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What’s in a name?

The mention of a name brings a mental picture. It can be good or it can be bad. It communicates identity. A name reflects reputation. A person with a “good name” is known and admired. He/she inspires trust and confidence. Others want to be associated with him/her. We are willing to advocate for such a person.

The same is true for your organization. When your agency’s name is mentioned in the local community, what do people think? What is the picture that is drawn in the collective public’s mind? How good is your name among the persons that you serve, or want to serve? Do people proudly share your name with others? Do people associated with your organization extend themselves to support you, give time and resources and do they gladly tell the organizational story?

A “good name” is a valuable asset—literally. In the for-profit world marketers call it brand equity and that is how it appears on a firm’s balance sheet.

In the nonprofit world, a name is often not seen as important and is sometimes even a liability. In some cases, the name is a relic of the past and describes associations that are no longer active. Other times, the name does not create meaning or confuses constituencies who do not understand its historical context. There are also times when people associate the name with unfortunate events that undermine positive feelings.

In rare cases, the name may need to be changed. For example, changing service models in senior care have prompted many continuing care retirement communities to dissociate from the perceptions attached to the term, “old people’s home.” One AAI client formerly known as “Mennonite Home for the Aged,” for example, became “Mennonite Village” in 2002 to more accurately reflect the range of services it had come to provide in the previous 55 years.

Another example of a successful name change is found in a church-related organization that provides pension and financial services for ministers. While this organization was known for excellence and integrity, its historical name (“Board of Church Extension”) did not generate excitement among the key constituency. It sounded outdated and institutional, and made it difficult to extend its mission to church groups beyond the founding movement. Recognizing the need, the organization established a new name (“Servant Solutions”), and then implemented a brand repositioning strategy. The result has been greater constituency emotional connection to its mission and an expansion of its opportunities beyond its founding church.

So, what image and feelings does your organization’s name conjure in the minds of your constituents? A name audit is a research project designed to determine whether your name is an asset or a liability.

Here is how you can conduct your own name audit:

1. Identify one or more constituencies that you want to study. A good place to start is with a group of persons that you currently serve, and those on a prospect list that you hope to serve in the future.

2. Get a contact list of persons in the group(s) you want to study. Number the list and then use a random number generator to select 10-20 persons from each group. If you want to study both your current and your hopeful clients, select ten per list.

3. Send each person a mail invitation to complete a short questionnaire. Explain the study in a simple cover letter and then provide an attractive form with a few questions. Keep the responses anonymous to add credibility. Provide a stamped return envelope for the questionnaire to be returned.

4. In the questionnaire, ask a few simple questions.

a. What words come to mind when you hear the name……?

b. On a scale from 1-10 (1 being less appealing and 10 more appealing), how appealing is the name ….. to you?

c. Does the name make it more or less attractive for people to want to be affiliated with …….?

d. Comments about the name and the impression it gives are welcome. Thanks for sharing.

5. Expect 3-10 responses. Look for patterns that may cause concern. Is there a difference in opinion between those persons in relationship with your organization and those not?

While not scientific, this study will give you a good enough snap shot of your brand equity to determine whether or not there is an issue. If there is evidence that your name is a liability, you may wish to engage professional counsel to conduct formal research.

When evaluating what your organization needs to be successful, a name may seem too obvious to even consider. But do not overlook the importance of keeping your name a “good name.”