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Candid’s (not so terrible) twos

By Bradford K. Smith
February 1, 2021

Text Happy 2nd anniversary, Candid. above a framed photo of 200+ Candid staff members in Oct 2019

It seems hard to believe, but Candid has reached its second birthday. Without a doubt the last two years have reminded us once again, as John Lennon liked to say: “Life is what happens while you are busy making other plans.” Whatever hopes and fears we had in anticipation of combining Foundation Center and GuideStar gave way to the intense work of doing so in 2019, before being sideswiped by a global pandemic in 2020. Through it all, partly by planning, partly by perseverance, and partly by resilience, we have become one Candid.

Looking back, we are farther along than we could have ever expected. Candid’s terrible twos are not so terrible after all. Here are some of the things we have learned along the way.

The world is happening in real-time

The biggest struggle in bringing two well-established nonprofits together is resisting centripetal force. The intensity and complexity of the many steps required inevitably draws everyone’s focus, especially leadership’s, inward. We were headed down that path until a global pandemic, the murder of George Floyd, and the storming of the U.S. Capitol called Candid to act swiftly on our mission to get you the information you need to do good. Overnight, we marshalled our real-time data capability to track the successive waves of grants and pledges coming from corporations, foundations, and celebrities to promote racial equity and ameliorate the devastating impact of COVID-19. Augmented with daily news feeds, analysis, opinion pieces, and training opportunities, Candid has been able to provide vital information for nonprofits struggling to find resources, and donors deciding how to allocate their funding. Early this January, we drew attention to a special site developed in 2014 to show how foundations are helping democracy deliver on its promise to the American people.

Planning is critical

The formal combination of GuideStar and Foundation Center was preceded by years of conversation, feasibility studies, negotiations, legal work, and a fair number of sleepless nights. A detailed plan was developed through which we aspired to fully integrate the two organizations over a three-year period. This encompassed the “hard” tasks of unifying business processes and systems, rebuilding databases, combining product features, and branding as well as the “soft” tasks of defining our values and forging the common culture we have come to refer to as “One Candid.” Though we have modified and adapted our plans along the way, having a roadmap to guide our journey has been essential to keep us on track as we enter the third and final year of joining forces.

Strong boards make all the difference

Frankly, without strong board members, we never would have made it to February 1, 2019, when Candid was born, and would not be where we are today, two years later. Two joint Foundation Center/GuideStar board working groups negotiated a detailed pre-combination agreement and the governance processes that would guide the new organization. The first group covered all the difficult points that often sink mergers, particularly in the nonprofit sector, such as who would be the CEO, how would the name of the new organization be determined, and what to do about multiple physical locations. The second group mapped out the board composition, bylaws, term limits, roles, and responsibilities.

Back when the world was still meeting in person, I was asked to speak about the process at a gathering of about 200 nonprofit executives in New York. I described the pre-combination negotiations and asked the crowd: “How many of you would be confident about the board negotiating the future of your organization in a closed room, without your presence?” The silence that ensued was punctuated only by a few, muffled gasps. Both the GuideStar and Foundation Center boards had a deep understanding of their organizations and did a remarkable job in laying the foundation upon which Candid has been built.

Systems integration is essential … but a tough slog

Many organizations will tell you about the “near-death” experience they had when rebuilding their website or introducing a new content management system or CRM (customer relationship management) system. Merger experts will warn that if you don’t get your systems integration right early on, it will haunt you for years to come. Recognizing this, we planned to undertake multiple systems integrations simultaneously, an endeavor equivalent to going for the highest degree of difficulty in an Olympic diving competition. But we had no other choice. Unlike so many nonprofits that are frontline service providers, at heart we are an online information provider for whom technology, data, and systems lie at the core of everything we do.

The interdependencies between systems for recording transactions, order processing, accounting, budgeting, financial planning, time allocation, and customer management are endless. The requirements for the central data warehouse we call the Candid Data System are staggering given: the myriad data sources we draw from; the processes required for cleaning, disambiguating, coding, and storing data; and the need to publish that data to multiple products and services. Having the resources to contract external consultants has been crucial, but consultants require information and guidance, and a huge portion of the work continues to fall to staff stretched thin by working on so many different systems at once. And that same staff has continued to deal with the many challenges that arise in going about our daily work of giving people the information they need to do good.

Culture

The oft-repeated maxim—“culture eats strategy for lunch”—is true, though not particularly helpful. Organizational culture is many things, some of which can be addressed through an intentional focus, and others that are the sum of daily interactions in a human institution. Like many organizations, we first looked to external consultants and learned, perhaps a necessary lesson, that you can’t outsource your organization’s culture any more than you can its vision. An internal staff group pulled from across Candid has worked diligently to forge our values through a participatory process, plan an all-staff retreat (pre-COVID) with more than 200 people, and make multiple recommendations on how best to root Candid’s values and our culture in forward planning and daily processes.

One observation. I had never fully appreciated how much a good branding process can contribute to culture. Having a new brand, Candid, that in its meaning and visual cues convey the way we approach our mission gave staff an identity, a look, and ethos to which to aspire. It has also allowed us to have some fun that strengthens our efforts to be one Candid, right down to the swag that thoughtfully included on-brand, Candid-yellow socks for those cold winter Zoom meetings.

Timing matters

Deep experience and intuition told us that we had to move as quickly as possible to secure the funding commitments necessary to guarantee success. We approached major donors with a dual message: 1) we need additional resources to execute on our integration plan and 2) we still require general support to maintain our services to the social sector 24/7, particularly those that are provided at no costs to users. The stock market had been extremely strong for more than a decade and foundations’ assets were growing, along with concerns about a major correction. That effort paid off as we were able to reach over 80 percent of our campaign target by early 2019. A year later the COVID-19 pandemic struck, and the markets became extremely volatile.

We were also fortunate that in 2019 Candid staff got a solid year of working together under our belts before the pandemic drove us to our individual homes. Staff traveled frequently between our office locations in New York, Virginia, California, Atlanta, Cleveland, and D.C. As mentioned above, we gathered everyone in Baltimore for “Candid Convene,” where the entire staff had the chance to work together during three days of carefully planned sessions and get to know each other through the informal socializing that followed. Having established pre-pandemic foundations of familiarity and trust turned the virtual work environment that followed into something that further consolidated the “One Candid” culture, rather than atomized it. Had we launched Candid one year later, in 2020, it is likely that we would still be struggling to break down our GuideStar and Foundation Center cultural siloes.

When faced with a crisis … accelerate

Pre-combination planning paid off in getting to the starting line and gave us a roadmap for combining two organizations into one. The task of charting a long-term vision and how to get there remained. In a tumultuous 2020 we did something counter-intuitive by accelerating precisely as the nation was beginning to see the first signs of how life- and work-changing the pandemic would be. Working closely with the board, we developed a Candid 2030 Vision based upon our belief that the social sector is capable of tackling the critical challenges and opportunities of our time. We then set to work re-designing our organizational structure to better execute on that vision and project the first five years in terms of operational priorities and differing financial scenarios. Doing so in an organization already working at capacity on integration activities, meeting the needs of our users, and adjusting to life in a pandemic was risky but, in the end, paid off. Pushing forward on the initial steps toward a bold 2030 vision reaffirmed our belief in the future of Candid and the social sector, and allowed us to look beyond the horizon at a time when daily life was and continues to be a struggle.

Never underestimate staff

Combining two organization into one is extremely demanding; doing so during a global pandemic and societal upheaval is bordering on impossible. In our case, staff showed an unwavering commitment to Candid’s mission and the ability to draw upon deep reserves of empathy and solidarity. Organizations can grow stronger in crises, but only if they have the talent to do so. Even before the pandemic struck, I had realized that the board and the majority of staff were out front of the executive team in terms of becoming “One Candid.” Those of us in leadership positions were struggling to adapt to the expanded responsibilities and more limited sovereignty Candid brought compared to our previous roles in GuideStar and Foundation Center. Meanwhile staff members were forging new relationships and building trust through their daily work to assemble the building blocks of a new organization.

With the onset of the pandemic and the seismic events that followed, staff stepped up in ways that would have been difficult to predict. Not only did they find ways to stay productive while juggling the multiple demands of working from home, they created communications channels to support and care for each other. Many of these were undoubtedly private, while others took advantage of organizational platforms like Slack. We all became more generous in the process. Coming to the close of 2020 we looked up and realized we had, indeed, become “One Candid.”

Beyond our intentional efforts to build culture, the daily expressions of solidarity among staff had forged a sense of community. We carry that social capital into 2021, a year in which we will complete our planned integration activities, set Candid on its trajectory toward 2030, and hope to breathe easier as a modicum of normalcy returns to life and work.

Tags: Candid