Share story

Mergers and acquisitions happen all the time in the business world, but they’re not nearly as common among nonprofits. So I was surprised to hear that the small nonprofitPowerful Schools just became part of the much larger YMCA of Greater Seattle. And I was pleased, too, because this union promises to be good for a lot of children in the Seattle area.

Last week Seattle faced the fallout from another acquisition. Amgen, headquartered in California, took over Seattle-based Immunex in 2002 and announced last week that it will close its operations here, which will cost jobs and lower Seattle’s profile in the biotech industry.

The joining of the YMCA and Powerful Schools is the kind a community can celebrate.

Both organizations have evolved since their beginnings and gotten much better at addressing social needs, particularly helping families and children thrive. They both supplement and strengthen what happens in classrooms and at home to improve education outcomes, particularly for children who might lag far behind in school without help. But they each have something to bring to the merger that will make their programs stronger.

Erica Mullen, who is in charge of educational initiatives for the Seattle YMCA, will oversee Powerful Schools. She said Powerful Schools has programs that have succeeded in raising the performance level of elementary-school children and the YMCA has the size, infrastructure and financial stability to spread those programs to more sites.

Most people know something about the YMCA, but fewer are familiar with Powerful Schools, which operates in a limited area.

Powerful Schools was started by parents and principals who were concerned that schools in Seattle’s Rainier Valley weren’t producing the level of achievement children need to be successful in life. Four elementary schools and two community organizations (the Mount Baker Community Club and the Columbia City Revitalization Committee) created in-school and after-school programs they hoped would improve education for students who were falling behind.

The program focused on reading and writing and visual arts with lots of volunteers working with children. I wrote about what that looked and felt like a few years in. Since then, successful social programs have learned some things from businesses about operating effectively and measuring outcomes.

Mullen said the YMCA is getting a well-trained staff and evidence-based programs.

These days the most effective nonprofits recognize that doing good requires more than heartfelt intentions. Powerful Schools benefited from being an early participant in another innovative enterprise, Social Venture Partners (SVP), which adapted the work of venture capitalists to the nonprofit arena. SVP provides money and professional expertise to help carefully chosen organizations improve the way they function.

Jenn Daly, Powerful Schools development and communications director, told me, “We were the first group they funded and the first they re-funded.”

Powerful Schools learned a lot about assessing its operations, and improved its efficiency enough to add more schools to the program. During the 2012-13 school year, the program served 4,604 students (and their families) in Seattle and South King County. It produces achievement improvements that follow children though the rest of their education. Over the years the group has added a summer program, STEM club, family support, and pre-K programs, and now operates in 13 elementary schools and five preschools.

Holly Miller, who heads Seattle’s Office for Education, wrote in an email, “Powerful Schools was a leader in our community in using data and student performance data to help understand the impact of their interventions.”

Miller said she was impressed with that data, and that the group managed to retain a focus on personal relationships while being more data driven. I think that’s important too.

The acquisition will keep all that good work going and even growing across the metro area.

Most mergers involving nonprofits happen when one has a leadership change, and that was the case in this one. Late last year, Tre’ Maxie, who had been Powerful Schools’ executive director for five years, took a job as King County’s chief deputy assessor.

Informal conversations among board members of the two organizations morphed into serious discussions and became solid plans earlier this year, but Mullen said it took time to figure out how to put the two organizations together. They’re still figuring out what roles Powerful Schools board members will play, but the staff will remain intact.

So far it looks like an acquisition that has only winners.

Jerry Large’s column appears Monday and Thursday. Reach him at 206-464-3346 or