Massachusetts charitable groups fight over ‘Big Sisters’

Jon Chesto

The Big Brothers Big Sisters of Massachusetts Bay’s CEO says his mentoring organization will continue to work on collaborative efforts with the Big Sister Association of Greater Boston despite a legal battle between the two nonprofit groups.

John Pearson, CEO of the Boston-based Big Brothers group, said he has instructed his staff to continue to assist Big Sister even though Big Sister filed a service-mark infringement suit against his organization on Friday.

Big Brothers recruiters will continue to refer potential volunteers who want to mentor girls in towns where the Boston-based organizations overlap to Big Sister, Pearson said. He also said he expects the two organizations will continue to work together on a joint clothing donation service based in Holbrook, as well as several joint partnerships with area employers.

‘‘I’m telling my staff we should do the same thing if they were threatening to sue or not threatening to sue,’’ Pearson said.

Big Sister filed the lawsuit in U.S. District Court in Boston in an effort to get the court’s help to stop Big Brothers Big Sisters of Massachusetts Bay from using its new name. The group successfully petitioned Big Brothers Big Sisters of America in 2006 for permission to change its name from Big Brothers of Massachusetts Bay to reflect its expanded scope.

Big Sister protested to the national group and repeatedly asked the other Boston-based mentoring group to not use ‘‘Big Sisters’’ in its name. In the lawsuit, Big Sister alleges that the name change is causing confusion among potential donors and volunteers, with some people believing that the change reflects a merger between the two groups.

While the two groups remain independent, the name change partly reflects the Big Brothers group’s merger with smaller Big Brothers Big Sisters organizations on Cape Cod and in the Attleboro area, Pearson said. The Big Brothers group began providing mentors to girls in 1998 by starting in communities where Big Sister didn’t want to operate, Pearson said.

‘‘It’s really very sad that two nonprofits that share the same mission - an interest in children - can’t find a way to work this out,’’ Pearson said. ‘‘We’re eager to work with them and help them survive and thrive as a standalone agency despite our name change.’’

Big Sister officials said they expect to continue collaborations with Big Brothers despite the lawsuit.

But Dolores Mitchell, the president of the Big Sister board, said her organization was left with no choice but to pursue a lawsuit after Big Brothers declined to drop ‘‘Big Sisters’’ from its name.

‘‘Big Brother’s actions have hindered our ability to recruit volunteers and raise the funds essential to our long-term viability,’’ Mitchell said in a prepared statement. ‘‘The only way to protect our rights, therefore, is to seek a court ruling.’’

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