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Community action agencies in S.W. Minn. discuss merger

WILLMAR — No matter whether you live in Worthington or Willmar, if you need help paying the winter heating bill, you call on your community action agency.

If you live in Montevideo, you can also turn to your community action agency if you need help getting to the local medical clinic or to the store for groceries.

And if you live in Marshall, it’s your local community action agency that may help pair your child with mentors in a Big Buddies program.

Someday, it may not matter where you live in the region if you need any of these services: All four of the community action agencies serving Minnesota’s 18 southwestern counties are discussing the possibility of joining as one merged entity.

The boards of directors for the four community action agencies will meet Wednesday in Marshall to consider a report recommending a phased merger.

The local organizations include Heartland Community Action Agency, based in Willmar; Prairie Five Community Action Council, based in Montevideo; Southern Minnesota Opportunity Council, based in Worthington; and Western Community Action Partnership, based in Marshall.

All four of the community action agencies serve low-income residents. The services they offer can vary somewhat, but all offer the same core services including Head Start, energy assistance and weatherization programs.

A newly completed analysis by MAP for Nonprofits of St. Paul, which provides consulting and training, recommends that the four agencies begin a phased merger to better serve their clients. By serving a larger population base of more than 279,000 in southwest Minnesota, a merged community action agency would be more competitive in obtaining federal and state grant monies.

A merged organization would also be more efficient. It could reduce costs by shedding some of its upper leadership and directors as the merger progresses.

Also, workers in the field could focus more on their individual areas of expertise. Due to small staff numbers in the existing, smaller organizations, many of the workers now must wear three or four hats on the job.

A merged system would also provide seamless services to clients, no matter where they might live or move within the region. Clients would not be limited to obtaining help at one office only.

The conversation about the possibility of merger was launched in June 2011 by Heartland, which serves the counties of Kandiyohi, Renville, Meeker and McLeod. Executive Director Joan Macik said all four of the community action agencies in the region were finding it more difficult to find grant and other funding for the services they offer.

A grant from the Southwest Initiative helped the community action agencies in the region bring in MAP for Nonprofits to help them take a look at the issues. The agencies have been meeting monthly ever since.

Heartland’s board of directors is receptive to the possibility of merger. A merger could take place with one or all three of the other agencies if they are supportive, she said.

Only one of the other three is currently as receptive to the possibility of merger as is Heartland, said Macik.

There are other challenges to a merger, including the differences in the range of services the various community action agencies offer.

For example, Heartland does not offer a transportation program. Prairie Five does. It operates 20 buses and five vans in the five counties it serves and relies on a network of 40 volunteer drivers to transport clients as well.

Another challenge is a need to obtain assurance that administration of the Head Start program would remain with the newly created entity if the four community action agencies dissolve.

Macik said the timing for merger might be right. Funding organizations clearly favor larger, more efficient nonprofits when deciding where to distribute limited resources, she explained.

Also, there are a number of senior staff members in the agencies who are likely to retire in the next five years.

There are tough issues to address in merging and down-sizing, said Macik, adding she is not sure how the conversation will go on Wednesday. She said the bottom line is that the community action agencies need to do what is best for both their clients and the agencies themselves. Merger is the strategy most nonprofits are taking.

Tom Cherveny

Tom Cherveny is a regional and outdoor reporter with the West Central Tribune in Willmar, MN.

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