There we were, sitting around a board-room-type table—board members and my executive director counterpart—negotiating our merger agreement. Six months of working together had yielded the thick binders we each had in front of us, chocolate kisses that had become a staple in our meetings, and a camaraderie that grows when nonprofit leaders share an exciting vision. However, I had learned you are never done with surprises in this process and, sure enough, a new one came up in the conversation.

We had taken names for granted. We each had positive reputations. Good feelings on the part of a variety of our stakeholders were associated with each of our nonprofits’ signature programs’ names. My surprise was that the other nonprofit had made a promise to a critical stakeholder that her name, prominently featured in a key program, would remain prominent. That program was being integrated with one of our programs that also had an important (to us) and widely recognized name. One program, two names.

In a prior blog (March 2nd) I cited recent research in a Stanford Social Innovation Review ( article identifying three common hurdles in nonprofit mergers: boards, staff, and brands. The challenge we faced with naming was about branding. The authors (Milway, Orozco, and Botero) note that branding is an emotional issue that can outweigh strategic and financial drivers in nonprofit merger negotiations.

So, what’s in a name that touches us so deeply? Here are some of my thoughts and I hope you will share yours!

1. Identity – a name tells the world who we are.

2. Tradition – a name reflects what we have stood for over time.

3. Story – a name can evoke a story in someone’s mind. Story, with tradition, is our history.

4. Memorial – we name things to remember others and to be remembered, to leave a legacy.

5. Symbol – a name can symbolize a feature or characteristic of our identity, tradition, or story.

The SSIR article identified three options for dealing with naming as a branding issue in nonprofit mergers. Each can be equally effective.

1.  Figure out a way how to retain all the “brand” names.

2.  Create new names.

3.  Adopt blended names (like Citibank did when it merged with Traveler’s Group  settling on “Citigroup”).

Whatever the outcome, we need to remind ourselves that—like so many other dimensions of nonprofit leadership—resolving branding issues requires humility, time, and a real investment in communication and communication planning.

Do you have experiences to share about nonprofit branding issues?

(By the way, we worked ours out using option #1.)