The National Governors Association recently began billing itself as “nonpartisan,” rather than “bipartisan”—a subtle shift that speaks to the importance of knowing how your organization is perceived by insiders and outsiders alike.
Late last year, the National Governors Association made a small tweak to its tagline. Rather than describing itself as “boldly bipartisan,” it now describes itself as “boldly nonpartisan.”
The change of prefixes may seem exceedingly modest. But in a hair-splitting place like Washington, DC, optics matter, and for an organization like NGA, which represents 55 U.S. state and territorial leaders, the distinction clarifies that it’s above the fray instead of part of the political scrum.
If people said, “Well, I don’t know, I’m confused by the term ‘nonpartisan,'” then that would give us an insight.
“We had a lot of discussion on this,” says NGA executive director and CEO Scott Pattison. “We realized in talking with governors and their staffs that while membership is mostly bipartisan because they’re Republicans and Democrats, the policy analysis we do is not partisan.”
Consider the most obvious example of U.S. political division over the past five weeks: the just-ended federal government shutdown. After it began in late December, NGA delivered letters endorsed by its entire membership calling for an end to the shutdown and alerting Congress about the crisis in funding for assistance programs. No one press release was expected to move the needle, but Pattison says the unified message clarified the stakes for the organization without getting muddied by the news cycle.
“During the shutdown, we’re getting a lot of questions from different sources,” he said earlier this month, before a deal to reopen the government was reached Friday. “It might be from the federal government, someone on a U.S. senator’s staff, a state official, or someone in a governor’s office. They’re asking, what are the impacts of the shutdown on such and such a particular program? Our answer is not some bipartisan consensus. It’s a nonpartisan analysis: ‘Here’s how this works.’”
Pattison says that formal discussions about the tagline change happened in earnest last fall, but the idea has been on his mind since he took the reins at NGA in late 2015. “As the new CEO, I was told to make sure that, in this very polarized and difficult partisan atmosphere in the country politically, the organization was effective and more collaborative.” That began a process where Pattison and NGA staff solicited feedback from governors’ offices to hear how the organization could best highlight its distinct qualities.
Part of that process meant looking at what a tagline change meant not just for membership but for the stakeholders—sponsors, grant-giving organizations, and other entities—that invest in NGA’s work.
“You also want to be able to indicate to the membership how all these external parties and stakeholders view the organization,” he says. “I think that broad collaboration beyond your membership really adds to the information that you’re gathering. It also gives you insight into how people view your work and the value of your work. I can’t imagine it would have happened, but if people said, ‘Well, I don’t know, I’m confused by the term “nonpartisan,”’ then that would give us an insight.”
Organizations change their names and taglines for all sorts of reasons. Usually they’re substantial ones. American associations that have gone global might want to remove that pesky “A” from their acronym. An association’s industry might have expanded or changed in ways that render the current name obsolete. Sometimes the industry has picked up a stigma that the association addresses for the good of the order.
But NGA’s case suggests that these changes don’t have to be brash ones; they may just be alert to the ways that people perceive and interpret the words that you use within your industry. For a long time, the word “bipartisan” has implied collaboration and crossing the aisle. The dictionary still says that. But in the public mind, it now suggests fragmentation. A different prefix recognizes that distinction.
Still, any organization that makes such a change has to match their actions with their words. Pattison points out that the tagline change doesn’t alter how NGA goes about its work, but it does bring what it does and what it says it does into closer alignment.
“We’ve spent many years producing high-quality information and reports for members, and it’s not like we’ve always had to say we’re nonpartisan,” he says. “We just demonstrate it through the work that we do.”
If you’ve changed your name or messaging, what did that process look like? Share your experiences in the comments.