Rebranding and Nonprofits

Today I was quoted briefly in an article in the New York Times business section about the YMCA's new ad campaign. Five years ago, the YMCA renamed itself "The Y" without totally dropping YMCA from their logo.  This was similar to Kentucky Fried Chicken becoming KFC. The Young Men's Christian Association name didn't accurately reflect the organization which doesn't just serve Christian young men, and in many cities, the YMCA was seen mostly as a gym and swim facility. So five years after their renaming, the Y launched their first-ever national ad campaign with TV spots, the first one airing during "60 Minutes" last night.

The Y's ads are powerful and well-produced, emphasizing the Y's commitment to servicing at-risk youth to reposition the organization as much more than a health club. Their goal is to broaden their support and ultimately fundraise for these programs. I wish them luck. You can see the spots here.

 Non-profit organizations must rethink their public face every few years and seriously consider a major rebrand once a decade. Creative focused disruption is a necessary part of growth and vitality. Non-profits are competing for public attention, members and donations.  It is no longer that much different than competition in the consumer sphere. I must get 50 email pitches and updates from environmental organizations a week. Which ones do I support?  Non-profits need to remain relevant and too many can get stuck in a rut that can last for years, even decades. What worked in the past may no longer still work as well, but change is rarely easy.

Some years ago I was engaged by a large non-profit to handle their communications and the announcement of a new CEO. Their retiring CEO had been in charge for over 20 years. During the exploratory process, the group held a large meeting of active members. As board members presented an update about the CEO search and reflections about the future, the response from the audience was mostly dread. More than half the attendees felt strongly, "We don't want change."  One older member said that she like things just the way they were.  This was not surprising. The outgoing CEO had told me at our first meeting "I hate change."

Change is a fact of life and resisting it only creates stress and anguish. Each year, this organization was losing members and donors.  Their activities and policies had not substantially adapted in 50 years, and if they continued along the same path, their end was in sight. At the same time, it was clear that change had to be implemented carefully, consciously, with all the organization's stakeholders part of the process. Organizations needs to find the middle path as they adapt to current realities without alienating too many traditional supporters. At the same time, paralysis and stagnation is a recipe for institutional evaporation.

I salute the Y's effort to show the world that they are more than a health club. My quote in the New York Times piece emphasized the Y’s need to both showcase their engagement with the community without abandoning their gym and swim services which likely pays most of the bills. Wouldn't it be wonderful if the Y could find a way to engage their gym-goers to support their social services, volunteer, donate?

One last point.  I have lived in New York City for nearly 20 years now and I have never been to the Y for an event.  I have attended all kinds of receptions, conferences, screenings, gatherings at churches, temples, universities, foundations, embassies, schools - but never once at the Y.  Why not? I appreciate their social service work (even though I never heard a word about it until last week) and welcome their new marketing push, but perhaps they also need to find ways to become more engaged in the wider world of New York City?