I do a lot of scoffing and scolding in this space about bad names and ill-advised name changes. So it’s refreshing to have an opportunity to say something positive about a renaming effort—especially when the organization in question is small, local, and worthy.
As Montclair Community Action Group, this nonpartisan neighborhood organization had an identity problem. Montclair is an upscale, mostly white neighborhood of Oakland, a mostly poor and nonwhite city. It’s separated from the rest of the city by the Warren Freeway (Highway 13) and by hilly terrain. I live a couple miles downhill from Montclair—different schools, different library, different shopping district—and I’d never figured out a good reason to be involved with MCAG. “Montclair” in the name made the organization sound exclusive, fancy, and insular. If there was community action to be taken in Montclair, it probably had nothing to do with my life.
In June, I received an email announcement that MCAG had changed its name to Volunteering for Oakland. Suddenly, the organization made sense to me. Better still, it included me. As the website’s home page puts it:
Our grass-roots approach is to form groups that address the problems that our own volunteers identify as a priority and wish to take action on. We conduct periodic surveys of our volunteers to determine what issues are most important to them. Those topics that garner the most attention are then brought into a brainstorming session, a leadership team coalesces and a course of action is plotted out.
(I do wish someone would fix the glaring typo at the top of that page. It’s Erma Bombeck, not “Brombeck.”)
Here’s why the new name works:
- It emphasizes the focus of the group, volunteering, by putting volunteering at the beginning of the name.
- It doesn’t just say “action,” it shows action by leading with a verb. “Volunteers for Oakland” would have been clear but comparatively static.
- It includes the whole city in the name, not just one neighborhood.
- “For” gives the name its intended positive spin. (Amazing how much weight a preposition can carry.)
This local renaming reminds me of another nonprofit name name change that occurred a decade ago, when Christmas in April—which provided free home repairs to needy homeowners—became Rebuilding Together.
“Christmas in April” had been lifted verbatim from the grateful response of a homeowner helped by the program (“It’s like Christmas in April!”). The program did, in fact, focus its efforts during the month of April. I suspect, though, that I wasn’t the only one confused and more than a little turned off by the the name. For one, I’m not Christian and I don’t celebrate Christmas. “Christmas in April” sounded like something for Christians only—something to do with carols and presents under a tree, possibly. Certainly not home repairs.
Rebuilding Together, on the other hand, is clear, upbeat, and welcoming. No religious holidays are invoked, I’m happy to say. The emphasis is on the primary activity, home repair; the name conveys action by using a verb. And “together” is as inclusive a word as “Christmas” was exclusive.
These name changes prove that it’s not enough for a nonprofit organization to have good intentions and willing volunteers. You also need a name that communicates clearly and—even more important—inspires an appropriate response.