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4 min Read
November 16, 2020

Nonprofit name change: An interview with the John Jay College Institute for Justice and Opportunity

In 2019, the Prisoner Reentry Institute at John Jay College hired Big Duck to lead a renaming process. After 15 years, their name no longer reflected who they were—and unintentionally alienated the people closest to their mission. As the organization works to open doors and eliminate barriers to success for people who have been involved in the criminal legal system, they needed a name that brought more people in. Their new name, the John Jay College Institute for Justice and Opportunity, rose to the top after a thorough process of research, brand strategy development and direction-setting, discussion, staff and student input, and refinement. I chatted with Alison Wilkey, the Institute’s Director of Public Policy, to talk about her experiences and insights on successfully navigating the nonprofit’s name change. 

Why did the Institute decide to change its name?

“There were two primary reasons driving our desire to change our name: (1) the name no longer reflected the full breadth of our work, and (2) the name contained words that we grew to view as stigmatizing. When it was founded in 2005, the Prisoner Reentry Institute (PRI) comprised a handful of staff members, predominantly focused conducting research, hosting roundtables, and doing other work related to reentry (people being released from incarceration) and recidivism (the rate at which people are rearrested after release). Jeremy Travis, the President of John Jay College from 2004 to 2017, had previously focused on reentry as the Director of the National Institute of Justice and as a Senior Fellow at the Urban Institute’s Justice Policy Center. When he arrived at John Jay, President Travis was integral to launching PRI in collaboration with Debbie Mukamal, the Founding Director.

Within a few years, however, our work expanded well beyond reentry. In 2012, for example, we launched a fellowship with the Pinkerton Foundation to prepare John Jay College students for careers in juvenile justice. In 2015, we merged with the College Initiative (which was previously an independent nonprofit) to expand our continuum of services to increase access to higher education for individuals with legal system involvement.

Concurrent with these developments in our work, our field also became increasingly aware of the power of language and the need to shift away from language that nominalized people and perpetuated negative stereotypes. For the Institute, we eliminated using stigmatizing words like “prisoner” from our language, but it remained in our name.” 

What were the biggest challenges of the name change process?

“Our scope of work is broad—we run a college-in-prison program; we support individuals with legal system involvement pursuing college and employment training in the community; we run three fellowships to develop the next generation of leaders in juvenile justice, policy advocacy, and philanthropy; and we organize coalitions to advocate for broad policy change in higher education, employment, and housing—just to name a few of our projects. We quickly realized it would be impossible to choose a name that defined all of our work. Big Duck repeatedly reminded us that a name can’t “do everything,” but they provided the guidance and asked the right questions to help us select a name that encapsulated the core of our mission.”

How did you involve your broader community in the name change?

“It was important for us that staff, partners, and collaborators inform the selection of our new name. We worked with Big Duck to develop a process that would capture input from these different audiences while making it manageable to incorporate that feedback into the decision-making without a lengthy process. The core group responsible for finding a new name consisted of staff with diverse roles, responsibilities, and backgrounds. We used surveys, interviews, and group discussions at different points in the process to get ideas and feedback from different voices and communities.”

Could you talk me through your rollout process and feedback you’ve received so far?

 “The outbreak of COVID-19 created some challenges, but we moved forward with transitioning to our new name in late April regardless. We sent an announcement to our mailing list, coinciding with the launch of a new website, and got some media coverage. As we could not celebrate in person, we also asked six staff members to film themselves reading a short script about the name change, which we edited into a ~60-second video announcement that we shared with our mailing list and social media followers.

The video added a personal touch to the announcement, which people appreciated. The feedback we have received has been positive. Across the board, people agreed that the word “Prisoner” did not represent us well, and they have expressed appreciation that our name better reflects our work and values.”

What advice would you give nonprofits considering a name change?

“Incorporating diverse voices and perspectives in the process is key. People with different backgrounds bring different lenses, experiences, and perspectives to our shared language. Your organization is most identified by its name, so it’s important that your name communicates well to a broad audience. Creating a thoughtful and inclusive process ensures that your name speaks to an array of people and that it truly reflects your mission.”