Branding Challenge: When Nonprofits Merge
Nonprofit mergers have always been a fairly regular occurrence. But with more challenging economic times, even more nonprofits are surviving – and thriving – by merging with like-minded organizations. While the economic climate may be tough, the climate may be even tougher in the board room, where the question “whose name do we keep?” is decided. This is a very important time for nonprofits, and handling it correctly could make the difference between hurting or helping your brand image.
Following is a list of questions designed to help your organizations through this branding challenge, and actually take advantage of the situation.
Why did we merge? Even more important than the real reasons your organizations have merged is the perceived reason. This is why announcing the merger should be done after all the internal hashing has been completed. You don’t want your new organization to be bogged down by a perception that the two nonprofits were weak and needed to merge to survive (even if that really is part of the reason). Look at the potential positive aspects that your community will be able to understand. For example, if a larger organization merged with a smaller one because they wanted to be able to provided new services without recreating the wheel, this illustrates a strength. Or perhaps your organizations overlap in services and merging is a way to streamline, become more effective and further your missions. Maybe you provide similar services but serve different communities, and joining efforts will have many benefits. No matter the reason, this question must be asked, discussed and answered for one purpose – make sure everyone involved has the same answer to the question. If not, you are in for a huge branding and messaging mess.
Who is better known in the community? This is a touchy question to ask and to answer, but the truth is likely that one organization is better-known and therefore has more brand equity than the other. This can be a dicey and subjective question, so it is important to include other stakeholders and partner organizations in the discussion. If budget allows, a market-research study is worth the investment.
Has either organization ever had a negative image problem? However, even if one organization is better known, it does you no good if that organization is known for negative reasons. Examples can be anything that has gained negative media attention or complaints from stakeholders. Sometimes mergers are the result of some sort of scandal. If this is the case, use the merger as an opportunity to leave that negativity behind and start anew with either the other organization’s name or a brand new one.
Are we making this about our mission or personal politics? Sometimes, people have to let go of certain things to further their nonprofit organization’s mission. This is particularly difficult when involving the founders of organizations. But in the end, a nonprofit is not about the ego or even the blood, sweat and tears of its founder. It is about the mission, period. That should be your driving force at all times. The first step in the process should be to line up the missions and craft a mission statement that is inclusive of the spirit of both nonprofits. Choosing one mission over the other is simply not an option. It is hard enough to agree on a name. This process may help make it clearer the direction the name discussion should take.
What are we going to be when we grow up? Whether deciding on a brand new name, merging names or adopting one of the organization’s names, one thing is clear – you must make sure the name is one that you will not outgrow. If your merger will someday expand to five counties and you are adopting a name like “Tri-County,” you are clearly making a mistake. While this one is an obvious for the purposes of illustrating an example, keep in mind at all times the future of the organization and make sure the name fits.
Do we need outside help? Maybe you know ahead of time that you need outside help to get rid of tunnel vision. Or perhaps you’ve hit a wall inside a tunnel and can’t find your way out. If that happens, it is a good idea to bring in someone from the outside. A fresh, objective perspective is very important in times like these and will help you see your new organization in a fresh light and will help minimize branding and public-perception issues. While mergers can be both exciting and difficult, look for the positive aspects that you can utilize to bring fresh energy and focus to your organization. Some of the most effective nonprofits are ones that successfully merged to become stronger, respected organizations.
Put your mission first, and the rest will fall into place – with thoughtfulness and hard work.
by Hannah Gregory, founder, SHOESTRING (the nonprofit’s agency) – Contact: nonprofitPR at shoestringgroup dot com