Operation Smile Train
By Elizabeth Simpson
Norfolk-based Operation Smile announced plans Monday to merge with Smile Train, one of its fiercest competitors for charity dollars, saying that the two international groups can help more children by working together.
The new organization, called Operation Smile Train, will continue to be based in Norfolk, where Operation Smile was founded in 1982 by plastic surgeon William Magee and his wife, Kathleen. It will have an office in New York, where Smile Train is located.
Both groups repair cleft lips and other facial deformities for children across the globe.
Howard Unger, chief operating officer of Operation Smile, said he initiated conversation with Smile Train co-founder Charles Wang in December, which quickly grew into suggestions to unite the charities.
"All of us want to make a greater impact on children, and there's great synergy that exists between the two organizations, " Unger said. "We can reach more children working together than working separately."
Unger will hold the same title in the new organization and will have responsibility for day-to-day management. The merger must be approved by Virginia and New York regulatory bodies.
The merger, recently approved by the boards of each charity, follows a long-standing feud between the two multi million-dollar organizations. Brian Mullaney, who co-founded Smile Train with Wang, had once worked with the Magees to build up Operation Smile, but he broke away in 1998 because of philosophical differences. The next year, he co-founded Smile Train in New York with computer software giant Wang.
While Operation Smile uses a mission-based model, flying volunteers and equipment to different countries to perform surgery on children, Smile Train has trained and supported doctors and health professionals in 78 countries to operate on children.
Smile Train has far outpaced Operation Smile in raising money. According to tax reports for the fiscal year ending June 30, 2009, Smile Train pulled in $92 million in revenue, compared with Operation Smile's $33 million.
Operation Smile, which works in 60 countries, employs 115 people, which Unger said would probably remain the same. Tax records for Smile Train showed 43 employees worked for the charity in 2009.
Operation Smile broke ground in Virginia Beach in September on a new headquarters, due to be completed in 2012. The merger will not affect the move from Norfolk to Virginia Beach.
In recent years, Mullaney had tried to "bury the hatchet" with William Magee and had sent donations to the organization, but the contributions were turned down.
Smile Train board member Mark Atkinson said Mullaney had differences with Wang last year and stepped down from his position of chief executive in October, but he continued to be a board member.
Atkinson said the proposal to merge the two organizations came up quickly, with board members getting information about it only last week. He said he voted against it, along with Mullaney and one other board member, because he felt the move was made too hastily. He also questioned why Operation Smile kept so much administrative control.
He said he respects both organizations but questioned how money donated to one could rightly be spent by the other, particularly since Smile Train's resources are so much larger than Operation Smile's. "I think it's going...
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