It was the roar heard 'round the region. The Venice Foundation last year announced that, to better reflect its mission and its geographic reach, it was changing its name to the Gulf Coast Community Foundation. Accusations about civic abandonment flew at the foundation's new president, angry letters were dashed off to newspaper editors and the Venice City Council even issued a formal resolution opposing the name change. The foundation ended up compromising by adding "of Venice" to its new name.
But once the brouhaha subsided, the community foundation-Florida's largest, with assets of over $145 million-discovered change can be very good, indeed. "It's been our best year ever in terms of new gifts," says president and CEO Teri Hansen. "There's definitely a lot of support behind the new name and what we're doing."
What happens when a nonprofit organization's name outgrows its original clientele, its changing mission or its service area? It's probably time for a change.
That's what the Women's Legal Fund of Sarasota County, Inc. board decided when it realized its one paid employee was spending most of her time screening calls from people who would not qualify for its services, such as women needing help with financial issues. And although the organization helps both men and women with family law issues, its name failed to recognize that. Rather, its name, says board president Kathy Killion, referred to "the group of visionary women who started the fund and sustained it in its early years." So, in October, to better reflect its mission, the 12-year-old organization changed its name.
Various new names were considered, everything from Family Legal Aid to Divorce Incorporated. In the end, Family Law Connection won out because, says Killion, "We do one thing: We connect local attorneys with local women and men who cannot afford legal representation in family law. Our goal really was to find a name that would effectively convey our mission."
The loss of a longtime identity was risky, but, taking its cue from the Gulf Coast Community Foundation of Venice, the board carefully sought consensus before it took action. "We spoke with major donors, past presidents, funding sources and the attorneys who take our cases, and got enthusiastic responses." Some expense was involved, from new stationery to business cards, brochures and legal documentation. "But it's well worth that minimal expense because it saves our one employee from having to screen all of those calls from people who need help outside our area of mission," says Killion.
John Lewis, a volunteer with the Executive Service Corps of Manasota, Inc., led the strategic planning sessions that led to the name change. "I told the board their old name hurt two ways: it confuses the people they ask for donations, and it confuses the people seeking help."
The Venice Foundation's change also grew from strategic planning. Hansen says general marketing research it conducted in the summer of 2002 revealed "that the name 'The Venice Foundation' was a barrier. It connoted a small constituency of just Venice. And because the word 'community' was not in our name, we were always associated with the private Selby Foundation, never the Community Foundation of Sarasota County (which, like the Venice organization, pools money from many philanthropic sources, rather than from one family or corporation). We knew we needed to be named what we really were."
Hansen says community foundations from around the country have since consulted her on how to change their names. She advises them and other nonprofit organizations to "do the necessary research, find out what is best going to help your organization fulfill its mission, and then follow through with what the new name promises."
So what's in a name-the right name-for an organization? Name changes for the large and sophisticated Gulf Coast Community Foundation of Venice and the one-employee Family Law Connection did exactly what they were supposed to-clarify the groups' core missions.
"We're definitely receiving more calls from men," says Killion. "This week alone we received five calls from men" - more than they'd previously get in an entire year-"and we're not getting calls anymore from women needing help with bankruptcy or saying, 'I'm a fugitive from the law and want to turn myself in.'"