Name change can be game changer for nonprofits

  • Star Tribune
  • February 23, 2012 - 2:38 PM

Minnesota do-gooders, not exactly known for their creative pizazz, are spiffing up their public images -- and shedding some well-known nonprofit names in the process.

Resources for Child Caring, a 40-year-old St. Paul nonprofit, told its supporters last month that "the RCC brand didn't feel bold or innovative to many important stakeholders." It will now be known as "Think Small."

Think Small?

"There are a few people scratching their heads," chuckled Barb Yates, executive director of the newly named nonprofit. "But mostly what I hear is positive. People are talking about it and I don't know if they talked about our other name."

Yates is among a growing number of nonprofit leaders reinventing their image and brand, in part because of the tough fundraising climate. At least 60 Minnesota nonprofits have merged in the past few years. Resources for Child Caring, for example, recently merged with Ready4K.

Other agencies are rebranding, some to better match their names with their missions, others to trigger a more upbeat public image.

"Organizations are looking to find a way to distinguish themselves in a highly competitive environment," said Judy Alnes, executive director of MAP for Nonprofits, a nonprofit management consulting agency based in St. Paul.

"Whether these name changes are accomplishing that or not can be argued."

Hitting the 'refresh' button

The new year has brought a wave of identity switches. In the past six weeks, the Mental Health Collective of Minneapolis changed its name to Watercourse Counseling Center. Human Services Inc., with offices across the Twin Cities, became Canvas Health. Allina Hospitals and Clinics was shortened to Allina Health. Admission Possible in St. Paul morphed into College Possible.

Even historic nonprofits such as 130-year-old Family and Children's Service of Minneapolis, which merged with Reuben Lindh Family Services last year, are hitting the refresh button.

"The biggest challenge we had was our name sounded a lot like government, and for the people we serve, that wasn't necessarily positive," said Molly Greenman, CEO of what is now called the Family Partnership. "We would get calls from people daily thinking they were calling Hennepin County."

Yates said her agency changed its name because it didn't reflect the scope of its work, which ranges from child-care training to book publishing. Plus, people confused it with another nonprofit. Said Yates: "The name kept us invisible.''

A nonprofit's moniker is more important than ever, said Kate Barr, executive director of Nonprofits Assistance Fund of St. Paul. With the rise of Facebook, Twitter, blogs and other online media, an organization's name has constant public exposure.

"Large nonprofits have always been aware of the power of the brand," said Barr, referring to groups such as Habitat for Humanity and American Red Cross. "The smaller nonprofits are getting onboard with the program. And you can learn about these things a lot easier now. You can go to workshops, a webinar, a blog."

To avoid losing built-up cachet, some of the mega charities have tried to tie their new names to their past. The YMCA changed its name to "The Y" in 2010, discarding the "Young Men's Christian Association" link. In 2007 Susan G. Komen Breast Cancer Foundation became Susan G. Komen for the Cure.

'Think Ikea'

When changing a name, there are a few rules of thumb, said William Lozito, president of Strategic Name Development, a brand naming company based in Bloomington.

"People like a shorter name rather than a longer one: Think Ikea," he said. "They like a name that evokes a visual. Think Red Bull. And the name has to be broad enough so you can evolve."

And beware: The name requires a clean trademark.

Linda Ewing found that out the hard way when her nonprofit, the Special Children Center of Hudson, Wis., was renamed the Avanti Center in 2010 to reflect its adult services and to cast off the connotation of "special children."

While the agency's research showed no trademark conflicts, a court ruled last month that "Avanti Center" belonged to a woman in California who had approved its use in a verbal agreement with the agency's former executive director, but not with the agency as a whole.

Avanti Center was given two weeks to get a new name -- again. Ewing, the executive director, paced the office and let the gray cells work their magic. "St. Croix Therapy" popped into her head. It became official Jan. 20.

In general, such swift name changes are not recommended, said Craig Bida, executive vice president at Cone Inc., a national leader in cause marketing research. The public needs time to digest the change, especially with veteran nonprofits that have deep ties to the community.

Greenman, for example, acknowledges that the Family Partnership still must remind its supporters of its name change, even after more than a year.

Bida also warns against using too many "ABCs," made-up words or catchy phrases that may not resonate with supporters.

"Sometimes you can lose people in an attempt to be more hip," he said.

Renaming a nonprofit can be trickier than renaming a business, because so many supporters have an "emotional" relationship with them, as clients or as volunteers or donors, added Christine Durand, communications director at the Minnesota Council of Nonprofits.

"We're not selling a widget," she said. "That's why it has to be done carefully. It can be a big risk. But that risk can be worth the reward."

Jean Hopfensperger • 612-673-4511

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