanthropy. He pointed to the pro-immigrant movement’s opposition as a reason more groups should consider following their lead.

“Progressive civil society groups, whether it’s on climate, or on immigration, are taking on forces that are much more consolidated and powerful. And you can’t take on those forces without a more coherent strategy… which you cannot do, sometimes, when you have too many actors with different goals,” he said.

Leadership change-ups can be prime time for mergers

Part of what made this merger possible is that the American Immigration Council had been without a permanent leader following the departure of its former executive director, Beth Werlin, in December 2020. The organization had actually contacted Robbins about the opening—and he later followed up on that suggestion to discuss his merger idea.

If organizations changing leaders are more amenable to joining forces, it could be a prime time for more unions in the migration space. Geri Mannion, managing director of the Carnegie Corporation’s Strengthening U.S. Democracy program, which has given unrestricted grants to both the American Immigration Council and New American Economy for several years, pointed out that there’s a long list of recent and significant transitions among immigration and refugee advocates and funders.

Just a few examples: Marielena Hincapié, the highly visible leader of the National Immigration Law Center, is leaving the organization this June after two-plus decades at its helm. The head of the National Immigration Forum, Ali Noorani, is departing in the spring after a 14-year tenure. It’s even happening in philanthropy: Mayra Peters-Quintero, who led the Ford Foundation’s substantial and influential immigrant rights portfolio for more than a decade, left the foundation last October. Other transitions have taken place lower in the ranks across the sector.

Still more have moved from the field or from philanthropy to join the Biden administration, as often happens when a new leader moves into the White House. Adam Hunter left his position as executive director of Refugee Council USA after less than a year to join the administration. Others who made that jump include policy expert Angela Kelley, who now advises the DHS secretary; and Felicia Escobar Carrillo, who left philanthropy to rejoin the government, this time with the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services.

“You now have this reset after the Trump administration,” said Mannion, who has led Carnegie’s immigration giving for more than two decades, and also directs Carnegie’s Special Opportunities Fund.

While I’m not suggesting that any of these specific organizations are considering mergers, or necessarily should do so, the unsettled nature of the field may present opportunities for interested nonprofits. And funders may cheer them on. Mannion, for her part, emphasized the matchmaking component. “It’s like a marriage, right?” she said. Organizations, like a young couple, have to ensure that their “families” approve of the union and that their donors will help pay for the “wedding.” Most of all, “you have to make sure you’re really going to like that person long-term,” she said.

Mannion and Higashi, who in 2009 shared the Robert W. Scrivner Award for Creative Grantmaking for founding the immigration funding collaborative Four Freedoms Fund, both repeated the caution that nonprofits should lead the way, not foundations. Yet they expressed some hopefulness that this union could be the beginning of something bigger.

“One of the potential benefits of the merger, if it is successful, is that it will be an example to other organizations,” Higashi said. “And it will also build confidence among funders that mergers can be successful.”