What’s In a Name? 3 Questions to Ask When Naming a Nonprofit

Title Cover, 5 ladies holding a donation sign

Just like a person, an organization needs a name; you can’t create a nonprofit without one. That seems pretty obvious when you think about it—a no-brainer.

But have you ever tried to name an organization? Unless you’re going to name it after yourself, coming up with the right name is not always easy.

If you’re ready to launch a nonprofit, and you’re thinking of names, here’s a little help. I have 3 questions to get you started. So grab paper and pencil and get ready to work. (Yes, I did go old school with the “paper and pencil” thing. I find it therapeutic. And I like to erase stuff!)

Question 1: What do you want the name to convey?

A name can do so many things. Describe something, create curiosity, inspire, confuse, entertain, or even repel. What do you want people to know, or believe, or feel when they read your organization’s name? 

You might want the name to reveal who you serve, your location, the kind of service you offer, or even the way you work—like providing emergency or in-home services. The options here are almost endless. And that’s part of the problem when you’re coming up with a name!

A Few Examples

These names give the reader clues about the organization’s mission:

These organization names tell us some important things at a glance. They tell us who or what the organizations serve, give us an idea about the help they offer, and the third example tells us the geographic focus.

Simple, clear, informative naming like this is one way to go.

You might prefer a clever name or one that’s more creative. And that’s ok. But if you want people to read your name and not have to guess what your org does, keep it straightforward like these.

Now grab your pencil and quickly brainstorm your answer to Question 1. Just breeze through it without second-guessing or editing yourself. You can come back to it later.

Question 2: What’s More Important, Present or Future?

Another question is whether the name should reflect the current program and location or be broad enough to remain valid if the nonprofit evolves.

Here’s What I Mean

Gateway Children’s Services in Mt. Sterling, Kentucky launched a project in 1981 to offer emergency shelter to at-risk youth in a 7-county area. Many of the young people they took in were victims of abuse or had attempted suicide. In response, Gateway added a therapeutic component to its program.

Gateway introduced a “cutting edge treatment program called Living It Up” in 2008, Therapeutic Foster Care and Adoption Services in 2013, and outpatient behavioral health and substance abuse services in 2015.

Not only did the organization expand its services to meet the young people’s needs, but the organization expanded to serve the entire state of Kentucky.

What’s The Point Here?

I want you to see what Gateway didn’t do. They didn’t use the word “shelter” in their name, even though they were creating a youth shelter. And they didn’t get too specific about the kinds of young people they were serving. They didn’t add “runaway youth” to the name, for example.

They could’ve done those things, and nothing would have been wrong with that. But in this case, Gateway’s clients and programming expanded over time, and the nonprofit didn’t outgrow its name.

Sweet, right?

So what’s your preference: a name that clearly defines your current program or one that will survive if your program evolves? It’s your choice. Still, let me caution you that a more restrictive name might confuse people a few years from now if your program evolves.

Now it’s time to brainstorm a few answers to Question 2.

Question 3: Will It Cause Confusion?

Most likely, your state won’t let you register a nonprofit corporation name that’s already in use there. Obviously, that cuts down on confusion. You’ll want to avoid other types of confusion, too.

Avoid names that sound too much like national brands or well-known companies. This might cause confusion, or people may assume your organization is connected to the brand.

As you name your organization, you should also search the internet to see who else might be using the name or website domain name you want to use. You might find that an organization four states away is using the name you’ve chosen. Your state will let you use it, and you won’t have any trouble locally. But that could change if both organizations have an online presence.

Finally, avoid stepping on someone else’s registered trade name. Otherwise, you might open a “cease and desist” letter from an attorney demanding that you stop using the name. (This actually happened to a church I attended a long time ago!) So, conduct a search at the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office, and avoid names that you find listed as “live.”

A Few Extra Cautions

Here are a few more things to watch out for when you’re choosing a name:

  • Avoid “tortured” acronyms. You might love the word “unity,” for example, but if you have to blow out brain cells to come up with an org name that spells unity, STOP it! When people read your org name, instead of saying, “Oh. I’d like to know more,” they’re more likely to think, “What the….?” (You get my meaning.) Just K.I.S.S.–Keep It Simple, Shirley!
  • Avoid snicker-producing acronyms. Here in the U.S., folks are addicted to shortening names. So someone will probably use an acronym for your org even if you don’t. Check the acronym your name creates and make sure it doesn’t spell a 4-letter word or some embarrassing body function. Otherwise, folk might be laughing behind your back!
  • And finally, be sure the name doesn’t imply something your organization doesn’t do. Here’s a fictitious example: If I’m experiencing a crisis, I expect Crabgrass Crisis Center to help me right away. But if I call them and the rep only gives me a list of phone numbers to call, I’m going to be frustrated, disappointed, and angry. The nonprofit seems to be an organization that doesn’t deliver what the name promises. Enough situations like that will ruin an organization’s reputation.

Time for your final exercise! Jot down the list of names you’re considering. Run them through the questions above, and choose your favorite name.

The Bottom Line

Naming an organization is NOT just about the facts. It’s also emotional. The nonprofit you want to launch is close to your heart, and so is its name. I get it.

So use your good judgment, your imagination, and these ideas, and get this one done.

But don’t get stuck here! The people you want to serve are waiting for you to bring your vision to life! And serving them is much more important than any name you might choose.