How to Find a Name for Your Nonprofit That Is Legal and Memorable

Covering the Legalities of Naming Your Nonprofit

Group of young people brainstorming a new nonprofit name.
Brainstorming a good name for your new nonprofit may be one of the most important things you do.. Credit: CaiaImageJVCLOSED/OJO+/Getty Images

So you've decided to organize a nonprofit.

Among the first things you need to do is decide on an appropriate name.

You should pick a name that accomplishes these three things:

  • It describes your organization's mission.
  • It's easy to remember.
  • It has not already been used by another business or group as a trademark or a domain name.

What Is a Trademark?

A trademark is any word, phrase, or logo, used to identify products or services in the commercial or nonprofit marketplace.

Trademarks are often registered with the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office, but the fact is that even unregistered names and trademarks have their rights.

If an organization, business or nonprofit, was the first to use a particular mark or name, it is an enforceable trademark. It is the use of the name, not its formal registration, that creates trademark ownership.

Domain Name Considerations

Today, naming your organization is even more complicated because of the Internet.

Even if you do not plan to have a website immediately, you need to reserve a domain name. Also, if a website uses a particular name, that name creates trademark ownership...even if it is not registered as such.

So, you will need to do some research to find an unused name that is also still available as a domain name. You may end up with one name as your official business name and a slightly different one as your domain name.

Research, Research, Research

First, brainstorm names for your organization and build a list of several names that could work.

Then check the following sources:

  • The Internet

    Start with search engines such as Yahoo! or Google. See how your chosen names are used, and by whom. You may quickly eliminate part of your list in this way. 

    Then check for domain name availability. Go to NetworkSolutions and search for your names or variations of those names.

    Most nonprofits in the US use the .org suffix for their domain name, but when you plug in a name at network solutions you will find out if that name is used with any suffix such as .com, .gov, or .edu. In recent years, the suffix, .ngo has become avaiable for nonprofits as well.
     
  • The Phone Book.

    Yes, the old-fashioned paper phone book is still a good place to check business names, especially local ones. Check your yellow pages book (likely the only one you still get) with your pared down list  If you find another organization using one of the names on your list, mark that name off.
     
  • The Library.

    Go to the library and look for trade publications and business directories. You can also contact local trade associations and chambers of commerce to get additional lists or directories. Ask for one of the librarians for help. 
  • Federal Databases

    Go to the free trademark database of the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office (PTO). Not all trademarks are registered here, but if one of your possible names is on the list, scratch it off immediately.

    To use a registered mark invites a lawsuit for "willful infringement," a legal violation that carries hefty penalties.
     
  • Your State Trademark Registry.

    Contact the Secretary of State's office to find out which agency handles trademark registries. You can ask that agency how to conduct a search.
     
  • Fictitious Name Databases.

    Many counties have a database of fictitious business names or FBNs. An FBN is sometimes called a "doing business as" name or DBA.

    The FBN or DBA is a business name that is different than the legal name of that business.

    For example, a nursing home might be named The GoodHope Home but have a program called Housing Alternatives for the Aging. One well-known nonprofit markets itself as Road Scholar, but its legal name is Elderhostel.

    It is a good idea to check these names against your list of possible names for your nonprofit. Using one of these, at the very least, invites confusion.
     

If You Incorporate

You will have to deal with trademark conflicts and domain name issues whether you decide to incorporate as a nonprofit or not. 

If you do not incorporate, go ahead and use your chosen name. For extra protection, you can apply for a trademark with the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office.

If you do incorporate, you will need a name that is not already being used by another business or nonprofit. You will, also, have to follow whatever rules your state has for naming. 

For instance, your state might require all names to include the word "Corporation," or "Inc."

Your name might be rejected even if it is "confusingly" similar to another business name. Your state's filing office (usually the Secretary of State's office) may let you check their database of names online.

Once you locate an acceptable name, reserve it if you can. Most states do allow you to reserve a corporate name until you can file for incorporation.

If you plan to apply for tax-exempt status from the IRS, you should avoid any name or words in your name that imply that your organization might not be eligible for tax-exempt status. For instance, avoid words such as "political action group," or "trade association."

Naming your nonprofit is not as straight forward as it looks, but with some creativity, solid research, and the willingness to be flexible, you should end up with a name that is suitable, lawsuit resistant, and memorable.

If all of this seems too daunting, or if you've already named your organization or program and want to make sure it is legally safe, you can hire an attorney who specializes in trademark law to help you.

Resources:

  • Starting & Building a Nonprofit: A Practical Guide, Peri H. Pakroo, J.D., Nolo Press.
  • Trademark: Legal Care for Your Business & Product Name, Stephen Elias, Nolo Press.

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