Don’t be boring, vague, or outdated. Duh, right?

Last month, the March of Dimes, a very established and well known national nonprofit, changed the name of its biggest fundraising event from “Walk America” to “March for Babies.” I think most people were aware that March of Dimes served babies and infants in some way, but the name “Walk America” had always sounded like a fitness campaign. In fact, according to the New York Times, while most Americans trusted and were aware of the nonprofit, most of us hadn’t the foggiest what its mission is.

The paper quoted the March of Dimes president: “We had gotten to the point where people walking in Walk America didn’t necessarily know why they were walking. They were there because someone they care about or someone at their office had asked them to walk.”

(Check out the Web page announcing the change. The “walking” baby footprints are a little creepy – babies that small can’t walk, so who’s pulling them around like that? – but I think they were aiming for clever and cute.)

In the same month, a familiar national nonprofit changed its name – kinda. The United Negro College Fund has a slight problem in the word “negro” in that it’s outdated and doesn’t really encompass its mission. So it’s relying on its initials – U.N.C.F. – a new logo, and its famously clever and effective tagline, “A mind is a terrible thing to waste,” to pull it into this century.

As the Times reports, “its name is not only reminiscent of a bygone era, but suggests that it only serves African-Americans, which is no longer true. U.N.C.F., which is based in Fairfax, Va., works on behalf of all minority students, particularly poor ones, who are looking to earn a college degree.”

These two rebranding efforts got me thinking about how volunteers can often approach a project with plenty of enthusiasm and information, but not much experience in making their efforts stand out. These days, you really can’t expect people to get worked up about something that doesn’t have some kind of hook. Despite all your meetings and outreach and fundraising, if you call it “School Supplies Drive”… chances are not many will take notice. People need to connect with your mission, and it starts with a clear and sometimes clever message.

It’s a shame, but I think it happens often because the people who are best at organizing these efforts aren’t necessarily the “find a catchy name” types. That’s why it takes a few people with different backgrounds and talents to make these efforts a success. Unless you get lucky…..

I think of two people:

1. Brad Houston. Brad is an Austin lawyer, a dad, and an active member of the Austin Bar Association. Brad’s big project each year was to organize and run the blood drive. Snooze, right? A blood drive? Well, what made this blood drive a little more interesting was that it was a competition among professional associations – the lawyers, the doctors, and the CPAs. Whichever organization got the most pints donated in its name won bragging rights, and for many consecutive years, the Austin lawyers had won.

But Brad wanted to make it a little more interesting one year. He wanted to use a boxing theme, and he had some ideas for how to push it out there. First, he would make boxing-themed posters with two people duking it out in a ring – Brad was one and a fit female lawyer was the other. They even went to Lord’s Gym in Central Austin to shoot in an actual ring. They’d use the posters in downtown buildings where there were a number of professionals to advertise the blood drive and tell people where to sign up.

Then he got the president of the medical association, a well known and respected judge, and a CPA to don boxing gloves, robes, and towels around their necks for a press event where each of them would recite self-written trash talk about who was going to win. Sound dorky? Local TV news stations loved it.

The best part about all of it is that more people participated in the drive than ever. The bad part for Brad was that that year the CPAs won. CPAs! (I was the communication director at the bar and I contend to this day that they cheated.)

2. Richard Bagdonas. Richard founded and still runs Operation Turkey, which enlists hundreds of volunteers on Thanksgiving Day and hits the streets  to hand out hot turkey dinners to the homeless. In its first year – or actually, the first time Richard did it before it was Operation Turkey – he handed out a single plate of leftovers from his own Thanksgiving Day meal to a single homeless man. After that, Richard wanted to do it the next year, grow it, even. When I interviewed him last fall about the project, he told me one of the first things he did was come up with the name. Bagdonas, a serial entrepreneur, told me how he felt that finding the right name was the most important thing to start with. That it created the platform for everything else to come together.

Operation Turkey went from one meal in 2000 to hundreds of Thanksgiving dinners in 13 cities across Texas and Lousiana in 2007. Was it because of the name? Well, let’s see. Would “Thanksgiving Meals for the Homeless” have stirred as many volunteers and donors to action?

All I’m saying, folks, is that the next time you get a great idea for a fundraiser or volunteer to lead a project, try thinking like a marketer or advertiser… get a little attention for your project … make it stand out. Find a PT Barnum or a TMZ blogger to help with your project. Just don’t be boring.


3 Responses

  1. Thanks for the kind words. This past year we covered the Austin area and between all of the organizations were able to feed 99% of the homeless people. A volunteer driving downtown reported “seeing Operation Turkey meals in every hand.”

    This year we will continue our music concert called the Austin Yam Jam ( and will grow into funding additional cities.

    All my best.


  2. Hiya!. Thanks a bunch for the info. I’ve been digging around looking some info up for shool, but there is so much out there. Yahoo lead me here – good for you i guess! Keep up the great information. I will be popping back over in a couple of days to see if there is updated posts.

  3. Hiya!. Thanks a bunch for the blog. I’ve been digging around looking some info up for shool, but i think i’m getting lost!. Yahoo lead me here – good for you i suppose! Keep up the great information. I will be coming back in a couple of days to see if there is any more info.

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