How to Create a Memorable Nonprofit Name

Put Your Mission Into 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?

Naming an Organization

Many organizations spend thousands of dollars on research to determine what to call 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 identifiable 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.

Tips for Creating Your Name

  • 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 children, poor, hungry, homeless, deprived, needy, families.
  • Who's doing the helping? Sometimes your members are essential 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?
  • Avoid words that don't make sense or don't convey a connection to what you do. We all love names such as Amazon, Zappos, and Google, but consider how much money those companies have spent to make their names household brands. Nonprofits generally don't have those deep pockets. So cut the "cute" and go with something meaningful.
  • Save your leftover names from brainstorming for programs. As your organization grows, it may establish individual programs that you can name separately. For instance, Elderhostel, a nonprofit specializing in educational travel for older people, wanted to appeal to younger retirees such as Baby Boomers. The organization came up with "Road Scholar" for a new set of programs geared to a slightly different customer. "Road Scholar" became so popular that now all of Elderhostel's programs carry that name even though the corporate name remains the original.

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:

  • Teach for America
  • Kiva 
  • Americorps
  • Feed the Children
  • Doctors Without Borders
  • World Wildlife Fund
  • Save the Whales
  • Charity: Water
  • DonorsChoose
  • Stand Up to Cancer
  • Special Olympics
  • Best Friends Animal Society
  • Save the Chimps

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