Should the Ethical Society of Boston Change its Name?

Submitted by Fred Hewett

Our group has had the name “Ethical Society of Boston” for over 50 years. I’m told that members have toyed with the idea of changing it at various points during that time. The addition of “Humanist”, for example, was considered, as was adding “Culture” after “Ethical”. Since we’re now in a period of examining who we are and what we want to be, it’s again a good time to consider if our name is serving us well.

Given that our survival hinges on attracting new members, the real importance of our name is how it falls on the ears of those hearing it for the first time. Keep in mind that, although our name sounds completely fine to us, on the ears of somebody who’s never heard of us before, it may sound cold and stiff. We are putting the burden on newcomers to learn more about us in order to overcome the first impression that our name creates. “Ethical Society of Boston” was a fine name at one time, but now it sounds very dated.

In particular, the word “society” in an organization’s name evokes a timeworn feeling, and a closed circle. What are other “Societies”? The Quakers call themselves The Religious Society of Friends. There’s the Audubon Society, and the Historical Society. There was the Temperance Society, way back in the 1920’s.  These may all be good organizations, but their names don’t convey a sense of vitality or modernity. The feeling one gets is one of exclusivity, not invitation. Having “society” in our name is a handicap — baggage from the 19th century that we don’t need to carry any longer.

So, I don’t think our name is working in our favor, and I propose we change it. We have to compete for new members in a marketplace of churches, clubs, and other institutions, and we should not have a competitive disadvantage from the outset. It’s a question of how we market ourselves. We want to put our best foot forward.

The name that I propose we adopt is:
 Boston Ethical Community
Here’s my thinking:

  • It gets the “Boston” part up front where it belongs. We don’t have “Public Library of Boston” or “Globe of Boston”. Putting “Boston” first is a more common usage and it eliminates a superfluous word from the name.
  • “Ethical” is a link to our original name, respecting our legacy and our membership in the American Ethical Union. That history is an important part of who we are, and although some may get the impression that we think we’re the most ethical people around, we need to retain part of our current name for sake of continuity.
  • “Community” is really what we care most about. That came out strongly in the sessions with our consultant, Mary Schaefer. “Community” conveys the sense that our door is open and all are welcome. It’s much more descriptive of who we in fact are. We share the value of being together, of providing mutual support, and of bringing out the best in each other. That’s what we’re about, and that’s what a community does.

As a bonus, the proposed name is one syllable shorter, too.

There is certainly precedent for organizations changing their names. There’s a local group that until fairly recently bore the name “Society for the Preservation of New England Antiquities”. Now they are just “Historic New England”. And even closer to home, the Harvard Humanist Chaplaincy recently became the Humanist Community at Harvard.

I hope you’ll give some thought to changing our name, and I’m interested to hear what you think.