How to Create a Nonprofit Name That Everyone Remembers

Putting Your Mission in Your Nonprofit Name

Brainstorming session.
Compassionate Eye Foundation/Gary Burchell/Getty Images

A lot rests on the name of your nonprofit and even on what you call your projects and programs.

Will your name become a household word? Will it quickly and eloquently convey what you do? Or will it be a made up word that means nothing, a name that bores everyone or a hodge-podge of terms that only insiders in your field understand?

Many organizations spend thousands of dollars on research to determine what to name themselves.

Or they hire expensive consultants who may not even understand your audience, much less your mission.

But, a group of people with common sense can often brainstorm names and come up with winners.

Back in the 1960s and 70s, a group of government officials created names for new federal agencies and programs by just talking about appropriate, but powerful, words. They never considered bringing in a branding agency.

The results? Peace Corps, Environmental Protection Agency, Head Start, and the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission.

Memorable and instantly recognized, many of these names still resonate around the world. 

What do these names have in common?

  • They embody the mission of the program within the name, such as "peace" in Peace Corps and  "environmental protection" in the EPA. No head scratching with those names.
  • They use short, powerful and descriptive words. 
  • They are easy to remember and to say, or they can easily revert to memorable acronyms. 

    Some nonprofit names are so powerful that their acronyms alone are universally recognizable. Just think of SPCA, EPA, AA, and AAA

    Other acronyms are so recognizable that they don't need to have any meaning.  For instance, AARP used to stand for American Association of Retired People. But people used AARP so often that the advocacy group felt confident dropping the old name and just using AARP.

    That change also helped AARP rebrand. "Retired" was an association the group was happy to shed.

    The first step in naming your nonprofit or one of its programs is to start with the mission. If you don't have a short and memorable mission, rewrite it. Once you have a strong mission, then think about a name.

    Try these tips: 

    • What do you do? Use action words such as protect, prevent, cure, heal, give, rescue, love, feed.
    • Whom do you help? Use short words to describe the people you serve. Consider child, poor, hungry, homeless, deprived, needy, families.
    • Who's doing the helping? Sometimes your members are important to name. For instance,  the doctors in Doctors Without Borders. The mothers in Mothers Against Drunk Driving, or the families in Family First. 
    • Brainstorm concepts, values, solutions, and problems that resonate with most people, like peace, poverty, environment, wildlife.
    • Use words that are concrete, not abstract; or make those abstractions concrete. Love is abstract, but "love thy neighbor" is concrete. Just consider the power of Save the Whales or Stand Up to Cancer.
    • Design a name that produces a memorable acronym. Use it often, and it might turn out to be your brand.  Just like Triple AAA (American Automobile Association). Or NPR (National Public Radio). Acronyms can also be cleverly designed to capture the essence of your mission. Just consider M.A.D.D. (Mothers Against Drunk Drivers) or CARE, once known as Cooperative for Assistance and Relief Everywhere.
    • Think twice before using a person's name. One thing you should probably not do, or at least consider carefully before doing so, is to call your charity for its founder or a celebrity. Sure, The Michael J. Fox Foundation for Parkinson’s Research has worked out beautifully, but the Lance Armstrong’s Foundation had to be renamed Livestrong after an enduring scandal. There's also the problem of what to do after a founder leaves the organization or dies. Will that name still mean something years later?

    Don't think that all the great nonprofit names have been taken. Sure, we have famously iconic names such as The American Cancer Society, the American Red Cross, and the March of Dimes, but naming goes on.

    There is no end to the possibilities. Just think of some of the great, influential names of today.

    What's in a name? For your nonprofit, maybe everything.

    Suggested Resources:

    How to Find a Name for Your Nonprofit That Is Legal and Memorable (covers copyright and trademark issues as well as choosing domain names)