Part One of Starting a Nonprofit: Choosing The Right Name

Part 1 of Starting a Nonprofit: Choosing The Right Name

When you’re thinking about how to start a nonprofit organization, you want to get to the heart of your mission. Think about the motivating spirit, the thing that sets your pulse beating a little faster. Feelings, emotions, passion, commitment. It’s not talk about 501(c)3 status, though that’s certainly part of it. It’s really about the burning flame that ignites your interest to do good in the world.

You want to bring those sentiments into the mix as you make one of the most important decisions: choosing the right name for your nonprofit.

Defenders of Wildlife, Save the Children, Doctors Without Borders. These are three charities with very different missions, but what they share is a memorable name. The words their founders chose are powerful, dynamic, and have a certain “stickiness” to them. A noun like “defenders” conjures up images of caped heroes bringing justice to the oppressed. A verb like “save” serves as a call to action. And a phrase like “without borders” asserts a confidence and a stance.

As you’re thinking about how to start a nonprofit, keep these tips in mind for selecting the best possible name for your project. The words you choose should:

  • Embody your mission.
  • Pack a punch.
  • Stick in people’s minds.

So how do you go about finding just the right language for your nonprofit’s name? Read, research, listen, explore. Be nosy and observant. Test out the names of nonprofits you remember or admire, and ask yourself why they stick with you and what it is you like about the language. Speak your nonprofit’s name out loud. Read it on paper. Listen to someone else use it in conversation.

Here are a few tips on choosing just the right name as you consider how to start a nonprofit.

Go right back to high school English class.

You want to consider the most descriptive language you can come up with. We suggest you grab a notebook, pour yourself a tall glass of lemonade, and start writing all the descriptive words you can think of that explain what your nonprofit will do. Give yourself prompts like, This nonprofit will ______. Shelter? Heal? Engage? Our nonprofit fights for ______. Children? The planet? Bicyclists? My nonprofit will help ______. Clean the air? Provide safe water? Teach underserved kids to read? This nonprofit will rally _______. Librarians? Recyclers? Parents?

Once you have a list of descriptive words, start a new column. Then take some time to think about all the action words you can come up with, and write them down too. Empower, motivate, supply, generate, protect, prevent, provide.

Paint a picture in readers’ minds.

Your nonprofit likely will have a connection to your community. So consider conjuring up a local image to help the name stick in people’s minds. Live near a blue lake? How about Blue Lake Crisis Shelter? Is your region known for a mountain range or a river? Try adding it in, like Ozark Mountain Animal Rescue or Snake River Resale Center. What about your physical space? If there is something memorable or visual about your building or site, consider including that to help paint a mental picture. Red Door Reading Program or Three Pines Pony Rescue.

Be original.

Okay, so this one is really hard. Some say there’s nothing new under the sun. Others have called originality just “undetected plagiarism.” And even Abraham Lincoln found it challenging, once saying, “Books serve to show a man that those original thoughts of his aren’t very new after all.” After an internet search to check if your nonprofit name already exists, you might feel like Honest Abe, only substituting “A web search serves to show . . .” for books.

See if your nonprofit’s name already exists in your state by doing an online search. You can use the National Council on Nonprofits’ database to find the page for your state. Or do a search on a national charity-rating site like GuideStar or Charity Navigator to see if the idea for your nonprofit name is already taken; then see how close to home. For example, if you want to use “paws” in your nonprofit’s title, note that it comes up in more than 100 names on Charity Navigator, and 69 times in just the state of Illinois alone. Consider how many nonprofits already using that name are in your state already, and whether your organization will stand out or blend in with the all others if you use it too.

Test it out.

Take a week to try using your nonprofit’s name in a variety of venues: on the phone speaking with friends, in email, on letterhead. Imagine it printed on a T-shirt or coffee mug. Consult family and friends to get their responses, record the results, and make sure you refrain from getting defensive or explaining your reasoning. Just take in the feedback and reflect for a while.

Look at how your nonprofit’s name would appear if shortened to an acronym: the Jacksonville Early Reading Kindergarten Stars becomes the J.E.R.K.S. when shortened, which is not very appealing. But the Jacksonville Youth Education Squad could become J-YES, which certainly offers a more upbeat spirit. Consider the domain name that works for your nonprofit’s website too: the Now Action for Youth loses its luster when written as noway.org. But actnow.org includes your nonprofit’s name in a catchy, more positive URL.

Language has power—to inspire us to act, care, and commit to a cause. Choosing just the right name for your nonprofit takes time, consideration, and feedback. As we all had to learn at an early age, use your words. In the right combination, they can have the power to do tremendous good.

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