The surprising perils of changing your organization’s name

One of the most dangerous shiny objects that tempt nonprofit leaders to make destructive mistakes is the organizational name-change — often accompanied (and made worse) by “rebranding.”

A recent article in the New York Times looked at some nonprofit name changes: Nonprofits, Aiming for Relevance, Try On New Names.

The article captures what I think is the problem with many nonprofit name changes:

A catchy name that succinctly captures a group’s mission can be a vital fundraising tool at a time when even the smallest of organizations are just a Kickstarter campaign away from reaching millions of potential donors.

It’s that belief — an irrational belief — that we can do something simple that will bring in “millions of potential donors.” It doesn’t work that way. The only way you can count on getting millions of donors is to invest, then do a thousand things right for a long time.

There’s no magic wand. And changing your name is far more likely to hurt you than help.

The Times article looked at several name changes that are worth commenting on:


  • The Council of Senior Centers and Services of New York City Inc. changed its name to LiveOn NY. The old name was a mouthful for sure. But at least it was clear who they served. Now they’re saddled with an abstraction that needs explanation every time it’s used. Big mistake. Simplifying the old name would have been a lot smarter.
  • Common Ground changed its name to Breaking Ground. When the new name is still recognizable, bad things usually don’t happen. That may be the case with this change.
  • For the Federation of Protestant Welfare Agencies changed to FPWA. Organizations often decide to go by their initials to avoid specificity. Untrained branding experts seem to believe abstraction is inspiring. (It isn’t.) In this case, though, the specificity they’re avoiding is a legacy name that probably made sense 80 years ago — but now raises more questions than it answers.
  • Community FoodBank of New Jersey didn’t change its name. Which is smart. Donors (and clients) know what a food bank is. If that fact that you’re “more than a food bank” leads you to call yourself something that nobody has heard of — you’ll lose donors. The good folks in New Jersey resisted the temptation. Good for them.

Not all name changes are bad. Some are necessary. Some are good. If you’re thinking about a name change. Remember these things:


  • No name change is going to make money rain down on your head.
  • A change that makes your organization unrecognizable will probably cost you a lot of donors.
  • If your name goes from something specific to something clever and abstract, you’ll probably lose even more donors.
  • Even a good change can cost you, because you lose brand equity.


Comments

4 responses to “The surprising perils of changing your organization’s name”

  1. We fought off one of these branding-inspired name changes once. Glad we won, because the organization has a wonderful reputation and the name makes sense. But oh, how the outside “experts” pushed!

  2. We fought off one of these branding-inspired name changes once. Glad we won, because the organization has a wonderful reputation and the name makes sense. But oh, how the outside “experts” pushed!

  3. A prior ED changed the common name of a 20 year old non-profit. To this day, 12 years after the change, there is huge confusion about who we are. At almost all presentations I start out by acknowledging that what you know us as depends on when you first heard of us. Grrrrr.

  4. A prior ED changed the common name of a 20 year old non-profit. To this day, 12 years after the change, there is huge confusion about who we are. At almost all presentations I start out by acknowledging that what you know us as depends on when you first heard of us. Grrrrr.

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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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