Choosing a Nonprofit Name

It isn’t easy naming or renaming an organization, but it goes a long way towards setting the stage for a strong and memorable brand.

The right name captures the imagination and connects with the people you want to reach – Danny Altman

So where do you start? If you’re like most people, it is easy to find a cause/issue you are passionate about, but turning this passion into a legal nonprofit entity with a strong brand platform isn’t easy. One of the first things you’ll need in the process is a good name. Although it is possible to change a legal name of an organization in the future, you will save a lot of confusion if you get it right the first time. Below are four key areas you’ll want to consider when choosing your nonprofits name.

Strategic Criteria

  • Meaningful: Does the name support the positioning and reflect the essence of your organization/brand?
  • Relevant: Is the name relevant to the key audiences you are trying to reach (group served, donors, volunteers, etc)?
  • Distinctive: Does the name stand out from the names of other organizations in your community? On the web?
  • Sustainable: Does it position the company for growth, change and success or does it box you in?
  • Visual: Lends itself well to both graphic and text presentation.
  • (Bonus) Modular: Lets you build brand extensions in the future. Think FedEx Ground, FedEx Express, FedEx Office.

Functional Criteria

  • Proper Context: Does the name work within the context of what is being communicated?
  • Contextual/Suggestive/Evocative: Does it describes something like the location or sector (contextual)? Suggest an idea like multi-cultural or changing the world (Suggestive)? Generates a feeling or emotion like grace or hope (Evocative)? F
  • Domain Available: Are there any available web domains that could be used with the name? Ideally while keeping it under 12 characters.

Linguistic Criteria

  • Understandable: Is the name easy to understand and explain
  • Pronounceable: Can people easily pronounce it?
  • Positive: It should have a positive tone and be free from inappropriate connotations in both yours and other languages and cultures.

Legal Criteria

  • Unique: Is it available for use (i.e. not already taken) and protectable as a trademark in all relevant classes?
  • Designator?: In around 50% of states it is required that you to end your legal name with a designator, such as “Corp”, “Inc.”, or “Ltd.” We recommend leaving this out of your logo and regular brand usage though.
  • Off Limits: Do not use words that are reserved for state purposes, such as “federal” or “national.”

Use these four essential areas as guidelines to help focus your creativity during the naming process. 

Steps For Choosing a Nonprofit Name

  1. Brainstorm: Generate multiple name ideas and pick one to 3 favorites based on the above criteria)
  2. Get feedback: [Recommended] Run your name(s) by people in your key audiences (potential donors, volunteers, people served, etc)
  3. Check name availability: You can usually find this info (or a phone number) on your secretary of state’s website.
  4. Check domain availability: [Recommended] Perform preliminary search for website domain availability as well as social media accounts
  5. Perform a name search: Just because it isn’t on file with your state doesn’t mean it isn’t being used elsewhere
  6. Reserve your corporate name: Again via your secretary of state’s website.
  7. Protect your name. Federal registration is around $200

Stats from Names of the Top 100 Nonprofits

  • Average characters in name (excluding spaces): 18.2 characters
  • Average words in name length: 2.9 words
  • Average root domain length (excluding http:// and .org etc.): 8.3 characters

Note: A handful of organizations that almost exclusively go by their acronym version of their names (UNICEF, ASPCA, etc) were counted as one word acronyms.

Additional Reading: 

Also check out the names on the Best Nonprofit Logos list.