How do you get one alliance of five national associations, six regional associations, and a research consortium to reinvent itself as a single association? Years of consensus-building, for one. Learn from the tale of SHAPE America and the mother of all association mergers.
To understand the challenges that the American Alliance for Health, Physical Education, Recreation, and Dance once faced, just look at that name. In one seven-letter acronym, AAHPERD, you can see why remaking the organization might be difficult: You don’t get a name that long without trying to keep a lot of people happy.
“To the outside world, there was no real elevator speech to explain who we were and what we did,” says CEO E. Paul Roetert.
Try explaining in a few words an “alliance” of five national organizations, six district organizations, and a national research consortium representing educators in four different fields. Each had its own board of directors, executive, and staff. They published individual newsletters. They signed separate sponsor contracts. And alliance members could join any two of the five national associations or research consortium within. The structure dated back more than 30 years.
Merging into one organization, with one board and one vision, had long been discussed, but inertia always won—until 2013. At its national convention that May, delegates voted 204 to zero, with one abstention, to unify. A new name was soon chosen: Society of Health and Physical Educators, or “SHAPE America” for short. The unanimous vote came from a tangled knot of stakeholders that past president Irene Cucina described as “a bunch of seagulls” vying over a piece of bread.
What made it happen? The same things that go into many successful change initiatives, but on a broader scale: leaders with a clear vision, stakeholders with their voices heard, and a shared commitment to mission and members.
People, Opinions, and Progress
One morning in August 2012, Cucina, a professor of health and physical education at Plymouth State University and AAHPERD president at the time, flew from New Hampshire to Northern Virginia to visit the board of directors meeting at the National Association for Sport and Physical Education (NASPE).
“They sat me in the front of the room, so I felt like I was on trial,” Cucina says. “I was scared to death, to tell you the truth, when I walked in.” She knew that NASPE, the largest of the allied organizations, could be the domino that tipped others toward unification. Fortunately, she’d done her homework. She knew AAHPERD’s history backward and forward, and she talked about long-standing challenges that unification could help the association finally overcome.
“I started outlining all the benefits to them, all the things they could have done as volunteers if they didn’t have to worry about making decisions that the overall board could have made,” she says. “When I left that meeting, they were all ready to unify.”
There were many trips like this for Cucina—a veteran volunteer leader who, for instance, had studied board meeting minutes dating back several decades—and Roetert, who was an external hire for CEO in 2011. They spent most of two years gathering support for unification. Cucina visited at least 25 state conventions to speak with members. “I’ve never worked so hard in my life,” she says.
Much of AAHPERD’s board and staff worked on the change, as well, and that team approach extended to volunteers and members, who were invited to share opinions via in-person meetings, webinars, open forums at conferences, and ongoing bylaw draft reviews. Member input kept health education, for instance, prominent in the unified organization’s focus. “All those things make people feel that they’re valued, that their opinion matters,” Cucina says. “It all helped to move us forward.”
Cucina, Roetert, and other unification proponents pointed to positives like the power of an organization with a single mission, a broad voice on Capitol Hill, and a clear member value. They also laid out the redundancies of the aging alliance structure. “We were not the only fish in the water anymore, so we needed to find a way to stay competitive,” Roetert says.
Persistence prevailed. Cucina says the voices against change were loud but small in number. “If the person at the top can speak for the majority that’s afraid to speak against the vocal minority, then as long as you’re in front of them, they will keep supporting you,” she says.
A New Structure Takes Shape
After the unanimous delegate vote, the name change was put to a full-member vote—a first for the nearly 130-year-old organization—and approved. The rebuilding included a new governance structure and a completely rewritten set of bylaws. Some highlights:
- Six national and six district boards eliminated, reducing governing units from 13 to one.
- Standing committees reduced from 17 to four.
- Alliance Assembly of 200-plus delegates trimmed to 80-person Delegate Assembly and refocused on programmatic work.
- Board sized reduced from 15 to 11, and constituency-based positions reformed into at-large positions.
- Two-association membership structure eliminated. All members join one organization, SHAPE America.
The bylaws document itself was cut nearly in half, and many volunteers found themselves in new positions, moving from boards to subject-matter councils, task forces, and new district leadership councils.
The staffs for the national associations within AAHPERD were combined, as well, with employees in matching functions uniting into single departments. Cassandra Isidro, senior director of development and outreach, says that coordination is making her work easier.
“I had agreements with vendors where I had three different agreements, three different sponsorship fees, three different efforts all with the same vendor, all in our same building,” she says. Now, there’s just one organization to seek partners for. “They’ve been excited about having one point of contact and being able to access more members than they were before.”
To eliminate redundancies, some work was outsourced, such as journal and book publishing, Roetert says. In the three years since the move toward unification began, staff size has been reduced by about 10 percent.
Isidro says a new sense of community was palpable at the association’s 2014 annual conference, the first one after unification. Previous conferences were like “six conventions rolled up into one,” and while they’d had all-conference general sessions in the past, separate general sessions for each individual organization competed for top billing. In 2014, the conference had one general session that brought attendees from all wings of SHAPE America together.* “The members had never experienced that, so that energy in that room … it really just solidified it for people. You could feel it,” she says.
More work is yet to be done—the board of directors approved a new strategic plan in the summer, and meanwhile the association has yet to see a boost in membership numbers since unification—but Paula Kun, senior director of communications, says the association is headed in the right direction.
“I hope people see that we are focusing on our expertise in physical education and physical activity and school health,” she says. “And that, when you need that expertise, there’s no ifs, ands, or buts: You know the organization to go to for that information.”
*Editor’s Note: This article has been updated to clarify the change in general sessions provided at AAHPERD and SHAPE America annual conferences.