Should you rename your nonprofit?
Farra Trompeter, Big Duck’s Vice President, and Dan Gunderman, Big Duck’s Creative Director, have successfully facilitated many nonprofit name changes throughout the years. In this episode, they discuss reasons why more nonprofits are changing their names, what it takes, and lessons they’ve learned that may help organizations thinking about evolving—or radically changing—their name.
Sarah Durham: If you’ve been listening to the Smart Communications podcast for a while, you probably know my guests today.
Dan Gunderman has been Big Duck’s creative director for over a dozen years. Hi, Dan.
Dan Gunderman: Hello.
Sarah Durham: And Farra Trompeter has been our vice president for about a dozen years too.
Farra Trompeter: It’s true. Hello.
Sarah Durham: So I’ve recorded several podcasts with both of them on a number of topics, and I brought them here today to talk about organization names because we’ve noticed a trend lately. More and more nonprofits seem to be changing their names. Sometimes they radically change their names, sometimes it’s a subtle shift. But this is something that rarely used to come up, and now it seems to be coming up all the time.
So if your organization is debating changing its name or embarking on a name change process, we’re going to unpack some of the key issues today that we think you might want to factor in. So let’s dig in.
First, just to kick us off, Farra, why do you think organizations are changing their names? What’s the reason to do that?
Farra Trompeter: Well, it’s funny, Dan will be the first one to say this, but a name change is probably the hardest thing you could do. But it has come up more and more lately because I think organizations are realizing that their name is no longer accurately identifying them. And that’s really the number one job of a name is to really say who you are and make sure it is not including any inaccuracies or information that’s no longer the case.
Many organizations—especially ones that are 20, 50, 100 years old—were named at a time when the language we used to describe ourselves, the services we provided, the population we served, was different. So particularly organizations that have very specific names—again, mention a specific region that they’re in, a group of people they’re serving, a type of service—often have found themselves now questioning should we change our name, when either what we do now is no longer the case or our strategic plan is calling for us to expand or grow in different ways.
Sarah Durham: And in a rebrand, we find that if an organization is serious about changing its name, that exploration or that decision really has to happen first. So many things pivot on that. So that’s a really important issue to tackle up front. You don’t want to kick it downstream too much and then end up with too much baggage.
Sarah Durham: So Dan, as a writer, when you are working with an organization that’s thinking about changing its name, where do you begin or how do you begin to categorize the types of names that are out there that an organization may want to think about?
Dan Gunderman: The first thing I usually do is ask them to question their assumption about whether they should change their name because it is such a hard process and because they have to get so much buy-in. The first thing that they should really be doing is laying the groundwork with their board, for sure, I mean this is a governance issue when you’re changing your name. But also just making sure that any major stakeholders are on board with the name change, because it’s a big process and it’s a big change and people get very emotional about it, which makes all kinds of sense.
Creatively, people approach this stuff a little bit differently. Usually we will start with the brand strategy. Certainly positioning and personality is a starting point for us, creatively, when we’re looking at things. We group some ideas together, we think about themes that are related to the organization. We find that we end up with a few categories of names in the end.
There is a very straightforward descriptive name. I’m actually a big fan of this kind of name, and any name that does the heavy lifting for communicating what you do or why you exist, I think is a positive. So for a descriptive name, I think about the Atlanta Community Food Bank in Atlanta. It says exactly what they do and it just does a lot of the work for them, which is really useful.
Another category is metaphorical names. I sometimes think about The Tides Foundation as a metaphorical name. Using the metaphor of a tide raising all boats becomes their name, and it’s a very useful metaphor for them. We also worked with an organization that we named Wayfinder Family Services, and wayfinding being a way of directing people through their lives at any step along their journey became the metaphor that we used to tell that story.
There are a lot of organizations that do combination names, or basically take two words together and mash them into one word. I think that may be called a portmanteau or something like that, in fancy parlance. But like Americares is a good example of that, where you just take two words, mush them together, and hope it comes up with something new.
Sarah Durham: Brandraising.
Dan Gunderman: Brandraising.
Farra Trompeter: Or the Brangelina of naming.
Dan Gunderman: They are the Brangelina of naming, or the Filliam H. Muffman of names.
There are origin-based names. These are often organizations that are named for someone. Family foundations are usually named for someone, or an organization like the Guttmacher Institute or Susan G. Komen. These are origin-based names. I actually think of Big Duck as an origin-based name, just because of the story behind Big Duck, which I don’t know if one of you wants to tell it quickly, because you can.
Sarah Durham: So Big Duck was started in 1994. I started it at a time when there were a lot of agencies with these wacky names like Mad Dogs and Englishmen and things like that, and I knew I wanted a personality that was creative and fun and playful. But the origin story was that I was leaving Disney consumer products, where I’d worked on Mickey, Minnie, Donald, Daisy, Goofy, and Pluto and brand variables with those standard Disney characters. The Big Duck piece was kind of a nod to my roots in corporate branding.
Dan Gunderman: Right. So the mice, the ducks and the dogs. So I think of Big Duck as an origin-based name. It’s a little unusual in that way.
Farra Trompeter: Although I will push you. Big Duck, I would say, is more of an evocative name. I think people hear it and they’re like, “What’s Big Duck?”
I can’t tell you the number of times I go to a conference, people see Big Duck on my name tag and ask me what Big Duck is, which gives me a setup to say our great story about our name but also lets me explain the value of a tagline and that with an evocative name—I think an example we often use is Kaboom, which is about building playgrounds—with an evocative name like Big Duck, having a tagline like “Smart communications for nonprofits” helps pay it off.
Sarah Durham: Right. So there’s this interesting trade off we see pretty much in all the work we do where we’re either working on a renaming or a tagline where the name and the tagline balance each other out. So a very descriptive or literal organization name can really benefit from a more metaphoric or aspirational or emotive tagline and vice versa.
Dan Gunderman: Yeah. That’s right.
Sarah Durham: Okay, so in a name change, there are lots of ways you can go. If your organization’s been around for a while and it’s got some real history, as we’ve mentioned, changing your name is super hard to do, and many organizations want to approach it pretty conservatively. But Farra, what does the spectrum of options look like for a nonprofit?
Farra Trompeter: Sure. At the simplest, we often talk about making no change, making an evolution, and then a revolution. And that oftentimes the type of change you can explore, it can be along that spectrum. And for some organizations we actually start by exploring all types, because they’re not sure where they want to go. Others say from the bat what they’re really looking for. Or again, because of the elements of their current name and why it might need to change, sometimes you have to do something like a revolution, again, where that name no longer makes sense.
Sarah Durham: So let’s dig in to these by degrees, and let’s start with some evolutions. What are some examples of organizations that have evolved their name in somewhat subtle ways?
Dan Gunderman: The first one that comes to mind is a recent client we just worked with, The Center for Community Change, and they changed their name to Community Change. They just took off “center.” These small things sound like not much, but they make a profound difference for the organizations. There was a lot of debate internally about whether that was going to be a good decision for them. Ultimately they decided it was. I think we were certainly supportive of that decision. So even a small evolution can cause a lot of drama, potentially.
Sarah Durham: And the Center for Community Change falls into a category we see quite a bit, which is an organization that basically drops a chunk of its name. They didn’t radically change their name, they eliminated something that was there. We also saw that with Corporate Accountability International becoming Corporate Accountability. It’s a shift towards a bolder, more declarative kind of ownership, more action-oriented name that effectively just drops some of the words that feel more institutional.
Farra Trompeter: And what’s been great in both of those cases: the organizations have rolled those names out by saying, “Our name is really our purpose.” And the name now becomes shorthand for explaining who they are and what they do.
Sarah Durham: And that was also the case for the Colorectal Cancer Coalition, who became Fight CRC. It’s kind of this exciting call to action. I almost want to raise my hand in the air and shake my fist. Similarly, Families of SMA, which is another rare disease, became Cure SMA. And those, I think, were both names that they used as URLs already.
Farra Trompeter: Exactly. So it was already an idea that was associated with both of them. And I think in both cases, not only were they phrases that were already associated with them as their URL, it made sense given the strategy. So in the case of Fight Colorectal Cancer, it was really clear as we were doing positioning work, they were the advocacy arm of the movement. In the case of Families of SMA going to Cure SMA, their strategy was calling for them to reach beyond the families and get into the friends of the families in a wider network, and grow really the awareness of spinal muscular atrophy. So having a name that goes from Families of SMA to Cure SMA opens up a new group of people to get behind you and be part of your mission.
Sarah Durham: Yeah.
Dan Gunderman: And they felt like evolutions to those organizations because that URL was already part of their identity, and it felt like a natural evolution to move to that.
Sarah Durham: Yeah. And one of the trickiest parts in the renaming we have found is actually the URL and social media. A lot of organizations have a great idea or word they love, but when you start to do the searches for the URLs and the social avatars and things like that, you find you just can’t actually get the words you want. So looking at your URL can be a great place to start.
Another big evolution we’re seeing a lot of, and I’m frankly a little bit ambivalent about, is the shift towards acronyms. Can you give us a couple of examples of those?
Dan Gunderman: Sure. I think we’re all familiar with the ACLU, the NAACP, HIAS. These are just a couple off the top of my head examples, but I think with the possible exception of the ACLU, a lot of those organizations were—going back to what Farra was saying before about not wanting to use outdated language—they went to the acronym because it was an easy solution, avoiding some language that’s now considered outdated or insensitive or just not used anymore.
Sarah Durham: So it’s an interesting decision, because if you are the United Negro College Fund, you’re obviously going to want to move away from that name. But going to UNCF, in some ways, could be viewed as essentially punting the problem downstream. The good news is you’re leveraging the equity of that name, but the bad news is you’re not actually fully moving away from it. I might argue with organizations in that case, who have buried in their acronym a word that’s no longer appropriate to use, that they’re just going to have to tackle that downstream in another way.
Farra Trompeter: Although sometimes I think it’s a sort of in-between measure. Sometimes let’s go to our acronym for a few years, let’s elevate our tagline and how we talk about ourselves, and broaden people’s perception or shift people’s perception. And then eventually let’s go to a full name change because, as you know, a name change—not only there’s a lot of buy-in involved from both the staff and the board and other stakeholders—but also the expense of it. Especially if you’re a place that has a lot of brick and mortar institutions where there’s signage all over, or again, getting that URL is not possible, doing a more revolutionary name change is certainly the most expensive way to go.
Sarah Durham: Yeah, and I do really love in the UNCF example that they leveraged their tagline, “The mind is a terrible thing to waste,” which is arguably one of the best taglines that’s ever been written, to serve as that bridge. A lot of the equity from the past lives on in the tagline and might very well serve as the bridge to hopefully a new name in the future.
Dan Gunderman: I think I’m probably one of the more conservative members of the Big Duck team when it comes to making the decision to change your name, and I think that comes out of a couple of things. It comes out of the fact that I’m usually the one spearheading the process of finding what that name is, and I know how hard that can be. But also, I think that there are a lot of pragmatic reasons not to change your name, and only a few really good reasons to change your name. I always approach this every time with questioning the premise in the first place and making sure that you’re changing your name for all of the right reasons.
Farra Trompeter: So when there’s that lucky moment of Dan and I are working on a project together, you can imagine the debates.
Sarah Durham: And we’ve written a lot of really interesting—I think really interesting—articles, all of us, that we’ll link to in the show notes. Farra wrote one called Getting your new name right: Ensuring a successful organization renaming process. There’s a blog about that. Dan wrote one called What’s in a name: Some universal truths about renaming your organization. And I wrote one called Variables to consider when (re)naming your program.
Farra Trompeter: We also did a webinar about a year or so ago really breaking down these name change and ideas we’re talking about here. We also invited our guests from Reconstructing Judaism, which used to be The Reconstructionist Rabbinical College, and from Corporate Accountability, to talk about those names shifts.
Sarah Durham: The one other piece about acronyms I want to add before we talk about some of the other kinds of more revolutionary name changes, is that where acronyms can be successful is when you so much know what the acronym means—the acronym is already so loaded with information, that it works because you already have the answer in the acronym. So I actually would argue that ACLU is a good example of that. I think most people know what the ACLU stands for. They’ve got enough equity in that acronym that they can successfully rename as the acronym.
But generally, for most organizations, my feeling is that acronyms are insider speak and that they are really useful to shorthand something you’re close to or familiar with. But if most people externally don’t know what it stands for, it’s probably not going to do a lot to increase your visibility or awareness, and then you’re going to need a tagline and messaging and a lot of other aspects of your brand system to do a lot more heavy lifting to compensate for it.
Farra Trompeter: And one thing you can do, which I always love telling people, is go to the website acronymfinder.com and type in your acronym. Even if your acronym isn’t your primary name but it’s one you use a lot because perhaps you have a long name or it’s just something that everyone’s used to doing. And if you look up your acronym in acronymfinder.com, you might find that it stands for a lot of other things that you may or may not want to be associated with.
Sarah Durham: So let’s talk about some of the more revolutionary name changes. What’s an example of an organization that you can think of that has basically walked entirely away from its name and done something completely new?
Dan Gunderman: This isn’t an example of them walking totally away, but I mentioned Wayfinder before when we were talking about metaphorical names. They were an organization called Junior Blind and they have become this really large social service/human services organization in California. But they have this specialty, working with the visually impaired community. They didn’t completely want to walk away from that. But Junior Blind, they don’t just work with children. They don’t just work with blind people. It was a name that was misdirecting people.
They now actually have buckets for their programs, and Junior Blind is one of those buckets because they do still do a lot of work with visually impaired children, but they’ve become so much bigger than that. They wanted something that’s still nodded to that a little bit, which is how we landed on something like Wayfinder, because I think the idea that you’re finding a path or that you are being guided, I think there was something about the guide post idea that was really interesting to them.
So it’s a complete revolution to what their name was, but it still sort of touched on something that was important to them. There was even a program I think at UCLA where the people who help guide visually impaired students are called Wayfinders. So there was something there for them that was really meaningful that still hearkened back to their history and what they were especially good at.
Farra Trompeter: I think a lot about an organization that Dan and I had the pleasure of working with several years ago, which was called The Applied Research Center. The Applied Research Center was around for, I think, 20 or 30 years. They were often associated, but not always associated, with a publication they were behind called Color Lines. They have a great conference every two years called Facing Race. They were really leading a lot of both the thinking and the action that was happening along racial justice.
But if you hear Applied Research Center, you have no idea that’s what they work on. So as we developed their brand strategy and got clear about where they were going, we wound up coming up with several different kinds of name options. Ultimately, it was settled on becoming Race Forward: The Center for Racial Justice Innovation.
They recently actually merged with the Center for Social Inclusion, and as far as I know, they are keeping the name Race Forward. So this name change happened a few years ago but really has become rooted and really speaks to both who they are and where they’re trying to take this whole discussion around racial justice.
Sarah Durham: There are a couple of other contexts were renaming might be unavoidable. One of them is a merger, a merger where a new entity is potentially being formed and it doesn’t make sense to use the legacy name of one of the previous organizations. And another place where you almost always have to come up with a new name is when a program is spinning off and becoming its own institution, and the old programmatic name under the legacy organization no longer holds up.
In the case of a merger, we worked recently on a project for an organization that became known as Commonpoint Queens, which was the merger of the Samuel Fields Y and the Central Queens Y here in New York. And that’s also kind of an unusual coming together when you bring these two institutions, which might have legacy names or origin names, things like that, to navigate that.
Are there any other examples of mergers in the naming process?
Farra Trompeter: Yeah, I think about some work that we did a few years ago where five different networks of Jewish day schools that were connected through different denominations and approaches to Jewish day schools came together into one organization. So each of these five networks had their own name. It was clear that they were coming together to create something new. So it needed a brand new name, and we renamed it Prizmah: The Center for Jewish Day Schools.
So Prizmah is the primary name but we call it as a subname, or what often looks like a tagline in the visual application, Center for Jewish Day Schools. So you’ve got this pairing of a very evocative name that actually sounds a little bit Hebrew-ish but isn’t, speaks about a prism and things coming together and then forming a new thing, and then pairs with really descriptively what they are.
Sarah Durham: And we had an organization years ago that was called PDK International, and they had a program under that which was called …
Farra Trompeter: Future Educators of America.
Sarah Durham: Future Educators of America, which became Educators Rising as it spun off and developed. And actually there was a funny story about why they didn’t keep the name Future Educators of America.
Farra Trompeter: Yeah. This is an organization that was working primarily with high school students and trying to get them excited and engaged into becoming teachers. I did a webinar a few years ago with Ashley Kincaid, who used to work there, around brand personality. And as we talked about their rebrand, she shared a funny story where in essence their high school students didn’t want to wear the acronym— which they often use for Future Educators of America, FEA—on their shirts because, FEA is also fea, which is ugly in Spanish. So you can imagine a bunch of high school students do not want to wear that. So that’s another strike against acronyms.
Sarah Durham: Yeah, and also a good reminder that you have to really vet a name or a tagline for cultural competency from a lot of different angles.
So we’ve spent some time going through the range of options from an evolution to a revolution, thinking about mergers and spinoffs, all these variables that might inform the type of name you might create. Now let’s get in a little bit to the process of going through this renaming experience successfully. What are some of the lessons learned that you would hope organizations listening to this podcast would not suffer through as they tackle renaming?
Dan Gunderman: I think the first thing I would encourage people to know is that you will suffer through it. I say that a little bit glibly, but the truth is it’s a hard process, and it’s an emotional process, and one person’s perfect name is another person’s lousy name. You’re going to have disagreements with the people in the room, and it’s hard to get consensus.
Farra Trompeter: I often say to that point, I only have cat babies or fur babies, but I understand from people who’ve had human babies, that many of them don’t even tell their friends what name they’re thinking about naming their child because inevitably they’re like, “Oh, I know somebody that was named that when I was a kid, and this is all this story about them,” and people affix stories to names.
I’ve been called Farra for almost 45 years. If all of the sudden you were to change my name and I didn’t want that to be changed, that would be very strange to me if you called me by a name I didn’t ask to be called.
Of course, there are times people do change their name and ask for that, but it’s a very emotional, personal thing. And I think nonprofit staff and board members really connect to the identity of their organizations, I believe, in ways that are even more deeply connected than people who work for corporations or government agencies. So when you’re telling them that your organization’s name is going to change, it feels like their name is going to change, and it does become very loaded.
Dan Gunderman: Yeah, it’s a big deal. And there is always, in this process, and sometimes it’s after we’re done with the work, but there’s always a moment when you realize that the name has become a fact. And that’s such a great moment to live through when you’ve gone through all of this difficulty and you’ve had these arguments, and you end up committing to a name maybe you’re not even sure about, but then you just start using it, and it just becomes the name, and people just start using the name, and it’s real, and it’s a thing.
Sarah Durham: Yeah, Dan, and in your blog about some universal truths about naming your organization, you talk about there’s no such thing as, “I’ll know it when I hear it,” there’s no such thing as the perfect name.
But I have heard you say that sometimes the best names are a vessel or a bucket that you imbue with other things. And in this blog, you also talk about values—that the name has to feel aligned in some way with the organization’s values and personality.
Dan Gunderman: Yeah. I do think that creating something that you can impose meaning on—Farra used her name, I can use my name. My name is Dan, it’s a pretty common name, but the experience that you have interacting with me should feel a little bit different than any other Dan that you’ve interacted with. And that is also true for a name. And so things that maybe don’t feel special will be special when you put your meaning into them.
Sarah Durham: So as you’re going through a rebranding process that has a name change, we’re always going to encourage you to start with a brand strategy before you get into the naming, and you’re going to start to lay out options on the table, perhaps quite a wide range, or perhaps kind of limited.
Farra, what are some of the other variables that you think are important to tackle in a process?
Farra Trompeter: Well, one thing I would suggest early in a process is engaging as many of your stakeholders as you can, especially if you think it’s going to be more revolutionary. So that might look like doing a survey and asking people for their ideas.
We had a client who led a process where they asked people for their favorite song lyrics or poems, just to generate new ideas because you never know what might lead to another. We’ve also worked with organizations where we’ve done a brainstorm with many of their staff in the room, just to, again, especially in the beginning of a process, to put as many ideas out there because you never know what one could spark.
But also, when you then present the new name six months later, if they were part of creating it or what they suggested sparked that new name or tagline or whatever, becomes part of their messaging platform, it helps them feel part of it, and like it really was their name and not just you as a consultant or someone in the communications team leading the process. It feels more universal and through the organization.
Sarah Durham: And pretty early on, you have to really start to vet the intellectual property issues. We typically do Google searches, and we have access to some other trademark and copyright databases we will look at even before we present ideas to a client or an organization, just because you never want to fall in love with a name that you then don’t have access to use.
Are there any other tips around intellectual property that you would recommend an organization keep in mind?
Dan Gunderman: Certainly if you’re doing this process yourself, you’ll want to do some URL checking. There are now many more—I don’t even know what they’re called—suffixes. Like the .com, the .org. There are now a lot more of those options, and so you can sometimes get .world or something else that maybe makes sense with your name. So that’s becoming easier but also don’t count on the .org being available, especially if you’re using a straight up English word or something that’s very common. It’s going to almost certainly be taken. That’s just the unfortunate reality of this process, and it can be a heartbreak.
But I would say certainly do some URL searching, see if there are variations on it that you can find that are available that maybe don’t rule it out completely.
Farra Trompeter: Yeah and as part of that too, you’ll also want to check social media sites—YouTube, Twitter, Instagram, LinkedIn, Facebook, all of these—to see if that name is available, to make sure that you can also get that property. And you also are going to want to, as you’re thinking about the names and taking names off the table, also share that with your staff and board. Because we’ve had organizations who get frustrated that maybe they wanted a revolutionary name change process, but ultimately we wind up recommending an evolution because all the things that feel like it’d be great, new, and make sense for the organization aren’t available. And that’s really important to be transparent about.
Sarah Durham: Okay, so we’re going to wrap up in the interest of time. Before we close, I want to say thank you both for coming to join me today and for sharing your expertise. And to all of those who are listening, good luck with your renaming.
Farra Trompeter: Thanks for joining us.
Dan Gunderman: Thank you.