By Stacy Nguyen
Northwest Asian Weekly
This week, two local nonprofit organizations have announced their plans to merge.
Near the end of 2007, Sharyne Shiu Thorton stepped up to become the executive director (ED) of nonprofit International District Housing Alliance. Months later, in early 2008, Hyeok Kim became the ED of InterIm Community Development Association (InterIm CDA). They were new EDs who took on their roles during one of the most challenging economic times in recent history.
The two reached out to each other, getting together for coffee to talk — and sometimes commiserate — about the challenges they were grappling with in their respective organizations.
In early 2009, the conversations steered toward the idea of a possible merger.
“Part of what’s exciting about the merger is that all of us, even the board and staff, are recognizing that our community has really changed in the past 35 years or so.” said Kim. “The times are different and the community is different, so are the needs of people and our business partners.”
“[In 2009,] we each kind of reached out to our respective board and were like, here is an exploration of what’s happening,” said Kim. “And in late 2009, we received a small grant from the Seattle Foundation for, at that point, we called it doing our merger exploration. We hired a consultant who helped us do our initial due diligence phase. In that due diligence phase, we basically looked at what was underneath both of our dresses, doing financial audits … making sure we were very clear about what our financial health was.”
In 2011, Kim and Thornton went back to their respective boards to report that it could be done, that the two organizations complemented each other quite well.
Collectively, they all decided to move forward with the merger.
In the late 1960s, the area currently known as the International District was a neighborhood suffering a split due to construction of the I-5 freeway. At the same time, a stagnant economy contributed to the closure of numerous hotels and apartment buildings. Residents were displaced; thus, businesses in the neighborhood suffered.
In 1969, a group of activists that included a number of business leaders established the International District Improvement Association — shortened to InterIm — with the aim of revitalizing a slumping Chinatown.
About five years later, InterIm created a nonprofit organization, International District Housing and Social Services, which is now known as IDHA. IDHA is the only housing search and stabilization nonprofit organization that serves Asian/Pacific Islander immigrant and refugee populations in Washington state.
Housing search and stabilization comprise a full spectrum of services, from preventing homelessness and eviction to assisting with transitional housing, with the goal of permanent, stable housing.
“[Creation of the organization was partly due to] the housing needs of the elderly at that time — Chinese and Filipino males who were living in the different hotels in the ID and were at risk of forced removal with construction of the Kingdome,” said Thornton.
Now, the two organizations say they are coming full circle.
“I call it going back to the mothership,” Thornton joked.
The meaning of a merger
According to Thornton, there are certain stereotypes that creep out when the word ‘merger’ is mentioned. One is that one organization is in dire straits, financially, and needs another one, a bigger one, to absorb it.
Thornton said that even if a merger hadn’t happened, both organizations would still exist.
“Another stereotype that comes up around mergers is, ‘Who’s going to be the leader.
Who’s going to take over and be the leader?’ And we didn’t really have issues around that at all. It was not a takeover. It was a synergistic, strategic coming-together.”
The coming-together was strategic in the sense that the services that IDHA offers — housing advocacy, counseling, leadership development, community building, among others — are complementary to what InterIm CDA does — housing development and advocacy in terms of neighborhood planning issues.
InterIm CDA currently has five housing properties in its portfolio, and manages the Danny Woo Garden and an affordable parking space.
“In these times, we started thinking, ‘Hey, it’s not enough to just build the homes, as difficult as that already is,” said Kim. “We started to ask, ‘How are the residents doing?
How is their quality of life? How can we make it so they and their children will never need subsidized housing in the future?’ ”
According to Kim, after October 2008, budgets that would have traditionally helped nonprofits were being slashed and burned.
“Before [October 2008], you were able to count on the feds or the state from staving off. Those entities, basically, were being decimated. All of our safety nets were falling apart. So that, for us, was the spark [for the idea of a merger]. But even before that, as new EDs, we were already asking ourselves, ‘What’s our future looking like?’ ”
According to Thornton, this year, Congress reduced the Housing and Urban Development (HUD) housing budget by $80 million.
“The external economic climate is obvious to anyone,” said Thornton. “So it’s true that when resources become even more scarce, it inspires and stimulates new opportunities. … The external economic situation really gave us the opportunity to consider the merger. But my personal belief is that … even after you set the fiscal piece aside, it just seems smart. After 30 to 40 years, it’s time to think about how you want to re-envision yourself, moving forward.”
“From a business perspective,” said Kim, “I look at this like, I’m either going to build my own capacity and do it by myself, or I could leverage the resources of another organization with a good mission fit, that has a good vision fit, and position ourselves to increase our capacity that way, to be able to leverage greater philanthropic resources.”
No staff member from either organization is being laid off as a result of the merger.
The newly merged organizations will stay in their two current offices for the time being. They wait for the new board to settle in, currently at 11 members, before deciding on a new name. Kim will be ED for the merged organization and Thornton will be deputy ED. Joel Ing, who has been on InterIm CDA’s board for about eight years, will serve as board president of the merged organization. (end)
Merged InterIm CDA and IDHA are looking for additional board members. Those interested can contact Joel Ing at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Stacy Nguyen can be reached at email@example.com.