What's in a Name? Just about Everything!

April 2011

“The name of our organization is too long, too hard to remember and doesn’t reflect what we do.” Or …

“Our name is too similar to that of a local competitor’s, which confuses folks, including our clients and donors.” Or …

“The name of our organization is Atlantic County Human Services. Over the years we’ve expanded to provide services to people in adjacent Pacific County, but because of our name we’re finding it challenging to raise funds there.” Or …

“Our name can be misconstrued to imply that we limit our services to people of a certain religion or segment of the population when in reality we offer our services to anyone in need.”

Regardless of the reason(s), getting everyone in the organization to come to consensus on, then rebranding to, a new name is one of the hardest things an organization can undertake. I had one executive director tell me that the 12 months it took her to get her organization to change and rebrand to a new name was her “year from hell!”

Yet, as noted above, there are many good reasons for wanting to change an organization’s name. For those considering the task, here are just some of the things you’ll need to consider:

Do your research
Do you know for a fact that your organization’s name is a problem, or is it simply an assumption on the part of staff?

And have you asked the right questions of the right people—namely your donors, clients, partners, and others—and gotten their perspectives on your organization’s current name?

For example, how much brand equity—namely, how much name recognition and value, do your target audiences place in your current name, and how will they react to your organization changing it?

Get your board’s buy-in
Assuming there is good reason for a name change, is your board agreeable to the idea?

Many board members, especially those who were around when the organization was founded, may resist the change. For them it’s a deep-seated ownership issue. “This is our baby and we’re not going to change anything!”

Fact is, you’re going to need board approval for a name change. That’s why it’s important that your research produce objective, hard evidence that a name change is necessary for the ongoing sustainability of the organization.

Think creatively
Once your organization is in agreement that a name change is necessary, do you need to change to an entirely different name, or can your organization maintain its identity by simply using its acronym?

For example, realizing that its acronym had lots of brand equity, the once-named American Association of Retired Persons now legally does business solely as AARP.

Doing so essentially accomplished several things for AARP: (1) without having to go through an overly massive marketing, advertising, and PR campaign, the organization was able to maintain its basic identity, because many people were already informally referring to the organization as AARP; (2) AARP is a lot easier to remember and less of a mouthful than the original name; and (3) the acronym eliminates the word “Retired,” a good thing for AARP, since it offers many of its programs, services, and products to members who have yet to enter into retirement.

National Public Radio is another example of an organization that realized it could do business as its acronym, NPR.

If you’re interested in this strategy, do the research to determine how well your target audiences would accept changing your organization’s name to your acronym. Since some acronyms are better than others, this is probably not an option for every organization, but it’s worth exploring.

Avoid using geographic locations in your name
Because people identify with, and are often loyal to, the names of places in which they live and work, using a place location—such as a neighborhood, city, county, or state—in your name may seem like a good idea at the moment.

If, however, over time your organization expands its base of operations to include other locales, its name may ultimately limit its ability to raise funds in these new areas of operation and make it difficult for the residents of those areas to identify closely with the organization.

My advice: Unless it is absolutely, unequivocally necessary to use a specific geographic location in your name, don’t! It may save you a lot of hassles—and money—years from now.

Budget accordingly
When you take on a name change, everything from logos to business cards to stationery to signage needs to be redesigned, reprinted and reproduced. This can turn into quite an expense, especially for organizations with lots of employees and multiple sites.

You also will need to budget in the additional marketing and promotional costs necessary to get your target audiences acquainted with your new name.

Finally, make sure it’s your name that needs changing
If you’re changing your name because the organization is having a difficult time overcoming bad publicity or a bad image problem due to mismanagement or malfeasance on its part, think again. It may be that the organization needs to change, not its name.

Larry Checco, Checco Communications
© 2011, Checco Communications

Larry Checco is president of Checco Communications and author of Branding for Success: A Roadmap for Raising the Visibility and Value of Your Nonprofit Organization. Larry is a nationally recognized public speaker, workshop presenter, and consultant on branding.

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