Charity name-change usually leads to fundraising disaster

The most self-destructive, revenue-killing act nonprofit organizations can make is one a lot of them are tempted to do: A name change.

Typically, a name change hurts fundraising. Sometimes catastrophically.

Cascade Land Conservancy, a venerable and much-liked environmental organization headquartered in Seattle, changed its name to Forterra.

No, that is not a typo. Yes, it does sound like a new erectile dysfunction drug.

And yes, it’s likely to be a fundraising disaster.

The reasoning for the change is given in the press release. It seems the Cascade Land Conservancy opened an office in a county that has no actual Cascade Mountains in it. That and the fact that they have many programs that are not located in or on those mountains unleashed the dreaded “our name limits us” virus.

That’s what explains statement like these that appear in the organization’s literature about the virtues of the new name:


  • “a testament to our organization’s continued dedication to the region”
  • “represents our holistic approach to land conservation”
  • “leaves us room to continue evolving to serve the needs of this dynamic region”

And then, the icing on the cake — here’s what the branding expert whose company visited this disaster on the organization, pro bono, had to say:

Simply stated, Forterra means they are for the earth. It is an open vessel that allows them to continue to adapt to the needs of the community and effectively advance their important and broad mission.

Ah, the old “open vessel” gambit, used to explain something that’s meaningless: Don’t worry about the fact that it’s meaningless; it can mean anything!

Problem is, it actually means nothing.

Forterra

Just in case there was any doubt that this is an ill-conceived and poorly executed project, take a look at the new logo. It makes the confusing name even more confusing.

That “E” is actually a fancy ampersand. Which makes it look like the name isn’t the somewhat nonsensical Forterra, but the completely wacko FORT & RRA.

If the good people at Cascade Land Conservancy/Forterra were listening to me (they aren’t), here’s what I’d tell them: It’s not too late to escape the disaster. You can go back. Hardly anyone knows you’ve changed your name, so embarrassment and cost of switching back will be low. A lot lower than the revenue crash that awaits if you stay this silly course.

And for those considering a name change: Think twice before you do it. It will probably not go well, no matter what the pro-bono experts tell you.


Comments

12 responses to “Charity name-change usually leads to fundraising disaster”

  1. Gee, Jeff, tell us how you really feel.
    I hear what you are saying, but I am wondering what you would advise Second Mile in the wake of the Jerry Sandusky mess at Penn State… should they just close their doors, keep their name, or do a name change? How would you handle something like that?
    And when WOULD you advise a name change (if at all).

  2. Gee, Jeff, tell us how you really feel.
    I hear what you are saying, but I am wondering what you would advise Second Mile in the wake of the Jerry Sandusky mess at Penn State… should they just close their doors, keep their name, or do a name change? How would you handle something like that?
    And when WOULD you advise a name change (if at all).

  3. I love this example, Jeff! What a disaster indeed! Something similar happened at Elderhostel (a beloved name if there ever was one) when they changed it to Exploritas (I think that’s what it was). That name disappeared quietly and now the basic organizational name is Elderhostel with a new program called Road Scholars. The Road Scholars name does appeal to a younger generation of older people (does that make sense?) so I do think it works. It’s also easy to understand and is appealing. Another problem is when there are several names, some referring to programs that are subsidiary to the primary name. Lots of confusion can ensue.

  4. I love this example, Jeff! What a disaster indeed! Something similar happened at Elderhostel (a beloved name if there ever was one) when they changed it to Exploritas (I think that’s what it was). That name disappeared quietly and now the basic organizational name is Elderhostel with a new program called Road Scholars. The Road Scholars name does appeal to a younger generation of older people (does that make sense?) so I do think it works. It’s also easy to understand and is appealing. Another problem is when there are several names, some referring to programs that are subsidiary to the primary name. Lots of confusion can ensue.

  5. A case like Second Mile’s might be one where a name change would be smart. It may be better for everyone to not know who you are when something that terrible has happened.
    Another case that sometimes happens is that a disease starts being known by a different name (diphtheria used to be called putrid fever), and a charity has to change.
    I think Joanne’s example is a smarter way for a charity to handle a widening mission: Give new programs cool names.

  6. A case like Second Mile’s might be one where a name change would be smart. It may be better for everyone to not know who you are when something that terrible has happened.
    Another case that sometimes happens is that a disease starts being known by a different name (diphtheria used to be called putrid fever), and a charity has to change.
    I think Joanne’s example is a smarter way for a charity to handle a widening mission: Give new programs cool names.

  7. Great insight… thanks for the follow up, Jeff!

  8. Great insight… thanks for the follow up, Jeff!

  9. Although I am on your side with this, what about when your name truly does limit you? (Or do you think that never happens, and the organization is experiencing mission creep if they go outside their name?)
    For instance ABC Charity of Smithville, what if they are now wanting to expand programs to Jonesville? Are you ok with a name change to ABC Charity of Smithville and Jonesville?
    I’m intrigued and curious with your thoughts…

  10. Although I am on your side with this, what about when your name truly does limit you? (Or do you think that never happens, and the organization is experiencing mission creep if they go outside their name?)
    For instance ABC Charity of Smithville, what if they are now wanting to expand programs to Jonesville? Are you ok with a name change to ABC Charity of Smithville and Jonesville?
    I’m intrigued and curious with your thoughts…

  11. Oh my gosh. Thank you so much for this post. I see it everywhere these days. Non-profits with names that tell actually you something about what they do switching to flowery names that could be anything. Your example is a perfect one! It drives me crazy, and the idea of a non-profit *paying* someone to do this makes me even crazier.

  12. Oh my gosh. Thank you so much for this post. I see it everywhere these days. Non-profits with names that tell actually you something about what they do switching to flowery names that could be anything. Your example is a perfect one! It drives me crazy, and the idea of a non-profit *paying* someone to do this makes me even crazier.

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The future of fundraising is not about social media, online video, or SEM. It’s not about any technology, medium, or technique. It’s about donors. If you need to raise funds from donors, you need to study them, respect them, and build everything you do around them. And the future? It’s already here. More.

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Jeff BrooksJeff Brooks has been serving the nonprofit community for more than 35 years and blogging about it since 2005. He considers fundraising the most noble of pursuits and hopes you’ll join him in that opinion. You can reach him at jeff [at] jeff-brooks [dot] com. More.


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The future of fundraising is not about social media, online video, or SEM. It’s not about any technology, medium, or technique. It’s about donors. If you need to raise funds from donors, you need to study them, respect them, and build everything you do around them. And the future? It’s already here. More.

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Jeff Brooks has been serving the nonprofit community for more than 30 years and blogging about it since 2005. He considers fundraising the most noble of pursuits and hopes you’ll join him in that opinion. You can reach him at jeff [at] jeff-brooks [dot] com.

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