Sophie W. Penney, PhD
Changing Your Nonprofit's Name and Maybe Even Its Brand
Is it time to change your nonprofit’s name and maybe even its brand?
“I’m a fundraiser,” you say. “I have enough on my plate. I’ll leave this question to the marketing staff.”
Yet, consider this scenario:
Your executive director tells you in your regular meeting that after months of discussion with volunteers, focus groups (some of which included key donors), and board discussions your organization is changing its name. Yes, after having the same, well-recognized and respected name (not to mention the positive reputation to go with it) the board has decided that it’s time for a change.
The executive director says that your nonprofit’s name isn’t inclusive or welcoming to all those who your organization can and might serve. What’s more, focus group members didn’t believe that the name makes it clear what your organization sets out to accomplish, nor is it particularly compelling.
You are flabbergasted; you have spent years building fundraising materials around the organization’s name. Yes, it’s been difficult at times to communicate about your mission and vision, but you’re a facile and creative writer and have done your best. You often visit with donors in person so are able to explain in greater depth information about the life-saving work your organization does. What’s more, you’ve already started to develop fundraising materials and messaging for this fiscal year.
You wonder out loud: “How could I have been left out of a series of such important conversations? Didn’t anyone think that this change might have a significant impact on fundraising?”
The executive director responds by saying, “Don’t you recall me mentioning to you last year a concern about how our agency is perceived in the community? I seem to recall you said, ‘I’ll leave that to the marketing department.’”
You vaguely remember the conversation and ruminate on it on the way back to your office. Once there, you dedicate yourself to a new goal for this fiscal year: to learn more about marketing. And branding, because that’s on the table with the name change.
This scenario might sound a bit far-fetched, but as a consultant I have found myself working with not one, but two, clients that are renaming and rebranding. These relationships were originally focused on fundraising, but a clear need arose on the part of both organizations to consider a name change and rebranding.
One nonprofit has been serving its region for nearly forty years and the other for eighty, and the names of both are well known. One nonprofit was, as noted in a recently completed community survey, very positively perceived. The other has had its share of challenges but is moving beyond those challenges and continues to engage in life-changing and saving work. Both decided, for different reasons, to rename and rebrand.
In the case of the first nonprofit, I found myself knee-deep in the process, taking part in designing questions for focus groups and leading those groups, then writing the final report. Here is some of what I learned:
A Name Is Not a Brand. A Brand Is Not a Name.
While a name and a brand are integrally connected, a name is not a brand, and a brand is not a name. A name is, in the best of all worlds, clear and descriptive of what your nonprofit does and/or who you might serve. A name in and of itself can share a vision or paint a picture of what a nonprofit seeks to achieve. Here are just a few examples:
- African American Preservation Foundation
- Battered Women’s Justice Project
- Habitat for Humanity
- Leukemia & Lymphoma Society
- St. Jude’s Children’s Hospital
A Brand Is Less Tangible than a Name
A brand is less tangible than a name. It relates to the perceptions and feelings that a person has about your organization. I would describe a brand as being more akin to an ethos or the spirit or character of your nonprofit. Here are two examples from the above list:
Habitat for Humanity – The name says it – Habitat is about housing people. Even if you don’t know precisely how it achieves the goal, if you are interested in humanity and in housing, this name piques your interest. Most likely, if you know anything about Habitat you probably also experience warm and positive feelings when you hear this name – that’s the brand at work.
St. Jude’s Children’s Research Hospital – The name clearly tells you that St. Jude’s is a children’s hospital and it does research. What the name does not tell you are specifics. However, a quick visit to the website offers a tagline, if you scroll to near the bottom, what I consider to be the brand message: “Finding cures. Saving lives.” Also highlighted are links such as: Treating the Toughest Cases, Advancing Cures, and Reaching the World (at the organization’s Reaching the World page you will find an extended tagline Finding cures. Saving lives. Everywhere.). These lines not only tell the story of what is done , they also reinforce a brand perception – these experts doing important work by applying their skills and knowledge to save the lives of children around the world (grab a tissue!).
Five Key Points When Rebranding Your Nonprofit Organization
Now that we’ve focused on what’s in a name and in a brand, what are some key points to keep in mind before entering into a name change or when rebranding? Here are five that I learned over the past year:
Take Your Time
As Stephanie Swain says in her 2015 blog post, How to Build Support for a New Name, “changing your name is a huge undertaking.”
Indeed! In the case of the client I mentioned above, the process unfolded over a year’s time.
Swain adds, and I agree based on my own experience, that changing the organization’s name “is not without risk.” It’s critical to consider the thoughts of founders, early board members, volunteers, donors, staff, the clients you serve, and the broader community (including other nonprofits). You might not discover until you begin the process just how strongly some people feel about the name of your nonprofit.
Engage Others in the Process
We need to engage the types of stakeholders just mentioned in “Tread Lightly.” Focus groups can provide an excellent opportunity to hear from a wide range of donors and prospective donors, from the long-time loyal contributor to the millennial who just discovered you a few years ago. Consider having a naming and/or branding task force.
Rip off the Bandage
These were the words of a marketing expert with many decades of experience working with college and university campaigns. Yes, you may have to use “formally known as” for a year or so following a change, but avoid changing only a tagline then changing the organization name a year later. A name change will already require exceptional communication with all stakeholders and the broader community; it is also costly to purchase everything from stationary to URLs (don’t forget those all-important URLs!), so best to change, change, change at one time.
How and When You Change the Name Matters
Hooray, you’ve identified the new name. Now what?
Give thought to when, where, how, and with whom you will announce the change. I agree with Swain that a six-month timeline with specific steps to be taken to implement the change makes sense.
As a fundraiser, consider when and how you will announce the change to donors. For major and planned giving donors, even some long-time loyal donors who have not yet made a major or planned gift, a personal visit will be necessary and will prove your best approach. For another group, an event at which you announce and celebrate the change could prove a wonderful opportunity to build a stronger, deeper relationship with donors. Don’t forget the press, which can be your friend and prove quite helpful with spreading the word.
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