Moving Forward to Success After Merger

Photo credit: Vanessa van Amerongen, Bohío | Fine Art Photography

Special to the Philanthropy Journal

By Jeanne Murray

We first highlighted the work of Families Moving Forward in July 2016. We are pleased to share this update on how far they have come since their merger in early 2016.

Chocolate and peanut butter. Tony Bennett and Lady Gaga. Add one more to the list of unlikely mergers that work out beautifully: Durham’s Families Moving Forward, which merged two nonprofits to serve families in the crisis of homelessness. In just two short years, the new organization has exceeded its goals by serving more families, starting new programs, raising awareness and funds, and engaging more volunteers.   

The collaborative spirit of the merger, described in a previous PJ article, has continued to set the tone for the agency and its volunteers. After merging the operations, programs, physical location, and more, Families Moving Forward has maintained and exceeded community outcome goals.

What’s the secret to this out-of-the-gate success? Strategy, mission, and leadership.

Strategy: Setting the Course

Soon after the merger, the board and staff set to work on an ambitious Strategic Plan, with targeted goals and detailed action steps to improve employment training and placement, children’s needs and services, on-site mental health counseling, physical space, revenue, and affordable housing advocacy in Durham. The merger and its capital campaign had strong support from the community, including other nonprofits, government agencies, and funders, and the board engaged the expertise of these partners as well as its volunteers, former guests, and community leaders in developing the Strategic Plan.

The Strategic Plan is monitored by the board, with staff members attending board meetings to report quarterly progress. Board agendas include discussions about partnerships, funding sources, and community engagement necessary to meet the plan goals.

Mission: Resonating with the Community

While the two former agencies had strong 20+-year histories of support, it was still a challenge to introduce a new name and new way of executing the mission. Executive Director Ryan Fehrman and Director of Partnerships Catherine Pleil led the strategic effort to educate the community – including more than 1000 volunteers – about the opportunities to engage with the new organization. To further introduce the organization and its mission, Development Director Shana Carignan, board member Tom Meyer, and many other volunteers created a new signature fundraising series of “fine dining with a purpose” dinners called Chefs for Change. Featuring some of Durham’s most talented chefs, this series of unique, ticketed fine dining events raises money as well as awareness. The efforts have yielded a larger following for communications, new volunteers for programs, and increased donations from individuals and local businesses.

Leadership: Collaboration and Excellence

Photo credit: Vanessa van Amerongen, Bohío | Fine Art Photography

Key to its success has been the organization’s exemplary commitment to collaboration.

  • Pre-merger, both former agencies had been working together to streamline their approach to ending family homelessness. In the year before the merger, they formed the Durham Collaborative to End Family Homelessness with partners Urban Ministries of Durham, Housing for New Hope, and Durham’s Partnership for Children. The Collaborative continues to demonstrate an unprecedented level of cooperation, speaking with one voice in their advocacy for affordable housing, working with the City of Durham and Durham County to develop a local Coordinated Intake process for families, and getting the Durham Housing Authority to prioritize homeless families for Housing Choice Vouchers (formerly Section 8).
  • Members of the Collaborative were invited to share this success as presenters at the National 2018 Beyond Housing Conference and the NC 2017 Bringing It Home Housing Conference. In the sessions, the Collaborative leaders discussed their process to develop an end-to-end system for reducing family homelessness in Durham. They also shared strategies on ways to utilize volunteers and partners to empower families. The Collaborative’s approach is helping shape the culture and future for Continuum of Care systems around the country.
  • A significant focus during the preparation for merger was combining programs and developing new offerings so that service to families would continue uninterrupted. Once the merger was complete, the staff focused on volunteer engagement by undertaking a comprehensive assessment, training, coaching, and certification process to become a Certified Service Enterprise. The Service Enterprise Initiative is a national change management program, led by Points of Light, that helps organizations engage and manage volunteers more effectively to meet community needs. Families Moving Forward is the only organization in Durham, and just one of six in North Carolina, to earn this national certification.

    Success in fully leveraging the power of volunteers has enabled the agency to pursue additional collaborations throughout the scope of its work. For example, Families Moving Forward has expanded its partnership with Duke’s School of Nursing and Durham Public Schools to improve the short and long-term health and social determinants of families experiencing homelessness and the effectiveness of interventions. These partnerships have expanded into collaborations through shared grantwriting and funding, allowing the nonprofit to increase capacity to offer more services.

The merger made Families Moving Forward the largest housing and services provider for homeless families in Durham (serving up to 140 families annually including 225-300 children). The right strategy, mission, and leadership have inspired the community to support families and children in the crisis of homelessness – making the merger a success story for Durham’s families.


Jeanne Murray is a senior associate at moss+ross, which delivers development and fundraising consultant services to nonprofits in the Triangle, and which served as campaign counsel for the merger described in this article. She is a volunteer board member at Families Moving Forward, a nonprofit in Durham, NC, that offers temporary housing to families with children who are experiencing homelessness, and helps them create a path to stability and self-sufficiency through personalized services and ongoing community support. 

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