Changing Your Organizational Name Is Risky Business

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March 30, 2014; BBC News

Language can get antiquated very quickly, as one can discern by looking at the names of organizations in the UK that address the issues of people with disabilities. In a very interesting story published on Sunday in the Guardian, Damon Rose looks at some of those transitions.

For instance, Valerie Lang, now 77, was on the executive council of the former Spastics Society when it changed its name a mere 20 years ago. Lang, who herself has cerebral palsy, had advocated for the organization to change its name years before the organization finally made the decision.

“I felt that we could not afford to stay with the name we had,” she says. “The name spastic was a playground term of abuse. Children would shout to each other ‘You big spastic’ every time someone was clumsy or even if they just disagreed with them…. Mothers with young babies who had cerebral palsy weren’t seeking help from the society because they had heard the word used in playground parlance. I think it put the younger generation off.”

The name “Scope” was chosen at a general meeting in 1994 explicitly because it was neutral and could not be easily turned into a term of abuse.

Other disability groups have since taken such names as Enable or Ability, which, the author writes, “may eventually come back to haunt the charities because of their earnest positivity. It’s terribly difficult to get it right when it comes to disability which—despite undoubtedly improving attitudes—is still an uneasy subject matter.”

Then there is the Royal National Institute of Deaf People (RNID), which recently changed its name to the simple yet descriptive Action on Hearing Loss. Paul Breckell, the CEO, says that the organization had always been referred to by its acronym, which was often confused with other similarly acronymic organizations. “People don’t always know what acronyms mean—they’re clumsy and clunky—and words like ‘National Institute’ have a tendency to date an organization.”

On the other hand, a group founded as the Association of Parents of Backward Children in 1946 later changed its name to Mencap, which is short for “mentally handicapped,” a term that has been relegated to the trash heap. But Mencap has decided to keep its name, saying that changing it will not improve the problems experienced by people with learning disabilities—who are, by the way, included in decision-making. They point out that the name has brand recognition and is widely recognized.

Not so for Scope, which has experienced a decline in brand recognition. Where 90 percent of the public used to know what the Spastics Society was, only 64 percent recognize Scope, though no declines in donations have been noted.

Richard Hawkes still believes that, on balance, the name change was a good move. “It was an important moment in our transition from being a traditional charity that helped vulnerable beneficiaries to being an organization that’s about working alongside disabled people to make change happen.

“Changing the name meant we could be side by side with all disabled people—who at that time were campaigning for important changes, like the introduction of the Disability Discrimination Act.”—Ruth McCambridge

  • Richard Brewster

    As the person who led the name change from “the Spastics Society” to “Scope,” I can offer the following additional thoughts:

    Valerie Lange was right: parents of young children with cerebral palsy were refusing to associate with the organization from the mid-80s onwards. When the name changed, something like 30 new groups/affiliates, mainly led by young parents, affiliated to Scope within about a year.

    The change of name was part of a bigger change. Two years before the name changed, a resolution was passed at an annual meeting that, in the next 2 to 3 years, the name would be addressed and we would open membership in Scope to individuals (previously, only local groups, then mostly led by older parents of people with disabilities, could be members and therefore vote on the Society’s policies.) The change in membership happened two years after the change in name (we were late!) and within a year, young people with cerebral palsy had joined the organization, taken positions of leadership at regional and local levels and were standing for election to the Board of Trustees. Previously, they had pretty much shunned the organization, as younger parents of kids with disabilities had begun to do.

    Finally, even when changing an organization’s name is part of a broader strategy, as I believe it always should be, it shouldn’t be undertaken lightly, for reasons made obvious in the article. There was no fall in income, despite the very substantial fears of a minority in Scope. The reason for that was that we had conducted extensive research into every one of our audiences and worked out what the risk of loss in each case was and how that could be mitigated. Effective but very hard work.

  • HArvey Newman

    At a certain point in the United States illness organizations(ie TB Society) changed their names to body part. The TB Society became the Lung Association. Names with body parts have staying power while illness designations may be meaningless when a cure is found for the illness. Are we ready to change back to the TB Society?

  • Keenan Wellar

    It is of critical importance that organizations involved with disability and social change take a good hard look at not only their names, but their entire branding, because the names and the way they talk about the work that they do often runs counter to their actual mission statements or values statement.

    About 15 years ago we could see that the word “Special” was becoming or had become as stigmatizing as words like “Retarded” in referencing people with intellectual and developmental disabilities. The very popular name of our organization was Special Needs Network and it was not easy to change it. But as a result of the process we ended up as LiveWorkPlay and we continue to receive compliments on pretty much a daily basis about how much people like the name of our organization.

    “It’s what you DO…so much better than focusing on a diagnostic label” is a typical comment. Or “It’s just so positive, a lot of the time I feel like I am walking into an institution, not a place that will help me have a life in the community.”

    Acronyms in this field are a killer. We talk on and on about being inclusive, the importance of keeping the humanity in human services, etc. and then we hit people with a series of acronyms and initials that start in the school system and continue into adult services. We can’t control all of this, but as organizations in the disability field we can control our own names and processes, and stop adding to pile (and the burden).