It's All in a Name -- or Not
Lately, for whatever reason, I’ve been hearing and noticing conversations about the names of nonprofit organizations. I’m not sure why there is so much of this now, but it might be that we’re all getting into our stride since the WHO declared the pandemic “emergency” over. Alternatively, maybe it’s because PPP funding has ended and organizations now have to survive without that kind of outside assistance.
Whatever the reason is, it’s definitely a topic of conversation at the moment.
Here are a few observations relative to that:
From a donor’s point of view, solicitations from nonprofits whose work isn’t the “emergency” kind are now coming much more often than they came in the last few years. When these solicitations arrive, many of them seem to obscure the mission of the organization, which can make a reader think that those nonprofits are disguising who they are or what they do. I don’t believe that’s by design, but the result is real. For example, some organizations’ names are only initials, which is fine when there’s a tagline or subheading that concisely describes what the organization does. Without that, though, I (and most donors) will usually hit the “delete” button or, with snail mail, toss the mailing into the “circular file”, only because we don’t know what the organization does.
I suppose there are a handful of successful, compelling nonprofits whose names (in initials) have become synonymous with a certain mission, but I don’t think there are many. Also, we need to remember that even with the nonprofits whose names are ubiquitous, younger donors might not be familiar with them.
Some organizations — especially some legacy organizations — have names that don’t relate to today’s culture. These names might even be off-putting or even offensive to people reading them with 21st century eyes and sensibilities. There’s a good article here about nonprofit organization names, and what makes a successful one. (If you want a quick chuckle, here are a few examples of names that worked in the last century — and were so egregious by today’s standards that they had to be changed.)
With a for-profit business, it’s difficult and costly to change a product or brand name. Nonprofits, though, typically think differently about this than for-profits, and if there is a big donor who loves the “old” name, some nonprofits will just keep the less-than-optimal name so as to not lose that donor. It’s the same as when an organization continues an annual event that doesn’t make money because of the concern about upsetting or offending a long-time donor. If that donor brings in enough money to sustain the organization, then great, but realize that you might be turning off an entire generation of new donors by doing so. Keeping those legacy names and events when they clearly don’t help sustain your organization is just a bad idea.
I just learned about another organization — one that will soon have its 100th “birthday” — whose leadership recognized that their name itself was limiting their reach. Nor did it match the work that they were actually doing day in and day out. It’s got to be difficult to tell people all day long that they should not assume that the work an organization does doesn’t really relate to the organization’s name. It’s also unfair to the staff who have to deal with clients and donors who feel disconnected from the mission because of the name.
Was it hard for the leadership of this nonprofit to make a name change? Did they have to worry about upsetting long-time donors? Yes and yes. But, talking to the head of this nonprofit on the “other side” of the name change operation, it was more than worth it. Kudos to them for being brave and doing the right thing. If I, as a donor, noticed that the name of the organization I was giving to wasn’t descriptive of what the organization actually did, I would likely stop giving to that nonprofit — and I’d find another one that felt more authentic.
Another current example of an organization’s name becoming an issue is when a nonprofit merges — or is subsumed by — another. I’m a big fan of mergers of nonprofits, especially when there are so many similar organizations fighting for funding from people like me.
If I can’t understand the difference between two nonprofits who appear to do the same thing, I will either (a) be infuriated and stop funding that cause, or (b) suggest strongly that they explore a merger. As I discuss often in my book, one of my first questions when I meet a fundraiser from an organization I’m not familiar with is “who are your competitors?” or “who are the other organizations that do what you do?” Usually I have some sense of the answer before I ask it, and if the person soliciting me says “oh, we don’t have any competition”, and I know that there are at least 2 others, I will graciously end the meeting and be done with that organization altogether. Why? Because the fundraiser is either not telling me the truth (and maybe assuming that I’m not paying that close attention), or the fundraiser is uninformed and shouldn’t be on the front line meeting with prospective major donors. If the fundraiser is that uninformed, I’ll blame the organization’s leadership.
Some nonprofits will explore or strongly consider mergers with similar organizations, and kudos to them. Many of these mergers “line up” well and will clearly make the organization more sustainable while putting them in a position to increase their impact. Sadly, some of them get waylaid along with way because of the need to change the organization’s name. (More common, though, is pushback from a few board members whose resistance to change is stronger than their desire for “the greater good”.) For those that get stuck on the name issue, I say ask your donors if they care. Two organizations that I work with have changed their name in the recent past, and both have added a tagline to their new brand name that says “formerly known as xxx”. That works beautifully, and if you have a donor who gets so hung up on the name that they don’t want to support you anymore, let them go. Change happens, and change is part of life. We can’t stop working towards our mission (and we shouldn’t) because of any one donor.
With nonprofits, clarity of mission is critical. If your name confuses that, you should take a hard look at how to solve that problem. Maybe it’ll take a name change, or perhaps it can be solved with a tagline or even an image. The point is to make sure that people you solicit (by whatever means) need to know instantly what your organization is and does. You’ll be glad you did.
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