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Strength in numbers: WNC environmental groups plan merger

Economy of scale tends to lean toward effectiveness of action, and that’s a fact that three environmental advocacy organizations in Western North Carolina plan to take advantage of over the coming year. By January 2015, the Jackson-Macon Conservation Alliance, Western North Carolina Alliance and the Environmental Conservation Association, known as ECO, hope to have merged into one organization with a new name and a familiar purpose.    

“Basically we’re all interested in the same things,” said Robert Smith, acting chair of JMCA’s board. “The priorities are really one priority, and that’s working to protect the environment, and of course that’s a very wide subject area and some organizations do it in specific ways and others do it in a more generalized way. Many times the problems in one area are the same problems in another area, so if you can combine forces that would seem to enable you to better work on that problem.”

Once melded, the organization would have offices in Franklin, Asheville, Hendersonville and Boone. 

JCMA, which is based in Highlands, had become interested in the merger about a year ago when board member Adam Bigelow found out that WNC Alliance, a regional group, and Hendersonville-based ECO were talking about joining forces. 

At that time, JMCA had lost its executive director and was having a hard time finding  a replacement. The recession, too, had taken a hit on JCMA’s donor base, making the financial end of environmental advocacy harder and harder to accomplish. The idea of being able to continue pursuing JCMA’s mission without having to shoulder the entire administrative headache of running a small nonprofit was a welcome one. 

“We spent some time saying, ‘This too will pass and we can regain some of those folks down the road,’” Smith said of the post-recession crunch, “but the reality of running a small organization is that it requires the same kind of management that a large organization does.”

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Reporting, tax forms, all those things that registered nonprofits are required to do still have to happen, no matter the organization’s size. That was time-consuming, and with a staff that’s now down to just a volunteer board, those tasks were taking away from more meaningful work.

“A lot of nonprofits I think are challenged by scale, and in order to have impact you really need to be a certain size and scale,” said Bobby Wagner, co-director of WNC Alliance. 

Larger scale means a stronger voice in legislative decisions that affect the environment. It means greater access to people with the specialized knowledge that environmental groups need to analyze policies and get their message out. And it means increased ability to plan events and avenues to get the public involved. 

Though WNC Alliance is a much larger organization than the other two and isn’t hurting much from the recession, the merger was attractive to them as well. The 32-year-old Asheville-based organization covers 23 counties with offices in Hendersonville, Boone and Franklin, though the Franklin one has not been staffed for several years. By joining with ECO and JCMA, the group hopes to deepen its impact, allowing the smaller groups to combine their local knowledge with WNC Alliance’s larger resource pool. 

“I think that we will be able to go deeper, and as a result of that we will be able to mobilize more folks, engage more folks and as a result have a deeper impact,” said Bob Wagner, co-director of WNC Alliance. 

And, also, get that Franklin office up and running again. WNC Alliance hasn’t concentrated much in that area before, Wagner said, because JMCA was pursuing a similar goal in the region. But now they’ll be able to reinstate a presence. 

“Our goal is by Jan. 1 (2015) that the legal, financial, staffing types of issues will be resolved and fully functional,” Wagner said. 

Over the next few months, leaders of the three groups will be doing some strategic planning, hashing out what the new group’s purpose, mission and vision will be — and, of course, picking a name. 

“We’re excited about it,” Wagner said. 

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