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Merger a 'no go' for nonprofits that serve seniors

http://66.225.205.104/JR20091201.mp3

The first attempt by Mecklenburg County officials to shepherd a nonprofit merger in the name of efficiency has fallen flat. Faced with mounting budget problems, the county commission and Manager Harry Jones asked the Council on Aging and Mecklenburg County Senior Centers to consider merging, since both get hundreds of thousands of dollars from the county each year. The result will be presented to the commission tonight. WFAE's Julie Rose reports: This isn't the first time the Council on Aging and Mecklenburg County's Senior Centers have been asked to think about a marriage. A couple of years ago, the United Way suggested one and the result was the same then. Debora Sparks thinks county officials just don't understand how different the two nonprofits are. She's executive director of the Council on Aging. "I think that they understand better now what we do, but I think there was just a you know 'These guys all take care of seniors. Obviously they do the same things,'" says Sparks. "Well, as a matter of fact, we don't and I think they understand that a little better now." The difference is that the Council on Aging does advocacy work and deals mostly with policy makers, while the Senior Centers are concerned with offering workshops and social activities directly to seniors at four community locations. But could they save money by combining back office functions and having one executive director? The study found even that would yield only minimal savings since the Senior Centers don't have any office space to spare and the Council on Aging works out of donated space with a staff of two. Executive directors at both nonprofits earn around $65,000. The study found potential savings of about $82,000. And ultimately, Sparks says the services of each agency would suffer in a merger. "Because we're configured differently and we're funded differently, we deliver our services in different ways," says Sparks. "If you're doing different things just having us all together in the same place is not necessarily going to help either agency and I think that in fact it might dilute." Together, the two agencies got a combined $602,000 from Mecklenburg County last year. Sparks worries that if the Council on Aging was to become a program of the much larger Senior Centers, her advocacy work would be the first to get cut in a budget shortfall. . . which makes it sound like the decision not to merge was based more on self-preservation than on actual objective analysis. But County Commissioner Jennifer Roberts says it made sense to have the two nonprofits do their own study of a possible merger. And she thinks they did it well. "It's hard to have an outside group come in and say 'You all must do this or that,'" says Roberts. "I think it has to come from within. And we're not on their board of directors and we don't know all the ins and outs of how they see their missions, their operations. I think taking a look at how they operate and trying to be better going forward is a good exercise." Roberts has been an outspoken advocate for more mergers and collaboration among the estimated 4,000 nonprofits in Charlotte. She hopes the failure to marry the Council on Aging with the Senior Centers won't put a chill on other possible mergers. Roberts says the county is now focused on finding duplication and inefficiency in its after-school programs and among the nonprofits that get county funds for that issue.