AHNM (Acronyms Have No Meaning)

This is the second part in my unsolicited communications advice for the missions organization, YWAM. I had intended to begin with ywam.org, but before we evaluate the content of YWAM’s website, I wanted to share some thoughts regarding the group’s name.

The name, Youth With A Mission, dates back to the founding of the organization by Loren Cunningham in 1960. Since then, it has been abbreviated as YWAM. (With unfortunate similarity to multi-level marketing giant, AMWAY). The name was radically different from the denominational missions agencies that were so strong at the time, and it reflected the organizations unique approach: a decentralized group mobilizing young people– many just out of high school– as missionaries. The group with the funny name drew thousands of young people into service abroad.

Since then, initialisms and acronyms have become a trend in the security-conscious missions world. Many missions organizations, including OM International (Operation Mobilization), GEM (formerly “Greater Europe Mission”), and imb (International Mission Board) have gone the same route. For some, it seems to be a way to downplay the words that might be problematic when it comes to access into restricted groups and places. For others, it’s an attempt at changing the agency’s identity without crossing traditionalist trustees and nostalgic constituents.

Unfortunately, what these groups don’t realize is that going by their initials is a bad move. They’re going for BMW, but they end up KFC; only serving to (further) confuse their identity and make them sound colder and more corporate. Rebranding as initials is a classic tactic for old, out of touch company trying to re-invent itself for a new generation. Think IBM, GM, B&H, AOL.

Younger organizations, the ones with momentum, would never go with initials. Ancient Greek, yes. Mashups (global + local + network = GlocalNet), sometimes. Latin, ad nauseum. Initials, no. Names like Acts 29, The Upstream Collective, Ecclesia Network, and Forge, don’t always communicate a whole lot, but they do convey a tone, a sense of identity, and a feeling of movement. These names tell a story. YWAM, not so much.

Initials aren’t the end of YWAM’s alphabet soup. Most organizations use acronyms. Some, like CEO (Chief Executive Officer), and NGO (non-governmental organization), are widely recognized. But to call your flagship training initiative “DTS” is to doom it to insiders-only obscurity.

I don’t expect that the ministries of YWAM will change the name. After 50 years, thousands of people (all of them insiders) are emotionally attached to it. But because the organization has changed over the years, the name actually misrepresents what YWAM does. They are no longer a “youth” missions organization.  Part of what initially set the group apart from all the rest has since become a secret password of sorts; if you know what YWAM is, you’re in. If not, you’re out. This, you can imagine, isn’t the best for broadening a network.

I’m not suggesting YWAM change their name to follow trends or to be more easily tweetable. Instead, I recommend they use the YWAM name for what it is, an umbrella network over many individual ministries, and launch a new initiative that would serve as the identity for the evangelism, training and mercy ministries promoted on its website. Such a move would retain the current support structure, but allow the organization to recruit people to the new name.

What should be the name of this new venture? Don’t ask me, ask the YWAMers. Many of them have adopted unique names for their local ministries around the world, and have great ideas. Many of these have already been formally applied to various ministries within the organization and would make fine names.  As I mentioned earlier, people are the greatest asset. Soliciting ideas from within the organization might result in something that better reflects who the organization has come to be. It would help build a sense of ownership throughout the ranks and inspire creative vision for the future. Any YWAMers out there want to take a crack at it?

Next, we’ll look at the content and structure of YWAM’s web presence.

3 thoughts on “AHNM (Acronyms Have No Meaning)

  1. Youth With A Mission can be a dizzying array of letters… It’s not just YWAM and DTS (Discipleship Training School). It’s the U of N, the SOE, the BCC, and every other training school and ministry initiative.

    Now add in multiple languages, JEM: Jeunesse En Mision, JUCUM: Juventud Con Una Misión and UiO: Ungdom I Opdrag and things can really get confusing. This alphabet soup can be off-putting to those not in the know—but I suggest that is the nature of all language and organization. Since Babel, language has described the insiders and the outsiders. Even in the same language we define ourselves by accent and intonation—in how we say the words.

    Good communicators are mindful of this tendency of language to create separation. They seek to bridge that gap and get through. Good communicators spell out University of the Nations, School of Evangelism and Biblical Core Course so the full name can better describe what the shorthand acronym does not.

    While Goodman suggests that “YWAM” doesn’t get through, I’m not so sure he’s correct. It may not be trendy, and it’s true that YWAM counts people who are beyond “youth” in it’s ranks—but I suggest that YWAM has quite a bit of equity after fifty years. Thousands participate in short-term outreaches every year. Thousands attend training schools in over a hundred nations. I have no idea, but it is possible that more than a million students have participated in YWAM training schools. In some ways, YWAM could be broader than McDonald’s as a brand. (Maybe we should adopt ‘billions and billions served’ too… ) All staff communicate to home churches and supporters. YWAM is known worldwide and readily recognized by a huge number of people. Of course there are people who don’t know who we are or what YWAM or DTS means. And so of course, YWAMers need to continually bridge that gap.

    Could the brand use a refresh? I don’t know, but I do know that over 50 years there have been at least four different logos that have been refreshed from time to time. The current logo still seems fresh to me. I like it as a mark—I think it reflects who we are in these times. A day will come where it is long in the tooth, and I’m sure YWAMers will create another identity that better reflects us.

    Lest I sound like a contrarian, I’m actually quite intrigued by the questions Goodman is raising. I think it’s healthy for us to look at how we’re communicating and imagine better ways to get through. So keep on asking and even provoking (in love of course!)… I’ve looked for an RSS feed so I can subscribe, but I may have missed it. Please let me know if you’ve got one.


  2. Acronynms may not as helpful as originally thought in hiding the identity of organizations going into closed access countries (a quick Google search would unveil the true identity in many cases).

    However, I am not sure that YWAM is so mysterious. I am not in YWAM, but as a missionary I am familiar with what it stands for, and also for the meaning of DTS. I have met enough YWAMers to at least know these two acronymns.

    What’s news to me is that YWAM does more than youth work. I thought it was mostly teens and 20s going on 2 week to 2 year missions. I haven’t looked at the website admittedly, but the whole “Y” part of acronyms had me thinking that they are not really a long-term organization.

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