Teasing out the key issues if a charity wants to change their name
This paper is designed to look at some of the issues surrounding a name change for charities, and in particular the pros and cons. It also tries to set out some of the best guidance on going about it. Wherever possible, I have tried to give examples to illustrate the points I make, I also should make clear these views are my own and entirely subjective based on my experience and observations.
Why would a charity change their name?
Reason 1: Name is too easily confused. This is one of the most common reasons for a name change and it is particularly the less well-known charities that may acutely feel the impact of similar names. Before their name change to Action on Hearing Loss, this was the problem that affected RNID, and still is now they have changed back again. Can people tell the difference between all those charities with cancer, or Alzheimer’s in their names?
Reason 2: The name is too generic. While there are few charities that deliberately choose a generic name, there are a number that have ended up with one. Typically, this comes about because of a desire to escape the wrong name. Scope and Crisis are two examples of too generic a name, though neither United Response nor International Rescue Committee could claim to be examples at the peak of creativity.
Reason 3: The name is instantly abbreviated. There are some names which lead not to instant oblivion, but instant abbreviation. The result is that a carefully thought-through name is made instantly redundant. Try remembering what PDSA, TCV and NDCS actually stand for. Not all abbreviations are bad though - Oxfam and Unicef stand out as two which are now words in their own right.
Reason 4: The name is no longer acceptable. There are some names which, for a variety of reasons, become unacceptable. It’s not surprising that The Spastics Society wanted to change their name, nor Our Dumb Friends League or the Distressed Gentlefolk’s Aid Association. Time or social norms have overtaken a number of names. The International Rescue Committee must be moving slowly in this category – names which give the idea that rich (white) western people are going to come and ‘rescue’ poor people are no longer appropriate. The irony is that the work of the charity is far more complex than the name implies. A reason for name change, if ever there were one.
Reason 5: The name is no longer relevant. The less dramatic version of reason 4 is that a name becomes redundant as language or society changes. When the League Against Cruel Sports was founded in the 1920s, the word League was in common use, but no longer. The same goes for words like Society, Association, National, Federation and even Institute. Part of the problem with these words is they don’t add value, while leading to longer names that need to be abbreviated.
A more specific form of becoming irrelevant is the case of Alzheimer’s. In the UK, we no longer use this word, society talks about dementia instead. This leaves those charities with Alzheimer’s in their name increasingly likely to be irrelevant to those who don’t know that Alzheimer’s is the old word for dementia (and still is the word in North America).
Reason 6: The name doesn’t do justice to the great work of a charity. Let’s assume that all charities do great work. Does the name (and the wider brand) do that great work justice? Do people ‘get’ the kind of work that a charity does because of the name – or are they distracted or confused by the name. Perhaps the single most important objective of any name or brand is that they do justice, they adequately wave the flag, for all the work of staff and volunteers, and all the changed lives of beneficiaries.
Reason 7: The name doesn’t work after merger Its slightly outside the scope of this section as a reason for name change, but any two charities merging will need to think about a name change. Sometimes the dominant brand wins out, sometimes a whole new name is created, and sometimes the two names are just bolted together like a crude piece of welding. So even if it is the merger (rather than the brand) that drives the change, all the issues of how to find the right new name and the challenges of the process remain.
Which attributes make a good name?
Memorable/distinctive. Perhaps the most important hallmark of a good name is that it’s memorable or distinctive. There are many names which can be heard dozens of times before they lodge in the brain and some that seem doomed to forever go in one ear and out of the other. Some stick in the mind though and they often come with memorable visual identities – Virgin is a good example.
Representative/self-explanatory. A good name should give an indication of what the organisation does, or at very least not mislead. A name like the Animal Health Trust gives a pretty clear indication of what it does (even if it fails the memorable test and didn’t stop it going bankrupt).
Inviting. Names are the front door of an organisation and what it does, so it should make people want to know more, get involved or give. A name like Acorns Children’s Hospice not only gives a clear idea of what it does, but also conveys warmth and care (even if the Acorns part of the name is a bit of an enigma, and is what the name is widely shortened to).
Can’t be shortened or misspelled. The charity sector is littered with names shortened to three or four letter acronyms. Something about the human brain wants to abbreviate almost any name, so the only real solution is to have a short name with no easy way to shorten it further. An additional problem is where names are easily misspelled, which is something my old company, nfpSynergy, frequently fell victim to.
Not being the founders of a charity. Founders rarely make good charity names. Not only do they usually have a first name and a surname, but they fade from public consciousness. Leonard Cheshire and Sue Ryder are two classic examples of names which nowadays only mean anything to people in their seventies or older.
Internet-friendly. In the age of the worldwide web, names need to be easy to search for. Those containing ‘Children’ and ‘Hospice’ probably don’t match that need, nor do Bliss and Sense, because they are also commonly used words that feature prominently in unhelpful search results. There are inadvertent bad names too, like the public affairs agency that decided to call itself Mandate. A sound political concept and a nice idea, but of course the internet searches came up with ‘Man date’ too. Oh dear.
Works in all communications. A name needs to be spoken. Its need to be written. It needs to be used graphically on paper and the internet. It needs to be searched for online. It needs to be written endlessly. Its needs to appeal to those who see it for the first time and those who see it a thousand times a day. In other words, a name needs to work in all sorts of setting and communications: and that is no easy task.
Examples of good charity names
Well, here are five good ones in my view:
WaterAid: short, memorable, internet-friendly and explains exactly what they do. Given that WaterAid’s awareness and income are growing rapidly, it clearly works for them.
Oxfam: having emerged from being substantially shortened, for most it’s now a name in itself. Being the charity with a very high level of spontaneous awareness is testament to how well this one works.
Macmillan Cancer Support: What is good about Macmillan’s name is not so much the full version, but the shortening to Macmillan (a rare exception to my founder’s rule). Say to anyone that you are supporting Macmillan and everybody knows who you mean.
Save the Children: Inviting to those interested in children with an action verb to boot, plus the benefit of doing what it says on the tin.
Accenture: Not a charity name, but conjured up for Andersen Consulting (by a junior Norwegian employee) when they rebranded. It’s unique, it can’t be shortened, it works well on the internet and it has tones of aspiration and professionalism.
If I had a prize for the all-time worst charity name, it would be National (which nation?) Canine (what’s wrong with dog) Defence (like with an army?) League (we have already talked about words that go out of fashion). Thankfully NCDL, as it inevitably became shortened too, has now become the greatly improved Dogs Trust. Toc H and JISC would probably be my runners up.
Perhaps the all-time biggest balls-up on the name change front must belong to RNID. It changed its name to Action on Hearing Loss, and then seeing no metrics like awareness moving in the right direction, it changed it back again. So now it just hangs on the coat tails of RNIB again. What a waste of all that investment in new names and branding.
Nine challenges of a name change
Deciding that a name is wrong is easier than finding a new one that’s right
I meet many organisations, many of which are charities, that don’t like their names. They know the current one is imperfect for a variety of reasons and they may even have a high level of agreement across the organisation. The problem is, agreeing that an old name is not good enough is a long way from agreeing on a new one. Some people want a completely new name, others a slow development. The result is all too often a fudge which has all the cost of change, but doesn’t actually solve the core problem. Worse still changes like this can take all the pain (and cost) with little of the gain.
The music therapy charity recently changed from being Nordoff Robbins to Nordoff and Robbins (my emphasis). Many might see that as an underwhelming name change if ever there was one.
Leonard Cheshire Foundation spent a long time thinking about a name change. Many thought that becoming Disability UK was the solution, but they ended up with Leonard Cheshire Disability. That didn’t work so now they are just Leonard Cheshire. It can hardly be described as revolutionary, and still ties them to a founder whose admirers are only getting older and becoming smaller as a proportion of the population.
New names will never be right for everyone
A charity’s name change doesn’t always deliver the revolution they hoped for, often because there is rarely a name that works for all stakeholders. When YWCA changed their name to Platform 51, the staff thought it was great, but external audiences really didn’t. The internal vote won, the name was adopted, and then a few years later was changed in favour of a new one, Young Women’s Trust, which was as vanilla as Platform 51 was hot chilli. So with any name change, the organisation needs to decide who the name needs to appeal to most out of all their stakeholders. That is very rarely the trustees, even if they are the ones who make the final decision.
Short-term hit versus long-term benefits
As case studies show, a name change will almost certainly result in a short-term hit in terms of awareness and possibly income. The benefits of a name change will usually be felt over decades, while the downside is felt over months or years. To compound this challenge, the reasons a name change is needed will rarely diminish. If you need a name change now, you almost certainly will in 10 or 20 years’ time, probably even more acutely. Not making a decision doesn’t make the issue go away, it just pushes it down the road for others to deal with.
Once a new name is announced, the work has just begun
There are many charities that make the effort to go through a name change only to see the new one delivering less than they expected. This may be because a poor name was picked (Platform 51, 8.59, Action on Hearing Loss ), but more often it’s because the charity went back to the day job once the name change was made. If I had a rule of thumb, it would be that only one third of the necessary work for a successful name change happens before change-over day.
Whose benefit is the name change for?
Perhaps the biggest single strategic choice in a name change is to decide which key audience or audiences’ awareness, attitude or understanding will be positively impacted by a name. It can rarely be all of them and my instinct would normally be beneficiaries. The name Help the Aged possibly worked better with donors, but it was probably not the best one for a person thinking about receiving their services. However, this will always be a key and finely balanced decision. Years ago, I listened to a CEO tell her staff that the fact they were confused with other charities didn’t matter. In the workshop that followed, staff made it very clear that to them it did.
Balancing the short-term loss of awareness with the potential long-term gains
Are the benefits of a name change (higher awareness, greater distinctiveness, increased relevance) greater than what a name change will lose (support of a particular audience or generation, the loss of awareness built up over years, etc.)? It’s a value judgement. my observation is that trustees almost always place greater value on the awareness bird in the hand than the two or three birds in the bush. This is partly because trustees have a tendency to be overly attached to the history of an organisation, and partly because those who see the issues with a name are at the frontline of a charity’s work.
Can alternative solutions do nearly as good a job?
One of the challenges in thinking about a name change is that approaches to creating a distinctive and appropriate identity need not only be done through changing the name. It can be done through a strapline, the colours and style of a logo, the words and action of an organisation and so on. For an organisation that isn’t wild about their name, there are other ways around the problem, akin to the way a football team can cover for one weak player.
A strong brand strategy is at the heart of a strong identity
Linked to the point above, a name change doesn’t happen in isolation; it should be part of a wider brand and identity strategy. Any organisation that carried out a name change in isolation from the wider brand would be asking for trouble, or more precisely, a waste of time, resources and opportunity.
Obtaining the legal rights to use a new name
There is a host of legal and organisational groundwork to be done on any name change once the decision has been made: changes in memorandum and articles of association, securing legacies written in the old name, ensuring ownership of property and any other assets. However, before all of that the key legal issue is whether the rights to own and use any new name can be secured. The best name in the world can be created but if legal ownership cannot be established it’s a very risky strategy to change a name. Sometimes there are inadvertent legal issues: when the Fundraising Standards Board was created it became instantly shortened to the FSB and the Federation of Small Businesses protested (though the Russian secret service, also the FSB, didn’t as far as I know) and it became the FRSB. Then it disappeared. So maybe the Russian FSB did get it after all.
Five golden rules of a name change
A name change is a costly, time-consuming and long-term decision, so if it happens, it needs to be done right. Here are five ingredients for the successful project management of a name change:
1. Put someone in charge. There needs to be a project manager who can focus on the project more or less full time. They need the ear of the CEO and senior managers, plus the authority to bang heads together.
2. Do the groundwork. I have lost count of the number of times charities have told me that they know exactly what people think about a name change or a brand. Yet when I dig a little deeper, the research is almost always partial, out of date, about a different issue altogether or only done on selective audiences. I cannot emphasise strongly enough that if you want a successful name change, it’s critical to understand what your key audiences think about it. It’s just as crucial to understand their thoughts on your wider brand.
Just this month I saw a brief for a piece of ‘brand’ work where the charity had already decided what on the new name should be, and just wanted to test it out with stakeholders. Dear oh dear. Not the way to get a great new name or brand.
And I haven’t even mentioned the legal groundwork, employment contracts, legacies, regulatory approvals, which often can be the stoppers on the best laid plans as I have already mentioned
3. Go at the right speed. Name changes are a big decision. I often find that charities have talked about a name change for years, like a kind of strategic Hailey’s comet which never quite goes away and comes fully into view every once in a while. I would say that it takes six months to do the groundwork on whether a name change is the right decision, another six to decide whether the right name can be found and a final six to twelve months to implement the decision.
4. Don’t fudge it. It’s unlikely that many boards have ever said “We haven’t quite got the right name, but let’s go with this mediocre one anyway.” However, to the outside world it often looks like they got so far that they just decided to go with a mediocre name anyway, rather than do nothing. Be brave when it comes to a name change and remember my five tests – is it memorable, distinctive, can’t be shortened, good with the internet and legally available?
5. Invest in a name change. Any organisation that is going to change their name needs to invest in it. Invest in the groundwork, the creative and brand expertise, the new materials, and the activities that will build awareness going forward. It is possible to do a name change on a shoestring, but the benefits will take longer to be realised.
So how do you decide?
The decision to change a name can be made due to issues about income, awareness, influence, image, or a range of other metrics. One branding guru pithily captured the balance of benefits by paraphrasing Amara’s law ‘We tend to over-estimate the benefits of a name change in the short run and under-estimate the benefit in the long run’. In essence, charities need to ask themselves these two key questions.
What do key audiences think?
For us, understanding what those at the frontline (staff, donors, volunteers, beneficiaries) of a charity’s work think and feel about the brand, and a name change is key. Do volunteers, donors and beneficiaries think the name is the right one? Would a name change bring more people to your services, and deliver more (financial) support for your work? Again, I don’t think that trustees, or senior staff, and their views on the issue are the only important to take into consideration.
Is there a name that might work?
While a decision about a name change is very difficult, a vital ingredient is seeing if there is a new name that could get a broad consensus. If no name can be found, or the legal rights to it cannot be secured, and the pressure for a change from the frontline is minimal, then the decision is pretty easily made. If a name can be found, and the message from the frontline clearly indicates that the name is a major issue, then changing the name must at least be considered.
Our thanks to Max du Bois for his witheringly incisive but very useful comments on the original drafts of this paper. This report was first published in 2015 and has been reviewed, tweaked and updated for this 2023 edition
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