22 May 2007

Environmental Movement: Is the Pew/NET M&A the Wave of Future?

Last week, the Pew Charitable Trusts' environment program (Pew) and the National Environmental Trust (NET) announced it was merging to form a new entity, the Pew Environmental Group. While the Washington Post wrote about the merger a week ago, I haven't heard much about it from colleagues in the field. I'm surprised.

As Post staff writer Juliet Eilperin writes, many "Americans think of the environmental community as a fractious bunch of free thinkers, that if you put two of them together they would generate at least three different opinions."

We've been hearing for years from the foundation community that they want environmental groups to collaborate more. Sometimes this works and scales of efficiency and effectiveness are achieved that would otherwise be impossible; most of the time, however, such direction leads to a scramble to create new projects or programs that end up making more work for all concerned.

True, there are some genuine collaborations that have worked. Most of these have been at the field level, although there are periodic efforts to get the green groups to work together or to share best practices at the highest level. Still, there is room for improvement on that front as scarce resources generate turf wars as very distinct, often niche missions compete for a limited donor pool.

We're hearing it from donors too. Questions about what distinguishes one group's strengths from another, missions that are beginning to overlap more frequently, and even long-range goals that are duplicated and would be more complementary if we would only take Rodney King's advice and "just get along."

But this merger idea is a novel one. It happens in the for-profit sector all the time and it is surprising that it hasn't happened before in the civil sector.

And why not? This bold move by Pew and NET is forward thinking. Both parties acknowledge that they will be stronger as one. As Environmental Trust President Philip Clapp told the Post, "The challenges are so enormous and we have such a short window of time to solve the problem, we decided we had to change the way we operate."

In the business world, mergers are often a way to expand operations and, sometimes, to bring in expertise and capacity that is otherwise lacking. If done right, it may also allow for greater efficiencies, long-term stability or sustainability.

Will this move spur a wave of M&A activity in the environmental movement? Keep an eye on the landscape: This may be an idea whose time has come.

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