Focus on the Family Action's rebranding as CitizenLink a bid to "minimize the confusion"

Colorado Springs-based Focus on the Family and Focus on the Family Action are not one and the same. The former is a 501(c)(3) founded in 1977 by the Reverend James Dobson to promote family values from a Christian perspective. The latter is a 501(c)(4) created in 2004 to serve as FOTF's political arm.

Formally rebranding Focus on the Family Action as CitizenLink is an effort to draw more of a distinction between the organizations -- and what happened next indicates that the switch was necessary. According to Gary Schneeberger, who speaks for both groups, when the Denver Post broke the story yesterday, "their headline said something like 'Focus on the Family changes its name to CitizenLink...'"

Close, but no cigar.

As Schneeberger notes, "there were a lot of times when a spokesperson would talk to the media representing Focus on the Family Action and the reporter would say the spokesperson was talking about Focus on the Family -- which is understandable, because they're only one word different. So we were looking to clarify the identities and the missions of both organizations, and to find a proactive and positive way to do it."

This move wasn't a hasty response to Dobson's formal departure from the organization in late February in order to launch a new radio program called Family Talk. The process has been going on "for a couple of years," Schneeberger continues. "Back then, we changed the Focus logo, and the same brand consultant we used on that project started a project of looking at what we might do with the 501(c)(4) organization." He notes that "you can't do a major logo change and a rebranding of an organization to clarify brands in the short time it's been since Dr. Dobson started Family Talk."

Not that the CitizenLink moniker is freshly minted. "Our daily e-mail updates are already called CitizenLink, our website is called CitizenLink. That's how people in the public square know us on the policy side. But we feel it will allow this affiliate of Focus on the Family to do even more impactful work."

At the same time, he goes on, "Focus proper will also continue to do policy work through things like Citizen magazine, a monthly magazine that's been going for more than twenty years -- it's published by Focus and has about 50,000 subscribers -- and also through our 'Family News' feature and Focus on the Family radio," not to mention side projects like its attention-getting Tim Tebow Super Bowl commercial. "But our primary focus will continue to be on education, helping families, helping marriages, helping parents raise children. That's 92 percent of what Focus does. And CitizenLink will be the advocacy arm of public expression -- encouraging people to call their congressman to support or oppose bills, things like that."

The reasons for this separation go well beyond mere organizational logic. Several years back, Citizens for Responsible Ethics in Washington (CREW) and Americans United for Separation of Church and State accused Focus on the Family of violating 501(c)(3) rules by endorsing candidates for office. After a year-long Internal Revenue Service audit, Focus was exonerated circa 2007 -- a victory celebrated by the Action arm in this post. But the experience "made us even more hyper-compliant with the regulations," Schneeberger stresses.

He notes that he's speaking as the vice president of communications for CitizenLink, not the vice president of ministry communications for Focus -- "and we track the work I do very carefully. When we started Focus on the Family Action, those of us who were working for the (c)(4) got an entirely new set of tape dispensers, new garbage cans, new everything -- and we have to track our time down to fifteen minute increments. It's very intentional bookkeeping to make sure we're complying with regulations."

He believes the CitizenLink transition will further efforts to "minimize the confusion" eventually. But it could take a while.

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Michael Roberts has written for Westword since October 1990, serving stints as music editor and media columnist. He currently covers everything from breaking news and politics to sports and stories that defy categorization.
Contact: Michael Roberts