November 29, 2012

Charity Faces Social-Media Blast for Dropping Gilda Radner's Name

Gilda Radner as her character Roseanne Roseannadanna on Saturday Night Live. Gilda Radner as her character Roseanne Roseannadanna on "Saturday Night Live."

Charities change their names for many reasons.

But when Gilda’s Club Madison, a Wisconsin chapter of the cancer-support organization created to honor the late comedian Gilda Radner, announced plans to rechristen itself the Cancer Support Community Southwest Wisconsin, people on social media howled in dismay.


The Madison chapter, which wanted to make its mission clearer to prospective clients, is the third to strip “Gilda” from its name, but its decision has sparked at least two petitions posted on (one currently with 1,500 signatures, another with 200) urging the Madison group to reverse itself.

Ms. Radner, who died of ovarian cancer in 1989, is best remembered for her 1970s heyday, when she was a beloved original cast member of TV’s "Saturday Night Live," creating characters like Emily Litella and Roseanne Roseannadanna.

But the Madison club, whose the name change takes effect in January, found itself in the center of controversy when its leader told a local newspaper that the change was being made in part because young adults don’t remember Ms. Radner at all.

“One of the realizations we had this year is that our college students were born after Gilda Radner passed, as we are seeing younger and younger adults who are dealing with a cancer diagnosis,” Lannia Syren Stenz, the club’s executive director, told the Wisconsin State Journal. “We want to make sure that what we are is clear to them and that there’s not a lot of confusion that would cause people not to come in our doors.”

However, that's not the real reason for the name change, says an official at the Cancer Support Community, the national organization that oversees the Madison group and 55 other chapters around the country. And the subsequent online outrage stems from that misperception as well as others, says Linda House, executive vice president for external affairs.

The Madison group, she says, changed its name to make it more apparent who it serves and what it does—provide emotional support for cancer patients, survivors, and their families.

The "Southwest Wisconsin" part of the name also heralds its recent expansion to serve 14 counties. In 2013, the Madison charity plans to reach out more aggressively to those counties.

Contrary to some media reports, Ms. House says, the national organization has not required that chapters change their names. "There are still 20 Gilda's Clubs," she points out.

She adds that the organization has no data to show that the young people it is seeking to serve are unfamiliar with Ms. Radner.

And, Ms. House adds, the organization has no intention of erasing the comedian's  involvement in the charity she inspired: "Gilda has been, is, and will always be a part of the fabric of this organization. It is impossible for her to be lost."

A Social-Media Storm

Meanwhile, a social-media firestorm rages. The charity's Facebook page has also been inundated with irate comments. (Says one: "I keep waiting for Emily Litella to say, 'Nevermind.' ")

Chris Turner, a Wilmington, Del., woman who started one of the online petition drives, writes, “How about instead of denying how much Gilda did for the cause, you teach the students about who she was and what she died for? As one person said, ‘I didn't know Mayo and I don't know why he has a clinic, but I know what it is.’ "

Mary Elizabeth Williams, a Salon writer and cancer survivor who is a member of the New York Gilda’s Club chapter, acknowledges in a column this week that the group’s name is “a little vague.”

But she argues that naming charities after individuals (such as Susan G. Komen for the Cure, or the Jimmy Fund) can help connect supporters to a cause.

“It makes it personal and intimate,” writes Ms. Williams. “It creates the unique and powerful and so necessary experience of identification and empathy.”

When Ms. Williams and her children began visiting the New York Gilda’s Club, she writes, they had not heard of Ms. Radner. But now they have, she writes, and “they love her. They love her because she’s real to them. She’s there smiling from a picture on the wall when they walk in. She’s there for all of us in the club, a beacon of laughter and warmth.”

Should charities named after individuals keep their names in perpetuity? Tell us what you think.

Send an e-mail to Heather Joslyn.