Choosing a Nonprofit Name – 4 Key Areas to Consider

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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.

About author

Craig Van Korlaar

Craig specializes in strategy, systems, and metrics. He enjoys cross-pollinating ideas from the nonprofit, government, and business sectors (all of which he's worked in). In addition to heading up topnonprofits.com, his passions include technology, books, social causes, and the global church.

18 comments

  1. Uol Sraya 2 April, 2014 at 07:45 Reply

    Much of my career I worked for non-profits, which happened to be privately endowed historic schools. It was known by the community that they had access to wealth and did not pay local taxes, and therefore the high tuition, room and board charged to the parents gave the schools the appearance of being for-profit organizations. Any amount of public relations footwork promoting the positive change and impact the schools had on the lives of the students, the community, the world, and the future through its programs, financial aid, and while producing fine graduates, did little to ease the perceived contradiction between extremely high tuition taken in and the simultaneous non- profit status. The lterm ‘Non-Profit was negatively confusing the school’s perceived purpose. When I proposed that we refer to ourselves as a For-Change Organization, I was told that because it is not a legal status, it would not bear scrutiny. Why not? What if all 501.3.c. organizations simply referred to themselves as a For-Change Organization, with 501.3.c. tax status? It would become a familiar, positive, true description of an organizations working toward a better future in any one of a number of an interesting and worthwhile conglomeration of social spheres.
    Voila!
    Now, to work on lowering those tuition rates…

  2. Bashni Maistry 22 June, 2016 at 07:19 Reply

    Hi Craig,

    I currently run a lifestyle and etiquette academy which runs programmes for teens. In SA . I want to register a non profit so I can run this for the disadvantaged teens In particular. I need a name that will be simple yet effective . programme is age appropriate dress , makeup etc . any ideas???

    • Craig Van Korlaar 27 June, 2016 at 21:00 Reply

      Hello Bashni! I think it best that the name comes from you. If you think up a few options and want to run them by me, I’d be happy to provide feedback. Just email craig@(this website URL).

  3. Clementina Niyizibyose 13 July, 2016 at 09:33 Reply

    Hi I and my friends we want to start non profit organization
    We seek to educate, empower and encourage refugee families to achieve sustainability during the process of resettlement by:

    Engaging refugees in a mentoring partnership with established American families

    Offering educational services and programs to foster sustainability

    Connecting refugees with job placement services

    Providing assistance in locating affordable housing

    We seek to strengthen marriages and family units through interaction, training, and hands-on services projects with mentees.

    Help people who don’t speak English so we want to help them teach them English I and my friends we are all Bilingual . went to help students with tutoring, help them learn English quick, Interpret for them. We want to register a non profit so we can run this and them know us that we are here to help. I need someone to help me find the name because I kept thinking and nothing came out yet.

  4. Clementina Niyizibyose 13 July, 2016 at 09:34 Reply

    Hi I and my friends we want to start non profit organization
    We seek to educate, empower and encourage refugee families to achieve sustainability during the process of resettlement by:

    Engaging refugees in a mentoring partnership with established American families

    Offering educational services and programs to foster sustainability

    Connecting refugees with job placement services

    Providing assistance in locating affordable housing

    We seek to strengthen marriages and family units through interaction, training, and hands-on services projects with mentees.

    Help people who don’t speak English so we want to help them teach them English I and my friends we are all Bilingual . went to help students with tutoring, help them learn English quick, Interpret for them. We want to register a non profit so we can run this and them know us that we are here to help. I need someone to help me find the name because I kept thinking and nothing came out yet.

    • KEERTHE.JM 1 August, 2016 at 07:38 Reply

      I have an Ngo as that of u in my country too… I hope u will find easy through emailing me.. Contact me for information..

  5. Sayed Aziz 18 August, 2016 at 10:59 Reply

    Hello, I am planning to establish a non-profit organization to help military families who lost thier family members in the war and during the service. Also, will help those who got disabled during the service. I try to choose a proper name for the organization and I appreciate if you help me in this regard. Thank you!

    • Craig Van Korlaar 18 August, 2016 at 12:32 Reply

      We are not able to take on additional consulting clients at this time, but a couple comments/questions for you to consider. This sub-sector is pretty crowded, what will you be doing to differentiate yourself (could be a clear geographical focus, or something along these lines)? Are you open to helping start a local chapter of an existing ORG (and benefitting front their existing brand, structure, and resources) or is creating something yourself important to you? For names, a cheap place to start is Fiverr.com. Might want to grab a gig for a couple different folks to broaden options. Is inexpensive enough that even if you don’t use it, it won’t cost you mutch. Make sure that you have a strong domain for the name you like before finalizing. One last tip, if your plan is to be regional, including the region in the name isn’t a bad idea.

  6. Abhilasha 6 September, 2016 at 12:57 Reply

    Hi I am abhilasha from India. I starting a non-profit organisation and want to knw abt foreign funding , donation n all?

    • Craig Van Korlaar 6 September, 2016 at 20:19 Reply

      This is a complicated question with no short or easy answer. Getting international funding is not easy, especially when you are just starting and do not have a proven track record. Are there already other NGOs working in your area providing similar services?

  7. Abhilasha 8 September, 2016 at 00:37 Reply

    Yes.. There r many working for the same. But I want to do sometime different from all of them. I am concentrating on women empowerment .. Have planned some seminars in schools colleges in rural area. . Will u plz suggest any good name for my ngo.?

  8. Joyce Alig 9 September, 2016 at 11:10 Reply

    If a private, not-for-profit organization was incorporated over a half century ago, and has used that same name, and was incorporated under that name and has registered with the State of Ohio, and has been active since the year it was founded and funded, may the Ohio State or County or Township Trustee Government elected officials use the proper NAME of that private, not-for-profit organization to name one of its government buildings, without asking that private, not-for-profit organization in writing, to do so?

    • Craig Van Korlaar 9 September, 2016 at 17:47 Reply

      Disclaimer: I’m not a lawyer, and this is who you really should be asking this question to. That said, my understanding is that answer will be, “that depends.” Is it a variation, or an exact usage? Was that nonprofit’s name ever trademarked? Was this naming done in honor of the organization? I recommend consulting an attorney to see if there are grounds for submitting a cease and desist based on a trademark violation. Before spending the money however, they should ask themselves if that building name hurts or helps their brand. It honestly might very well be neutral or even positive (people familiar with the org will likely assume it was in honor of the org). Similarly, could taking legal action hurt your brand in a way that outweighs any benefits. In summary, the legal question needs to be discussed with a lawyer, but the decision to sue local government agency in the same community that organization works in should be weighed carefully even if there is legal grounds for it.

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