When Annette Duranso became CEO of Valley Youth House in Allentown, Pennsylvania, she was the program’s first new director in 38 years. Valley Youth House had greatly expanded over that time, growing from a modest emergency shelter to a multifaceted social service organization spread over 12 counties and offering a variety of residential, preventive and mental health services.
All that change had brought the organization’s services to thousands of families and youth, but its identity had become diffused, Duranso says. Her arrival in late 2013, she decided, was a good time to take stock and put the agency’s growth in perspective.
“We’re a very big organization that didn’t have a lot of consistency around our messaging,” she explains. “We kept growing without looking back to make sure all the parts were going in the same direction. We wanted to rein it all in.”
So Duranso set out to give Valley Youth House a new, improved and unified public face, or brand--a visual and written representation of the breadth of the organization’s work. The rebranding effort, begun in 2014 and expected to last another year or so, has required significant time from Duranso, her board and other staff, as well as a financial investment up front.
But Duranso, like leaders of many other social service organizations that have undergone similar processes, believes the time, money and efforts are worth it in the long run.
“By having stronger marketing and a strong brand, you’re able to provide more services and more effective services,” says Duranso. “Marketing has to get done, and if staff can spend less time creating fliers themselves, they can spend more time with youth and families.”
Work With Pros, and Engage Everyone
Nonprofit leaders who’ve embarked on rebranding campaigns say creating a new brand is impossible without a professional and sympathetic marketing team.
”We considered proposals from more than 20 companies,” says Duranso, “and chose the one that we felt heard us and believed in our mission. They took the time to listen.”
Great Circle, a youth- and family-serving agency in the St. Louis area, hired such a team six years ago when its founding organizations, Boys and Girls Town of Missouri and St. Louis’s Edgewood Children’s Center, merged. The scope of the new agency was big enough to require an all-new identity, right down to the name, says Director of Communications Marie McGeehan.
“We needed a name that reflected this new agency whose goal was to last another hundred years, meeting the future needs of families and children,” says McGeehan.
Over the course of a year, the marketing team interviewed staff members of both organizations about their work and developed new organizational language and branding materials, including letterhead and business cards featuring a new logo that encompassed the merged agency’s chief goal of “joining with members of the community to help those most vulnerable,” according to McGeehan.
Valley Youth House’s marketing team also surveyed staff – around 400 people – and other stakeholders like donors and the board to ensure that the new brand reflects the whole of the agency’s place in people’s lives.
No Sudden Changes
People can have strong feelings about the identity of their agency, and that means rebranding can be a delicate business. Even after McGeehan’s organization changed its name in early 2014, Great Circle’s leaders felt it best to preserve the “legacy names” of the original centers, in deference to the loyalties of donors and supporters. For the first three years of the merger, official mailings would come from “Edgewood Children’s Center – A Great Circle Agency,” for example. The centers continued to have separate websites.
By early 2014, Great Circle decided that enough time had passed for folks to be used to the new identity and name. McGeehan and her colleagues merged the two websites and started to call everything Great Circle, full stop. They announced the final change with a newsletter to stakeholders and an advertising campaign around the St. Louis area. They also had internal launch meetings with staff in each program location, and gave everyone t-shirts with the new logo. McGeehan says that the effort has been a success, creating a new and recognizable identity for an organization that now serves over 20,000 people a year. Even through the name change, they have sustained their donor and volunteer base while establishing “Great Circle” as a known entity in the St. Louis area.
“Our rebranding coincided with the development of a new strategic plan for Great Circle that is pointing the agency in a new direction,” says McGeehan. “The timing couldn't have been better.”
At the relative outset of her own rebranding, Annette Duranso is working to make the process—and its final outcome—just as inclusive and transformative for Valley Youth House.
“I hope it builds a foundation, that we all speak from one voice,” she says. “Whether you’re a prevention worker talking to 5th graders or you’re in an independent living program, you’ll know the whole spectrum of what we do.”