Nonprofit Branding: How We Screwed Up Our Own Brand & Lived To Whine About It!

A couple thousand folks read this blog. They expect common sense “How To” advice about nonprofit branding. Today we offer this personal – very personal – “How NOT To.”

In 1985 Janice and I decided to leave our respective career tracks (see note below). We would build a small company together. We thought it was a cool deal – a husband and wife utilizing years of nonprofit marketing experience in a for-profit company of our own!

We developed a business plan, obtained personal bank loans and set out to develop relationships with factories and clients. Basic stuff.

OOPS! We forgot something. The new company needed a name.

So one evening we sat in the loft, overlooking the mountains. Opened a bottle of wine. Began to brainstorm. The name VisABILITY started to emerge around the middle of the bottle. By the time we got to the bottom we made our decision. VisABILITY!

We wanted the name to declare competence. We achieved that with the upper case/lower case profile. That step turned the word “ability” into a public statement about our emphasis. Moreover, attaching the “vis” syllable created three different puns in the name – clever puns.

VisABILITY. Cool choice. Especially since those puns were all in Latin!

The next day, we stopped exulting in our cleverness long enough to register the name VisABILITY with the Colorado Secretary of State and the IRS. We were in business!

Believe me – we were fully aware that a name is the primary part of its brand. In the excitement of the moment we got filled up with our own self-importance. We ignored  our own common sense.

So we must plead guilty to a Professional Mistake –  #127 on our personal list of misfires.  We also plead guilty to creating a minor but long-standing irritation for ourselves and our colleagues, our clients and our suppliers.

Blame it on the wine.

It turns out that Janice and I have spent 27 years trying to remember the other two puns. (We remember the most obvious translation – “to ability” as in the path or direction to competence.) More important…..for that long we have also been fighting the spelling battle between “visibility” and VisABILITY.

Visibility is a real word. People know how to spell it. It has natural antecedents. It did not grow out of a bottle of wine. Visibility relates to the state of being seen, being noticed.

Here’s the irony: our job is helping nonprofits become more visible. So we are in the visibility business.  

But visibility is not the corporation we are in. That company is VisABILITY.

The company is well-known within its market. Even so,every  few days we still have to teach someone how to spell VisABILITY. More important – we know out there, someplace in Cyber-Purgatory, there are thousands of emails that never arrived because they were addressed to that you-know-what spelling.

There is a lesson here for nonprofits. Janice and I read the nonprofit groups in LinkedIn.  We track thoughtful, informative blogs about nonprofit matters. We read the books by nonprofit experts and the  annual reports from public service organizations. We attend relevant conferences.  In all this exposure we notice that many (not all ) nonprofit executives, including colleagues, friends and clients, turn the nonprofit conversation into a Jungle of Jargon. They commit the error that is ranked as our personal Professional Mistake #127.

Janice and I were just too clever for our britches. We were playing word games. Trying to impress ourselves instead of trying to communicate value and credibility to others. The fact that the company flourished does not make our mistake any less dumb. And it surely does not suggest that nonprofit leaders can get away with writing to impress instead of writing to communicate a clear message.

Don’t forget that every choice of words in your newsletter, in your blog, in your solicitation letters, in your annual reports is a branding element. We own the company. We can get away with blaming our professional lapse on the bottle of wine. Your board probably won’t buy that excuse either.

BOTTOM LINE: After 27 years in business, can admit the error of our own self-preening wordplay. We have become used to the name and have learned to accommodate its clumsiness.And we have become sensitive to the way many nonprofit leaders na organizations make similar mistakes in their own branding communications.

Two questions below! Talk to me on Facebook or Twitter, or send an old-fashioned email: [email protected]. Even better: let’s chat in the COMMENTS section below. Thanks in advance.

We have two questions and will be grateful for answers from readers:

FIRST: Can any reader of this blog (perhaps former Latin majors) identify the two missing puns for us?  Or should we just assume they were produced by the bottle of wine rather than from recollections of our high school Latin? SECOND: Can you send us examples of their own overwritten, overwrought branding  communications? We would like to do a series of articles about this topic and contributions from readers who have made the same mistake will be gratefully received. We will not mention names or organizations if we quote the clumsy rhetoric.

At the time we started the company, Janice was Executive Director of the Multiple Sclerosis Society of a Colorado county larger than Rhode Island. I was a university VP & Secretary of the board of trustees.




8 thoughts on “Nonprofit Branding: How We Screwed Up Our Own Brand & Lived To Whine About It!

  1. I just read an article about this yesterday re naming your business! VisAbility was the oddest thing when I came into public broadcasting, and I continued to make mistakes when spelling your name. But after 20 years (!) – I find I cannot correctly spell the “real” word anymore – and I’ve shortened the name to “Viz” in my membership drive notes, which eliminates any confusion! Great article – thanks!

    • Any reader need proof that our name is clumsy and difficult to use?

      JC Patrick, one of public radio’s beloved leaders, wrote the above comment, acknowledged that she has been involved with VisABILITY for over 20 years, agreed that the name is confusing to spell – AND THEN MISSPELLED IT!

      Thanks, JC, for agreeing with my point……and then proving the point.


  2. Ah yes, we can sometimes be too clever. A great point, Mr. Blogger. I remember years ago trying to name a new radio program and coming up with all sorts of word combinations that cracked us up but were just bad ideas (bad puns, too cute, hard to say). Wish I could remember them.

  3. So, what were the puns you were looking for? What was the pun you got? For Vis (Latin) I get power, force, strength…things along those lines. Please advise. : )

  4. THAT must be the missing element in Latin. All we remember is “viz” meaning “to” as in a direction or a path leading to a result. Thus, in the one iteration we recall, we had the pun “to ability or to competence.”

    But now that you tell me about power, force, strength – WE’RE IN!!

    Those are great elements in Latin and may be what we discovered at the bottom of the wine bottle.

    Or not!

    The bottom line, of course, is that we should not have been so self-indulgent when developing the name.

    One thing I did not mention is this: I took four years of Latin. Passed Latin 1 on the first try. Passed Latin 2 on the second. Failed Latin 3. Maybe this is a factor…..?

  5. Hey guys, it’s not that complicated. You can go to and see it means “wish” at root, or “want” both of which are just fine puns, or you could be a little snotty and do this and get loads more. It’s a good brand “with legs” and seems to have survived – or met it’s goal.

    But is there something we can do about that regressive higher ed bubble thing that might involve some different kind of “branding?” For example, I helped invent this kind of electronic portfolio for a high school ( Without challenging the politics of testing, nor even the branding of about 15 other portfolio websites, we created a tool that is – somewhat gracefully – transforming grades (“how do you give a bad grade to a kid with a good portfolio”) to parent attitudes to college readiness (“If I’d been doing this stuff from freshman year, these colleges would be competing for me, not me for them”). I’m currently contemplating how to “re-brand” the idea of “student success,” building precisely on this tool. Any ideas??

  6. I registered the domain “” back in 1999 mostly on a lark. I wanted a domain that was available, easy to say, and memorable. My roommate at the time and I were both Eagle Scouts, so originally I went for the fart joke and thought I’d get “” If I recall correctly, fortune smiled on me and that domain was already taken…but I *love* bagels so I stayed with the theme and got “” instead.

    Nobody knows what the heck it means, of course. That’s kind of the one glaring problem with it. Oh well. It’s not really a business so nobody has to know. 🙂

    • So, I get this cool comment, contemplate “” and wonder – who IS this interesting guy?

      I looked him up. He is Aaron Read, a public radio colleague we never met – an engineering type. Following is an update from his blog, named you-know-what….


      “Hi y’all. As many of you have noticed, I have a new job! As of Monday (June 18th) I start as the IT/Engineering Director of Rhode Island Public Radio.

      “But Aaron,” you say, “don’t you live in Santa Barbara, California? How ever shall you commute??”

      Well, that’s the thing: I don’t live there as of June 2nd. As of June 13th I, and my lovely and exceptionally-tolerant wife, have moved back east. Not quite to our old stomping grounds (Boston) but pretty close. We’re livin’ la vida efficiency studio hotel room for a week or two while we find a new apartment near Providence

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