Your nonprofit’s name is one of the most important aspects of your branding. Along with your logo, slogan and brand guidelines, your name is what distinguishes you from other organizations and lets people know about your mission. A great and appropriate name can be the difference between a successful nonprofit and one that struggles to build its community of supporters.
Many people tend to overlook the importance of choosing the right name when they’re first starting their nonprofit. However, putting a lot of thought into your name will definitely pay off in the long run.
Your name should be attention-grabbing and memorable, and be able to succinctly convey your nonprofit’s mission. More often than not, your name is the first piece of information people learn about you — maybe they come across your social media post or hear about you from a friend — and that first impression can decide whether or not they want to learn more and potentially join your community of members or donors.
In this post, let’s go over some key things to consider when naming (or renaming) your nonprofit to ensure that the name you choose accurately represents your organization, your brand and your community.
What’s in a Name?
Although a rose by any other name would smell as sweet… the same may not be true of your nonprofit’s name.
Put simply, your name tells people about your mission and your impact. If they see nothing else, they should be able to identify what it is that you do just from your name.
A great name helps you stand out from other organizations in this increasingly competitive world. Conversely, a poor name confuses your organization with another or limits the opportunity to appeal to interested donors.
When you’re first starting your nonprofit, your name will help attract your first supporters and grow your community. And from a legal perspective, you’ll need to decide on a name when you’re first incorporating it and applying for tax exemption.
It may be tempting to rush into naming your nonprofit just for the sake of having something to put in this paperwork — after all, you can always change it later, right?
While that’s true, changing your name can be a hassle, not only in terms of legal matters, but from a marketing and branding perspective as well. It takes a few years to get people familiar with your brand to a point where they recognize and trust it, so changing your name too early and too many times can delay that milestone and stunt your growth.
That being said, there are times when changing your name may be appropriate. For example:
There is a disconnect between what you do and what your audience thinks you do based on your name
Your mission has evolved over time and your current name no longer reflects it
Your name is too similar to another organization’s and it’s affecting your efforts to grow your community
Your organization was named after a certain individual who is no longer affiliated with you
Your name includes information about a specific geographic location, service or population you serve, but you’ve now expanded to reach more people
Whether you’re starting a new nonprofit or renaming an existing one, read on to find out what you need to keep in mind.
5 Types of Nonprofit Names to Consider
There’s no single formula for coming up with a great nonprofit name. In the same way that organizations vary in their mission, size, structure and other aspects, they vary greatly in what type of name works best for them. There are, however, some common themes you might want to keep in mind. Here are some options to consider:
Descriptive names tell what the organization does, like Children’s Aid Society. Descriptive names are the most common type of name, and are often combined with a location, such as The Boys Choir of Harlem, Louisville Zoo Foundation, and the 92nd Street Y. Keep in mind, though, that while serving as a point of distinction among other groups, a geographic-based name might limit your potential expansion outside the named area in the future.
Celebrity / Founder Name
Names of founders are often used to provide immediate visibility and credibility to the charity, such as The Michael J. Fox Foundation for Parkinson’s Research or the Lance Armstrong Foundation. A person’s name allows the organization to tell a compelling story and to galvanize people around a magnetic personality.
The only problem with this option? The organization’s brand relies on the goodwill built up around a certain individual. In an unfortunate example, Lance Armstrong Foundation was actually renamed to Livestrong Foundation after controversy emerged surrounding his career.
Some names imply a meaning relating to the organization’s mission. The name Red Cross derives from inverting colors on Switzerland’s flag to symbolize the organization’s neutral status. Their immense brand recognition results from a long successful history, simple name, and well-recognized icon, indelibly linked to the concept of disaster relief. Similarly, the name Doctors Without Borders effectively conveys the fact that this organization saves people’s lives regardless of where they live or what conflict their country is facing.
Using a generic word has advantages and disadvantages. The name Crossroads conjures a powerful visual metaphor, yet it is used by many organizations, causing problems distinguishing among them. Another example of an organization with a generic name is Do Something — it’s a powerful statement, but it’s not immediately clear what it is the organization urges people to do.
Combining two words can generate a unique name. KickStart builds moral character in youth through martial arts, suggesting its mission in an emotionally upbeat moniker. CarePath describes its mission of guiding seniors to appropriate care. MercyCorps, dedicated to the spread of open markets and the global fight against poverty, fuses common words for a powerful name, but unfortunately suggests a different mission, something to note when using this approach.
To achieve a distinctive name, you can concoct a word. Unusual names create uniqueness and help memory. George Eastman’s camera companies created Kodak with hard Ks to start and finish the name, making it sound modern. Recently, using various Latin roots became common in naming. The auto brand Acura suggests accuracy and Lexus implies excellence. The pharmaceutical industry uses this technique commonly, such as Prozac, Claritin and Zertec. However, this type of name is quite expensive to develop and requires a huge marketing investment to promote successfully.
While not widely used, names mimicking sounds can work if there’s enough connection between word and sound. Search engine Yahoo! successfully uses the sound of a joyous discovery; however, a nonprofit called KaBOOM! belies its mission of providing safe haven for kids by employing the sound of an explosion as its name.
Sometimes foreign words provide good names, particularly when they are short and sound good. Kiva, the micro-lending site, is Swahili for “unity” or “agreement,” which works even if you don’t know the meaning – perhaps because two of the four letters subtly mimic the word “give.”
What About Abbreviations?
In the nonprofit sector, abbreviations happen because a name is too long to say in conversation. Large organizations such as IBM or UJA may be recognized by their initials, without knowing what the abbreviation actually means.
Some abbreviations are shortened even further, even down to one letter. The YMCA recently rebranded as simply the Y. The YMHA was renamed Jewish Community Center a few decades ago, now the JCC, although members say they’re going to the J.
Carefully crafted acronyms, like K.I.D.S. (Kids in Distressed Situations) or M.A.D.D. (Mothers Against Drunk Drivers), help reinforce the name, in the first case by specifying community served, and in the second, conveying strong emotion felt by victims of drunk driving.
CARE, the leading humanitarian organization and originator of the CARE package, benefits from a fantastic acronym describing its mission. It’s so well-known that the longhand name of the “Cooperative for Assistance and Relief Everywhere” is no longer referenced, even on its website.
Other well known examples include NPR and TED. Most people use these in everyday conversation without ever realizing that they stand for “National Public Radio” or “Technology, Entertainment, and Design”. Even the About Us sections on their websites use the abbreviated versions because they’ve now become an important part of their brand and using the full name might confuse people.
What does this mean for your organization? Well, if your name is long enough to need an abbreviation, think carefully about whether or not that abbreviation is also reflective of your brand and memorable enough to stand on its own if needed.
Questions to Help You Brainstorm Ideas
Coming up with an effective nonprofit name can be challenging. To help you gather some ideas, try answering the following questions:
Who do you serve?
What services do you offer them? What are some words and terms that reflect this?
Who are your members? What are their pain points and what solutions do you offer?
What is your mission? Can you describe it in just a few words?
How would your community describe you?
You can even have a bit of fun with it and get creative!
“I start with a team exercise,” says Kerstin Heuer, founder of Non-Profit Today. “If your organization was an animal, what would it be? If it was a song, what would it be? Then we add color, superhero, a car etc. That gives a general idea of how they experience their brand.”
Once you have a list of ideas, answer the following for each potential name to help you narrow down your list:
How does it sound when said out loud? Does it roll off the tongue or is it a bit of a mouthful? Make sure it’s not too long and is easy to pronounce (especially if you frequently work with people whose first language isn’t English).
Is it easy to spell? Does it have an easy-to-remember abbreviation?
Is the name distinctive? If you Google it, what comes up? Is there already another nonprofit with that name?
Is a website domain available? Is the term trademarked?
How does it visually look when it’s written out?
How might it make someone feel to hear it?
What are its connotations in other cultures?
When you have a shortlist of two or three top contenders, make sure to ask for feedback from people both inside and outside your organization. It’s entirely possible that you and your co-workers are too close to the problem to be able to objectively judge which option is the best. To help with this, you might also want to consider running a survey or a focus group to gather feedback on your top options.
As Kerstin puts it, “It’s like sitting in a jar and not being able to read your own label. You need someone to help guide you and help you read your label.”
Common Mistakes to Avoid When Naming Your Nonprofit
Now you know that your nonprofit name has to accurately represent your mission, be unique, easy to pronounce — all that good stuff. But there are a few more things to take into consideration that many people tend to overlook. When naming or renaming your nonprofit, avoid doing the following:
Don’t jump in without doing research: Choosing a name is exciting and it can be tempting to get started with committees, contests, brainstorm sessions and lists of ideas. However, the most important work has to be done before you get to any of those. The first thing you should do is research your audience — who they are, what do they need from you, how do they currently perceive you, where and how do they interact with your organization? Answering these questions will help guide your naming process and narrow down your options.
Don’t choose a name that’s not aligned with your brand: Alignment with your mission is one thing, but does the tone of your name match your brand identity and all of your branding assets?
For example, Locks of Love is a nonprofit that provides hair prosthetics to children who need them. Their logo, fonts and colors evoke warm feelings and have a fun, carefree undertone. There’s even a section on their website titled “LOL”. If they had decided to name their organization “Children’s Hair Prosthetics of Florida”, that would definitely be a miss, as it would disrupt how people experience their brand.
Don’t copy someone else: Believe it or not, there are organizations who will purposefully choose a name that sounds similar to another larger, more well-known nonprofit in the hopes of piggy-backing on their success and attracting some of their supporters. This is a lazy tactic and will complicate things for your nonprofit later down the line. Whether it’s intentional or accidental, do your best to come up with your own unique name and eliminate any chance of confusion for your audience.
Don’t ask for approval from just one person: We’ve all been there. You spend weeks working on something, get positive feedback from your colleagues, and put a proud smile on your face as you walk into your executive director’s office for that final sign-off… only to find out that your ED hates it and wants you to start from scratch.
With something as subjective as a nonprofit name, you can’t afford to miss out on a great option just because one person doesn’t like it. To avoid this, put a protocol in place before you start that places responsibility on a group of people rather than just one person. This can be a committee who takes a vote, a survey or a focus group.
Don’t commit to a name before testing it out: Once you’ve settled on a name, don’t rush to announce it to the world. Think of all the places where this name will appear and test how it looks within your branding guidelines. Draft a logo with the new name in it and try out different fonts and colors. You may find that the name you chose is too long or simply doesn’t look visually appealing alongside your other branding assets. Only once you’re happy with how the new name looks in various forms and on all your digital and print materials should you commit to it.
One Final Note
It’s common to rely on intuition or gut feeling when choosing a name for anything, but it’s important to give yourself some time and live with the name for a while. Maybe the option you landed on doesn’t immediately feel like the right choice, but that’s pretty standard. “A new name ALWAYS feels weird at the beginning,” says Kerstin.
So don’t dismiss it and start from scratch. Give it some time and you’ll find that it will grow on you and your community over time.
Are you in the process of naming or renaming your nonprofit? Let us know what you decide on in the comments!