By Lynda Mansson, MAVA Director General
This article was initially written in 2016 at the time MAVA merged with FIBA (Fondation Internationale du Banc d’Arguin).
What are the main reasons that MAVA merged with FIBA rather than continue working together in partnership?
MAVA is in the process of developing a new strategy which will see us through until our last year of granting in 2022. Because of this transition date, we are increasingly focussed on organizational strengthening – especially for local NGOs. We intend for our legacy to be a strong and resilient community of actors carrying on important conservation work in our focal regions. This is key in such places as West Africa and parts of the Mediterranean where this entails quite intensive engagement and accompanying. We are a very small team based in Switzerland and were recognizing and seeking solutions to the limits of what we could achieve with such a lean staff based remotely from the regions.
At the same time FIBA, (Fondation Internationale du Banc d’Arguin) was undergoing its own reflections on its future. Originally established (by the same founder as MAVA) to implement conservation projects originally in the Band d’Arguin and then later throughout the Coastal West Africa ecoregion, they were struggling to define their future in the context of changing dynamics and needs. Over the years, FIBA was successful in nurturing new networks, NGOs and financial mechanisms, which are now well-placed to take over some of the work FIBA was traditionally managing itself. MAVA and FIBA had a close relationship with overlapping geographies and strategies. In addition, with a 90% dependence on MAVA funding, what would be their future after MAVA’s withdrawal in 2022?
In May and June 2014, the Boards of the MAVA Foundation and FIBA each made the courageous decision to merge the two organizations. The merger allowed these organizations to unite their respective strengths: FIBA’s well-honed capacity development, organizational strengthening skills, presence on the ground, and long experience in the region was a natural complement to MAVA’s expertise, convening power and financial resources. Thus, at the end of 2014, FIBA was fully merged into MAVA and ceased to exist as a separate entity.
MAVA took over the majority of FIBA staff, expanding its team from 9 to 21, with 11 people based in Dakar, Senegal and Nouakchott, Mauritania. This gives MAVA the means to engage in a broader range of financial and technical support to partners which will help pave the way for the transition in 2022. It also allows for a more streamlined operational structure – eliminating duplicate functions. Lastly, some historic confusion amongst our partners as to the difference between FIBA and MAVA – due to our already very close working relationship – is eliminated entirely.
How different will the impact of the Foundation be after the merger, what difference for who (the grantees)?
Our grantees will experience a shift in how we work in Coastal West Africa as MAVA becomes what we call a ‘bailleur impliqué’ in French, roughly translated as ‘engaged donor’. We define our roles as funding, accompanying, and mobilizing/convening – to catalyse action for conservation. We will phase out of the work that FIBA was implementing itself, and step up our focus on organizational strengthening and technical accompanying.
What would you say was the most challenging in the process so far?
In addition to the break-neck speed with which we accomplished the merger, probably the most challenging aspect has been change management and communications. It is hard to overestimate the need to repeatedly communicate consistent messages on such a big change – both for partners and for staff. We were extremely careful and thoughtful about change management and communications, focussing efforts on ensuring our partners were well informed and knew what to expect and also on FIBA staff who would undergo major changes to their responsibilities, some of whom would not have a role in the new integrated MAVA team. While I believe we handled those aspects in an exemplary manner, we underestimated the need to communicate as much with existing MAVA staff. The belief that not as much was changing for them was misleading and they experienced a period of some uncertainty about the changes. Even though their jobs were not at stake, they still felt the changes profoundly. It is essential to understand and deal with the full range of reactions to change – from excitement about the new opportunities to resistance to any change.
Now that the administrative and legal aspects are taken care of, what are some of the challenges you anticipate in terms of implementing the merger (governance, role & skills of staff on the ground , relations with partners, grantees etc.. ?)
Going forward, our main challenges are around fully integrating the new team members, helping them re-orient to their new roles and understand their role as grant-makers rather than implementers, and building a single MAVA team, with staff spread over three offices rather than concentrated in one location. We invested heavily in face to face contact – both by bringing new staff to Switzerland to spend time with staff here one by one, and in travelling frequently from Switzerland to the region. Our carbon footprint this year will be off-the-charts, but we consider that a necessary evil for the benefit of solid team integration to get us on a good track.
The other main challenge of course is delivering on our promises to partners. We are learning and adapting as we move into full implementation phase after the merger and are working to refine the strategy and structure that will enable us to best serve the needs of the region, but it will take some time before we can confidently say that we are fully delivering on our promises.
What surprises – either pleasant or unpleasant – have emerged during this process?
The complexity of the process in legal and administrative terms was a surprise to us. We had a steep learning curve mastering how to orchestrate the requirements in four countries and ensuring the right order of events.
The other surprise for us was the extent to which the rethinking of our positioning and mode of operations in West Africa ended up affecting the rest of the foundation. We found that much of what we determined to be appropriate in that programme held true in our other regions. We were able to take advantage of the tremendous expertise brought in by ex-FIBA staff for the benefit of the whole foundation with some staff taking on transversal roles. This opened up exciting opportunities that we had not anticipated at the start of the process.
We wanted to be sure to honor the legacy of FIBA. The merger came about because they were successful in giving birth to other organizations that could take their place and because they had the insight to see that the context was changing– not because they did anything wrong or served no useful purpose. Our communications were careful on this aspect and we culminated the merger process with a week of celebratory events in Dakar and in Nouakchott. We invited partners, current and former FIBA staff and Board, government officials, and other funders to join us to celebrate what FIBA accomplished over its 30 years of existence. We believed this was the right way to mark the merger, and it was a pleasant surprise to see the benefits of having done this. We were able to recognize and thank all those who contributed to FIBA over the years, explain our vision for the future, generate a feeling of belonging to the MAVA community, and of course we had some fun together starting our new era on a positive note.