Overcoming Nonprofit Name Confusion

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When everyone knows your name and gets it wrong.

Dennis Stover, Regional Vice-Chancellor of Advancement at the University of South Florida, and I were having coffee at Starbucks. On the jacket of his lapel, Dennis wore a USF lapel pin. Two couples sat near us with beverages in hand. They saw Dennis’ lapel pin jacket and began to compliment him.

“We love what you are doing with the museum.”

“And the art students.”

“The Bulls!”

“And everything.”

As they talked, it became clear in that 30 seconds flat that they had roled three local institutions and merged them into one. From their perspective, The Ringling Art Museum, Ringling College of Art and Design, and the University of South Florida were one mega-institution.

What can you do when everyone, especially potential donors, confuses your nonprofit with another?

1. Recognize that this is a common challenge.

In The Chronicle of Philanthropy, Ken Sterns wrote, “Some 60,000 nonprofits in the country have the word ‘veterans’ in their names …” Even if your name does not include the word “veterans,” with over 1,6 million nonprofits in North America, people are confused.

2. Take a long-term view.

The need to clarify your identity is part of the work of your institution. Embrace the challenge and plan for how you will respond to it.

3. Learn how “similar” organizations want to be known.

Discover this so you can decide on how you might differentiate your organization.

4. Use this information to develop a three-point response.

This key message informs people of your unique identity, celebrates their interest in your work, and invites them to engage further with you.

5. Develop a Twitter-length response to clarify the role of similar nonprofits.

Create an affirming message for the person making the error. Remember, people remember how you make them feel. How will you craft a response that makes your listener feel good? Use as needed.

6. Share the responses with key supporters, your staff, board, and volunteers.

Show them how to use them and why and when they are needed. In other words, it’s one thing to let a casual conversation be a reminder that you still have work to do. It’s another to hear the words out of your major donor or deal with a check made out to another institution that arrives in your mailbox.

Ask your key supporters to memorize it. Use role-plays to practice. Pretend you’re having coffee at Starbucks.

7. Practice and refresh regularly.

Ask for feedback. Refine the message as appropriate. Celebrate the results.

Number 4, 6, and 7 are the most important.

How have you helped people, including potential donors, know your name and your unique identity?

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