November 17, 2019
Nail Down Your Strategy Before a Name Change

By Michele Levy

Michele Levy
Changing your organization’s name is time consuming and expensive, yet more Massachusetts nonprofits are considering it, either as a result of strategic alliances, which may make sense, or in response to the pressures of the economy, which may not make as much sense.

Before you start doodling names on a napkin, consider the critical steps in the process of deciding whether to change the name at all.

First, examine your motive. There are certainly compelling reasons to change your name. For instance, an organization that has outgrown its name in terms of mission, served population, or geography should consider updating its name to better reflect its scope.
  • The Society for the Preservation of New England Antiquities became Historic New England as part of a strategic initiative to “become a more public institution.”

  • Framingham Historical Society and Museum became Framingham History Center, setting the stage for an evolution of the brand.

Sometimes organizations change their names because of the negative publicity associated with a name or because of confusion between two organizations with very similar names. Big Sister Association of Greater Boston, Inc and Big Brother Big Sisters of Massachusetts Bay have long tried to establish their own brands in spite of the confusion caused by their similar names.

And there are those cases where a bad name was chosen at some point in the past and the organization needs to correct the situation before it embarks on a period of growth. Before the momentum starts to build around a name change (after all, it is fun to think about a new name), confirm that your leadership and board are completely aligned around valid strategic reasons for the change.

Make sure you are fixing the right problem. More than one board member has commented, ”You know, we don’t really have a naming problem. We have a marketing problem.” Changing your name will not create broader awareness, build your donor base, help create alternative revenue streams, or fix mistaken perceptions. Changing your name can be the very visible first step in addressing any of these challenges: a “ta da” to grab people’s attention. But very few will truly care that you’ve changed your name.

Unless the change is part of an integrated communications plan, you will be sorely disappointed when your audiences shrug their shoulders and say “so what?” If the problem really is one of marketing, the organization will be much better served by taking the resources set aside for the name change and putting them into an integrated marketing communications program.

Be Sure You Have a Problem

By the way, make sure you really have a problem. Sometimes organizations obsess over what they consider to be huge liabilities of their current name. When they do research with external stakeholders, however, they find that those supposedly negative aspects of the name don’t even register with the outside world.

Balance the potential benefits against the many risks associated with a name change. In addition to the risk of choosing the wrong name (another topic in itself!), there are two primary (and related) risks: alienation and confusion. You will always have supporters wedded to your name. The older the organization, the larger that group, and the more deeply rooted their loyalty to the current name. These key stakeholders must be considered, and in fact engaged, in any name change process (through focus groups and interviews). Ultimately, you may go against their wishes and change the name. But because you listened, they may be more inclined to support the change. And even if they are not, you are that much better equipped to help them see and accept the rationale. I will never forget the longstanding trustee who said, “Young lady, you change the name of this organization, and I’ll change my will.” We did... and he didn’t.

If you’re still inclined to embark on the adventure of changing your name, then do it well.

Naming Follows Strategy

Naming, like logo design, can be highly subjective. Your goal is to infuse as much objectivity into the process as possible. Therefore, you can’t work on your name until you know where you are going (strategic plan) and how you want to present yourself in the marketplace (brand strategy). All decisions around naming should be grounded in these two foundational elements.

Involve the right people from the beginning, but don’t choose your name by committee. There are those stories about organizations holding a contest in which employees submit names, but they generally don’t result in the most powerful (nor the most strategic or brand-appropriate) names. Have a small committee, ideally with representation from leadership, the board, and perhaps a couple of other key inner circle stakeholders. Consider engaging someone experienced with naming. There is both an art and a science to naming and you’ll generally save time (and perhaps money) by having a guide. You will also need a lawyer to make sure the name is yours to use and to trademark it.

Finally, before you come up with a set of new names, consider whether there’s an opportunity to evolve your current name. Take a cue from for-profits and other nonprofits. Federal Express did not risk much by going to FedEx, and the shortened name made it easier to introduce a set of service sub-brands (FedEx Express, FedEx Ground, FedEx Home Delivery). In these rocky economic times, evolution may be the most effective naming strategy of all.

Michele Levy is a specialist in brand strategy and communications planning for nonprofits. She can be reached at 617-645-6672 or

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