March 18, 2014

Rebranding Your Merged Nonprofit: Is It Worth It?

Rebranding a merged nonprofit is a far greater challenge than most realize, says Linda Johanek, CEO of the Domestic Violence & Child Advocacy Center. Here's how her organization is enduring the short-term pain of a rebrand to realize the long-term benefits of a merger.

By: Linda Johanek

I was excited about having stewarded a successful merger. It was a fairly smooth transition, one in which two financially healthy agencies—the Domestic Violence Center and the Bellflower Center for Prevention of Child Abuse—joined to create a new vision and service model. Instead of focusing on children or women separately, the merged organization is now able to intervene and provide prevention and education programs along the life continuum. As one agency, we address and prevent child abuse, bullying, teen dating violence, intimate partner violence, domestic violence, stalking, and elder abuse. We have cross-trained our staff, seen our programs improve in quality and comprehensiveness, and become a stronger voice for victims. What’s not to like?

Well, I’ll tell you.

A name change from a merger is a far greater challenge than most realize. An example: In 1981, Japanese auto manufacturer Nissan decided to change the well-known American car Datsun to Nissan to create a single, global brand. It took three years and $30 million to complete the transformation. While the investment was daunting, Nissan believed the long-term outcomes were worth it. Okay Nissan is much larger than we are. But the fact that it took a huge company three years and a great deal of money to deal with their name change tells me we also would struggle. Indeed, one year after the Domestic Violence Center and the Bellflower Center for Prevention of Child Abuse changed names, donations dropped 25 percent. Two years after the merger, we continue to rebrand and search for the money to do so.

So perhaps the short-term losses and pains can be endured, if there is a long-term benefit. After all, isn’t this what mergers are for—long-term benefit? The question is how to manage the short-term pain. While we chose our new name strategically, we probably underestimated what it would cost down the road.

Our new agency is called Domestic Violence & Child Advocacy Center (DVCAC). Board and staff admitted that the name Bellflower was often confused with two other agencies that also worked with children. When thinking about child abuse prevention and intervention, we turned to the national model and philosophy of Child Advocacy Centers. They describe advocacy as prevention, intervention, education, and leadership. That made sense to us. But it also presented two rebranding tasks: we had to deal with the loss of Bellflower name and the addition of the word "advocacy." (See Melissa Mendes Campos’s case study, "Domestic Violence & Child Advocacy Center: Broadening Scope For Greater Impact.")

"A brand serves social, emotional and functional needs," wrote Joleen Deatherage in a July 24, 2009, Philanthropy Journal article. "It's much more than selling a product or service—it's selling an experience. Nike sells motivation. Apple sells innovation. Pampers sells being a good parent."

So what does DVCAC sell?

We thought about how to market ourselves. What was our previous brand selling? Even though both agencies had credible reputations in the community, our focus was on abuse, because everyone wants to help an abused woman or child. After the merger, we decided to focus on safety, hope, and healing. Board and staff leadership began meeting with individual donors to educate and ask them for investment in our new vision and model. We sang our mantra—"safety, hope, and healing"—wherever we went: at community education presentations, collaborative meetings, councils, task forces, fundraising events, etc.

The result? Within two years, we gained back the 25 percent post-merger loss in donations and increased donations by an additional 12 percent. Some funders and foundations, however, did not return to the level provided to the two separate agencies, and that is an ongoing challenge.

While 17 foundations funded the countywide merger process, we still needed to educate some funders on the cost of the process. Some understood the cost; others did not. One funder denied our request to help with merger-associated costs, advising that we “use the money [we were] saving to fund the transition.” That funder clearly didn’t understand there are many associated costs that continue past the signing of a merger—such as branding costs!

Overall, we are fortunate that the community we serve is happy with the merger and thinks it advances our past and current mission.

Nonetheless, I call upon all funders to have long-term vision when a newly merged agency is seeking to create long-term benefits. I encourage nonprofits to embrace, not fear, a bold new vision and its short-term costs. And I urge society to embrace the good works of nonprofits. Our names may change, but our missions continue to be the strength that lifts up communities everywhere and makes them brighter, safer, healthier places to live.


Linda Johanek is CEO of the Domestic Violence & Child Advocacy Center. She has worked for more than 20 years on behalf of women and children in need, serving on the boards of the Ohio Domestic Violence Network, Domestic Violence Coordinating Council, Elder Abuse/Domestic Violence Roundtable, Cuyahoga County Fatality Review Board, and others.

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