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Naming Your NonProfit

Lori Halley  10 June 2011  6 comments

This is a guest post by Howard Adam Levy, Principal of Red Rooster Group and Founder of The Nonprofit Brand Institute  a branding agency that creates effective brands, websites and marketing campaigns for nonprofits to increase their visibility, fundraising and effectiveness.Visit them at http://npbrandit.com/.


Does your nonprofit name reflect your mission?

Your organization’s name can describe what you do, your values and your audience. While a great name won’t guarantee a steady stream of funds, it helps distinguish your organization in this increasingly competitive world. Conversely, a poor name confuses your organization with another or limits the opportunity to appeal to interested donors.

To assess your organizational name, rate it on a 10-point scale for these questions:

●      Does the name represent what your organization does?
●      Does the name align with your organization's brand
●      Does the name distinguish your organization from your competition?
●      Is the name easy to spell and pronounce?
●      Is the name short? (If you refer to it by its initials, it’s probably too long)
●      Does the name inspire confidence?
●      Does the name elicit a positive emotional response?
●      Does the name appeal to your audiences?
●      Will the name allow your organization to expand services?

If the rating was low, it’s time to reconsider your organization’s name. Here are some types to contemplate.

Descriptive Names

Descriptive Names tell what the organization does, like Children’s Aid Society. Descriptive names are the most common type of name, and are often combined with a location, such as The Boys Choir of Harlem, Louisville Zoo Foundation, and the 92nd Street Y. While serving as a point of distinction among other groups, a geographic-based name may limit potential expansion outside the named area.

Celebrity / Founders Name

Names of founders are often used to provide immediate visibility and credibility to the charity, such as The Michael J. Fox Foundation for Parkinson’s Research, and Lance Armstrong’s Foundation (renamed Livestrong). A person’s name allows the organization to tell a compelling story and to galvanize people around a magnetic personality. The limitation is that the goodwill built up around one individual may be difficult to shift to the organization after their departure.

Naming Techniques: Meaning, Generic, or Unique

Some names imply a meaning relating to the organization’s mission. The name Red Cross derives from inverting colors on Switzerland’s flag to symbolize the organization’s neutral status. Their immense brand recognition results from a long successful history, simple name, and well-recognized icon, indelibly linked to the concept of disaster relief.

Using a generic word has advantages and disadvantages. The name Crossroads conjures a powerful visual metaphor, yet it is used by many organizations, causing problems distinguishing among them.

Combining two words can generate a unique name. KickStart builds moral character in youth through martial arts, suggesting its mission in an emotionally upbeat moniker. CarePath describes its mission of guiding seniors to appropriate care. MercyCorps, dedicated to the spread of open markets and the global fight against poverty, fuses common words for a powerful name, but unfortunately suggests a different mission, something to note when using this approach.

To achieve a distinctive name, you can concoct a word. Unusual names create uniqueness and help memory. George Eastman’s camera companies created Kodak with hard Ks to start and finish the name, making it sound modern. Recently, using various Latin roots became common in naming. The auto brand Acura suggests accuracy and Lexus implies excellence. The pharmaceutical industry uses this technique commonly, such as Prozac, Claritin and Zertec. This type of name is quite expensive to develop and requires a huge marketing investment to promote successfully.

Read More: Use These 5 Steps to Create a Nonprofit Marketing Plan

While not widely used, names mimicking sounds can work if there’s enough connection between word and sound. Search engine Yahoo! successfully uses the sound of a joyous discovery; however, a nonprofit called KaBOOM! belies its mission of providing safe haven for kids by employing the sound of an explosion as its name.

Sometimes foreign words provide good names, particularly when they are short and sound good. Kiva, the micro-lending site, is Swahili for “unity” or “agreement,” which works even if you don’t know the meaning – perhaps because two of the four letters subtly mimic the word “give.”


In the nonprofit sector, abbreviations happen because a name is too long to say in conversation. Large organizations such as IBM or UJA may be recognized by their initials, without knowing what the abbreviation actually means.

Some abbreviations are shortened even further, even down to one letter. The YMCA recently rebranded as simply the Y. The YMHA was renamed Jewish Community Center a few decades ago, now the JCC, although members say they’re going to the J.

Carefully crafted acronyms, like K.I.D.S. (Kids in Distressed Situations) or M.A.D.D. (Mothers Against Drunk Drivers), help to reinforce the name, in the first case by specifying community served, and in the second, conveying strong emotion felt by victims of drunk driving.

CARE, the leading humanitarian organization and originator of the CARE package, benefits from a fantastic acronym describing its mission, so well-known that the longhand name of the “Cooperative for Assistance and Relief Everywhere” is no longer referenced, even on its website.

The chance to create a new organizational name creates opportunity for visibility, utility, and a bit of showmanship. So make it a good one.

Lori Halley

Posted by Lori Halley

Published Friday, 10 June 2011 at 9:00 AM


  • Evgeniy Zaritovskiy

    Evgeniy Zaritovskiy said:

    Friday, 10 June 2011 at 7:08 AM

    Well written Lori!

  • Lori Halley

    Lori Halley said:

    Friday, 10 June 2011 at 8:16 AM

    Thanks - but this is a guest post by Howard Adam Levy of Red Rooster Group.

  • Marty D said:

    Friday, 10 June 2011 at 3:29 PM

    Don't forget to think about whether it's easy to find on the internet.  My agency's name is 3 very common words.  I met a woman at a conference recently whose agency had 2 of the same words.  And she said "I see you share the curse of the ungoogleable name".

  • Farra Trompeter said:

    Tuesday, 14 June 2011 at 4:45 AM

    Another point to consider is how your name connects to your tagline. The two can work together to offer a more complete picture of who you are, what you do, and what makes you different. For example, we (at Big Duck) recently renamed 'The Colorectal Cancer Coalition' to 'Fight Colorectal Cancer' with the tagline, "Get behind a cure."

  • Howard Adam Levy said:

    Tuesday, 14 June 2011 at 6:52 AM

    Marty, That's very true, that's why conducing a competitive review at the onset of the project is important and why ongoing vetting of the name is important during the process.

    I met two organizations whose names had 6 words, just the last 3 were reversed. How confusing is that? You definitely want to avoid that. Granted they were in different cities, but confusion can occur for people searching for them online.

  • Howard Adam Levy said:

    Tuesday, 14 June 2011 at 6:53 AM

    Farra, Good point. Taglines do work in conjunction with the organization's name. Organizations with descriptive names, like The Colorectal Cancer Coalition, can have more abstract taglines that add meaning or inspiration. For organizations in which the name does not describe what the organization does, such as Friends of Karen or CarePath, a more descriptive tagline is needed to explain.

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