Renaming Your Nonprofit

A few hard truths worth sitting with

By Sruthi Sadhujan, Senior Strategy Director at Hyperakt

It’s not often that a nonprofit organization changes its name. Honestly, it probably should happen more than it currently does. But renaming an organization is challenging, fraught, and often tangled up in lots of emotions, frustrating decisions-by-committee, and the inability to make difficult but inevitable tradeoffs. For any organization considering a name change, here are a few hard truths to swallow before you decide whether it's the right path for you.


Illustration by Merit Myers

A new name has to signal a shift

It is true that you should rename your organization if the name isn’t suiting you anymore. Names are meaningful when they signal a shift. They act as a sort of herald or proclamation to tell the world that you’ve decided to change, that change is underway, or that the change has been realized. But a new name that isn’t accompanied by a more profound shift in your work or your positioning can feel superficial and indulgent. It won’t stick because it won’t be tethered to anything meaningful. You’ll struggle to tell a powerful story about why you decided to spend the time, money, and effort. So if your name doesn’t suit you, consider waiting until a new strategic plan or a shift in your organizational strategy, so that the two can support each other as you communicate a new version of your organization to the world.

Don’t take the decision lightly

Brand consistency is the key to long-term success. Renaming inevitably disrupts continuity in your audience’s brain. When assessing whether renaming is right for you, build up a critical mass of reasoning to show that the benefits of renaming far outweigh the costs. And remember, the cost is not just the process of finding, legalizing, and registering a name. There will also be a significant cost spread over 1-2 years just to establish and normalize the name in the minds of your staff, stakeholders, and audiences.

Perfect names are not born–they are made (and branded and marketed)

People put a lot of weight on an organization’s name. It has to be perfect. But “imperfect” names are all around us. The very names that are touted as genius today have some serious shortcomings when you look at them closely. Google, for example, is a cutesy moniker for an otherwise serious and colossal search engine. Nike is not pronounced intuitively (not like “bike” or “Mike”). In fact, the brand is often pronounced “naik” in European countries, including the UK. “Juvenile” and “difficult to pronounce” are attributes that would normally tank options in any renaming process, but today, we overlook these weaknesses because the names Google and Nike have been infused with meaning–and billions of dollars of marketing over the last few decades. If either of these companies had failed, we’d be laughing at their names.

To state the obvious, names are words at the end of the day. And words, though we have dictionaries to precisely define them, come with lots of historical baggage, psychological associations, and personal meaning. Of course, this doesn’t mean that all names are made equal. Rather, be prepared to face down hundreds of names that could be well suited to your organization. Choosing between these hundreds will take discipline, strategy, audience testing, risk mitigation, and maybe even a touch of courage.

A name can’t carry the weight of your entire brand

At its most basic level, a name should identify you. That is its primary job and it needs to do that very well. A name’s job is not to tell the full story of your organization. That’s the work of a brand, helped along by consistent communications and marketing. A name is fully realized through visual identity (logo, colors, photography, and type) and verbal identity (a tagline, mission or about statement); and it is infused with meaning through marketing campaigns, digital experiences, fundraising appeals, and more. A name should always have a lot of helpers.

This means that you don’t have to put pressure on a name to solve everything for you. You may choose to go for a more abstract name and then balance it out with a concrete tagline that explains what you do and why it matters.

Renaming exists on a spectrum

Shedding your old name and donning an entirely new one is just one of many options. You may choose to drop a single word. For example, in our work with Brooklyn Defenders, we recommended that they drop the last word of their previous name, Brooklyn Defender Services, in order to minimize the institutional tone and bring renewed focus to the passionate individuals that make up their organizations.

In the case of the YMCA, they went from one of the most recognizable acronyms in the field, to simply, The Y — a bold move. “We’re trying to simplify how we tell the story of what we do, and the name represents that,” said Neil Nicoll, president and chief executive of the organization, in a profile by the New York Times. The decision to move to the single letter had the added benefit that almost everyone already called it “the Y” in everyday speech. They leveraged common usage in a smart way.

Level expectations and clear eyes

Don’t set yourself up for failure by trying to find something that doesn’t exist. There is no perfect name waiting for you to come pluck it off a tree. You won't know it when you see it or hear it. Instead, you’ll encounter lots of options with imperfections, risks, and shortcomings. The only way to navigate through the fog of subjectivity is to define a strategy. Why am I renaming? What am I trying to solve? What tradeoffs am I willing to make? Is this the right time for my organization? Build yourself a strong foundation and a long runway for the name to take off. Everything else will fall into place after that.

If you’re thinking about a new name, but you’re not sure of what to do, how to do it, or even why to do it, let’s chat.

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