To change its image, YWCA will have to change its name

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The Young Women's Christian Association has "changed dramatically" in its 150-year history, and it is now neither entirely young nor entirely Christian (nor is it part of the Young Men's Christian Association). Its chief goals are to empower women and girls and to eliminate racism. "We know who we are but we don't think the community knows who we are," Judi Bishop, the executive director of the YWCA of Fort Worth, Texas, told me the other day.

So what's a non-profit group with an out-of-date identity to do? Re-brand and maybe even rename the organization.

Under Judi's direction as co-chair of a national committee, the YWCA of the U.S.A. organization reviewed professional services firms to help it with strategic direction and to implement a national (even international) re-branding and communications program. Landor Associates, part of WPP Group's Young & Rubicam, got the nod, and it's apparent from the background it received that it has its work cut out for it.

YWCAs in the U.S. are shrinking in number, down from 400 to 300 over the past 10 to 20 years. What's more, 52% of local YWCAs did not meet affiliation requirements in 1998, and 69.5% had operating deficits. Young women's participation is at an all-time low.

On a more positive note, YWCA of the U.S.A. just hired Patricia Ireland, the former head of the National Organization for Women, as its CEO, and moved its national office to Washington, where it can be more involved in women's advocacy issues, from New York.

One of the YWCA's biggest challenges is whether or not to change its name. Ms. Bishop said the choices are to "really distinguish ourselves" with a name like "YW" that doesn't mean anything or leave the name the same and don't say what it stands for, as many YWCA units are now doing.

The latter strategy is what the American Association of Retired Persons opted for. In 1999, it changed its name to AARP to bury, so to speak, the "retired" part of its name because it discovered most people don't retire at the age of 50, the age when it sends out solicitations to join.

The problem is everyone still knows what AARP stands for and will especially remember what the "R" represents-and it ain't Rance. Prospective members will think AARP is disowning its charter. And they are right. The organization used to be called by the initials A-A-R-P. "But by calling itself AARP, no periods," I wrote in a wise-guy column back then, "it forces people to bark like a wounded seal. Arrp! Arrp!"

YWCA doesn't use periods between letters, but it's in no danger, I submit, of being called "Yowaca." So the major problem with continuing to use YWCA as its name is the confusion factor with the YMCA. And also the fact that, although it is proud of its Christian roots, it wants to encourage women from all religious persuasions to join. Continuing to use the "C" word, like AARP's "R" word, will send negative vibes to people who don't identify with either.

Ms. Bishop said she had "no idea" what Landor would propose. ("We've got to trust what they tell us.") But any re-branding should increase both the visibility and resources of the organization. For my money, there's no choice. A name change is the only way to accomplish its goals.

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