ESC of the Triangle partners help place two nonprofits on a single, more sustainable path

The American Cleft Palate-Craniofacial Association (ACPA) and Cleft Palate Foundation (CPF) were two Triangle-based national organizations with a common mission and intersecting histories. The difference? ACPA was an association of health care professionals who treat patients with oral cleft and craniofacial conditions; CPF primarily provided patients and their families with information and educational resources, support, and connections to multidisciplinary care teams.

The question asked by then-ACPA Executive Director Wendy-Jo Toyama in 2015 was whether their independent and sometimes duplicative structures were muddying the message and limiting both groups’ efforts to optimize outcomes and return on donors’ investments.

After two years of in-depth analysis with each board, Toyama invited Executive Service Corps of the Triangle to facilitate an objective exploration of how to best serve their missions and, ultimately, patients and their families. ESC suggested a consultant with industrialstrength private sector merger know-how. Toyama said it would also be helpful to have an expert in nonprofit finances. ESC tapped a former Kodak senior executive with organizational development experience, Charles Brown, and a finance and operations expert, Martin Saffer. The consultants interviewed several board members and then led the two boards through an examination of six possible configurations on a continuum — from remaining independent, to various forms of partnership, to merger. The boards shared a commitment to achieving the best outcome for children with craniofacial abnormalities, and helping families support their children through the medical complexities and social challenges they encounter. They agreed that a merger was the right course of action.

“ESC was thoughtful about matching consultants to the task, and Marty and Charlie brought no preconceived notions of the end result,” Toyama said. “Board members themselves quickly homed in on the benefits of a merger to patients and families, and Charlie and Marty used that shared intention as a guiding star.”

With the decision to merge behind them, the next phase of the ESC engagement was rapid cycle implementation. Toyama, ACPA President Robert Havlik, and CPF President Marilyn Cohen wanted to complete the legal and financial merger in time to begin operating as one at the start of the fiscal year, just six months away.

“ACPA and CPF had the advantage of having once been one organization, with a history of various levels of cooperation,” Brown said. “The boards understood each other’s history, values and operations. We brought the tools and timelines and watched the calendar, but it was Wendy’s leadership that accelerated the work. She really embraced the role of supporting the board presidents.”

According to Toyama, having the ESC consultants focus on the “nitty gritty technical aspects” of merging freed her to attend to interpersonal relations. “It felt like they were part of the team,” Toyama recalled.

The decision was made to keep the American Cleft Palate-Craniofacial Association name. The Foundation continues as ACPA Family Services.

Today, six months in, Toyama is happily guiding her workforce in merging operations. “Unifying operations is a lot more complex than it looks at the onset,” she said with a chuckle.

Fortunately, the ACPA-CPF lodestar continues to burn brightly.