Just like a person, an organization needs a name; you can’t create a nonprofit without one. That seems pretty obvious when you think about it—a no-brainer.
But have you ever tried to name an organization? Unless you’re going to name it after yourself, coming up with the right name is not always easy.
If you’re ready to launch a nonprofit, and you’re thinking of names, here’s a little help. I have 3 questions to get you started. So grab paper and pencil and get ready to work. (Yes, I did go old school with the “paper and pencil” thing. I find it therapeutic. And I like to erase stuff!)
Question 1: What do you want the name to convey?
A name can do so many things. Describe something, create curiosity, inspire, confuse, entertain, or even repel. What do you want people to know, or believe, or feel when they read your organization’s name?
You might want the name to reveal who you serve, your location, the kind of service you offer, or even the way you work—like providing emergency or in-home services. The options here are almost endless. And that’s part of the problem when you’re coming up with a name!
A Few Examples
These names give the reader clues about the organization’s mission :
These organization names tell us some important things at a glance. They tell us who or what the organizations serve, give us an idea about the help they offer, and the third example tells us the geographic focus.
Simple, clear, informative naming like this is one way to go.
You might prefer a clever name or one that’s more creative. And that’s ok. But if you want people to read your name and not have to guess what your org does, keep it straightforward like these.
Now grab your pencil and quickly brainstorm your answer to Question 1. Just breeze through it without second-guessing or editing yourself. You can come back to it later.
Question 2: What’s More Important, Present or Future?
Another question is whether the name should reflect the current program and location or be broad enough to remain valid if the nonprofit evolves.
Here’s What I Mean
Gateway Children’s Services in Mt. Sterling, Kentucky launched a project in 1981 to offer emergency shelter to at-risk youth in a 7-county area. Many of the young people they took in were victims of abuse or had attempted suicide. In response, Gateway added a therapeutic component to its program.
Gateway introduced a “cutting edge treatment program called Living It Up” in 2008, Therapeutic Foster Care and Adoption Services in 2013, and outpatient behavioral health and substance abuse services in 2015.
Not only did the organization expand its services to meet the young people’s needs, but the organization expanded to serve the entire state of Kentucky.
What’s The Point Here?
I want you to see what Gateway didn’t do. They didn’t use the word “shelter” in their name, even though they were creating a youth shelter. And they didn’t get too specific about the kinds of young people they were serving. They didn’t add “runaway youth” to the name, for example.
They could’ve done those things, and nothing would have been wrong with that. But in this case, Gateway’s clients and programming expanded over time, and the nonprofit didn’t outgrow its name.
So what’s your preference: a name that clearly defines your current program or one that will survive if your program evolves? It’s your choice. Still, let me caution you that a more restrictive name might confuse people a few years from now if your program evolves.
Now it’s time to brainstorm a few answers to Question 2.
Question 3: Will It Cause Confusion?
Most likely, your state won’t let you register a nonprofit corporation name that’s already in use there. Obviously, that cuts down on confusion. You’ll want to avoid other types of confusion, too.
Avoid names that sound too much like national brands or well-known companies. This might cause confusion, or people may assume your organization is connected to the brand.
As you name your organization, you should also search the internet to see who else might be using the name or website domain name you want to use. You might find that an organization four states away is using the name you’ve chosen. Your state will let you use it, and you won’t have any trouble locally. But that could change if both organizations have an online presence.
Finally, avoid stepping on someone else’s registered trade name. Otherwise, you might open a “cease and desist” letter from an attorney demanding that you stop using the name. (This actually happened to a church I attended a long time ago!) So, conduct a search at the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office, and avoid names that you find listed as “live.”
A Few Extra Cautions
Here are a few more things to watch out for when you’re choosing a name:
- Avoid “tortured” acronyms. You might love the word “unity,” for example, but if you have to blow out brain cells to come up with an org name that spells unity, STOP it! When people read your org name, instead of saying, “Oh. I’d like to know more,” they’re more likely to think, “What the….?” (You get my meaning.) Just K.I.S.S.–Keep It Simple, Shirley!
- Avoid snicker-producing acronyms. Here in the U.S., folks are addicted to shortening names. So someone will probably use an acronym for your org even if you don’t. Check the acronym your name creates and make sure it doesn’t spell a 4-letter word or some embarrassing body function. Otherwise, folk might be laughing behind your back!
- And finally, be sure the name doesn’t imply something your organization doesn’t do. Here’s a fictitious example: If I’m experiencing a crisis, I expect Crabgrass Crisis Center to help me right away. But if I call them and the rep only gives me a list of phone numbers to call, I’m going to be frustrated, disappointed, and angry. The nonprofit seems to be an organization that doesn’t deliver what the name promises. Enough situations like that will ruin an organization’s reputation.
Time for your final exercise! Jot down the list of names you’re considering. Run them through the questions above, and choose your favorite name.
The Bottom Line
Naming an organization is NOT just about the facts. It’s also emotional. The nonprofit you want to launch is close to your heart, and so is its name. I get it.
So use your good judgment, your imagination, and these ideas, and get this one done. Don’t get stuck here! The people you want to serve are waiting for you to bring your vision to life! And serving them is much more important than any name you might choose.
How are you doing coming up with an organization name? Please tell us about it in the Comments, and we’ll help you if you need it!
P.S. Ready to launch a nonprofit? If you want a mentor to walk through this journey with you and your team, get ready to join my upcoming Founders Circle Mentoring Program. Click below for updates about the program.
Some of us have big Dreams. Dreams of helping people in need. Dreams of making our lives count for something important. Dreams of doing something that needs to be done, that no one else is doing.
We dream big because we’re natural-born ChangeMakers.
So…why haven’t we gotten started yet? Why is the Dream still just a dream?
Fear of Starting Small
Maybe because the Dream is so big, we think only a big program or project will have the BIG impact we want to have. We don’t have the resources to start Big right now; so anything we start would have to be small. Small and insignificant.
And that’s not what we’re about. Right?
So instead of starting small, we do nothing. We keep dreaming the Dream. And talking about the Dream. And waiting for the far-off “someday” when the Dream comes true.
All because we’re afraid—or maybe too prideful?—to start small.
Great Things Come In Small Packages
Ask any woman who’s ever gotten a beautiful necklace or an engagement ring if great things come in small packages. Yes, they do!
So why not consider starting small with your Dream?
A small beginning doesn’t have to mean an unimportant one. There’s no reason it should lack impact.
Imagine the look on the faces of a handful of children when you provide them with stylish, well-fitting school clothes and shoes and all the supplies they’ll need for school. Kids who wouldn’t have these without your small program.
Now, imagine how their parents will feel seeing their excited kids ready for school. Not only will their children not feel self-conscious at school, but the parents can now use their scarce resources to buy nutritious food instead of school clothes and supplies.
This wouldn’t require a big project, but what a difference that would make! For the kids and the parents!
Small can have real impact!
Break It Down
Okay, so maybe you’re convinced that you don’t have to wait 10 long years and 1 dark night to pursue your big Dream. You’re okay with starting small.
But how do you do that?
The how-to will vary from one Dream to the other. Each program or project will be different. But to help you get started, here are 4 things to try:
- First, identify what you’ll need to make your program successful. Not down to the paperclips; just list the important things. (Volunteers, space, supplies, types of equipment, etc.)
- Consider the resources you have and decide how to use them. (Your time, volunteer time from family and friends, contributions from your savings, your coworkers, and friends, etc.)
- Then brainstorm ways to serve just a few people at a time or to serve a smaller geographic area. Work with the resources you have. For example, limit the number of people you serve in a month–to say 100–instead of everyone who comes in the door. Or, if you hope to serve your county, start by serving a small neighborhood in your county.
- Explore potential partnerships, especially with organizations that offer other services to the same people you hope to serve. For example, if you offer a support group for people with a particular medical diagnosis, maybe you can partner with the local clinic and the regional hospital. They might provide space and referrals.
As you open your mind to new possibilities and start talking to people in your community, you’ll probably come up with other ideas. Keep exploring options until you’ve crafted a program you can launch sooner rather than later.
Small Start, Big Bonus
You might see the benefit of starting small and maybe even the need to do it. But I wonder if you’ve considered those extra bonuses?
Of course, you’ve probably thought about the appreciation you’ll get from the people you help and the satisfaction of pursuing your Purpose. Of making a real difference in the world.
You might not have considered momentum. Things at rest tend to stay at rest, and things in motion tend to stay in motion. (Thanks, Sir Isaac Newton!) Your small start can energize you, get you off the sofa and into action. And as you stay in motion, you’ll serve more people, make new connections, and see new possibilities.
Plus, your small start can be the seed of new growth. How? Many—if not most—grantmakers prefer to support efforts that have a track record–that are stable and sustainable. They don’t want to be your savior. They want to know you can survive without them.
Starting small will give you a chance to build your program and your organization slowly and to develop a track record of success. Grantmakers and other contributors like that.
And those grants and contributions could be the ticket to your organization’s growth.
Now It’s Your Turn
So how can you start small? I’d love for you to Comment below and let me know your ideas for starting small. Or maybe you have questions. Let’s start a conversation; maybe I can help.
We know Change is coming. So why are we caught off guard when it shows up? Maybe we’re too busy to think about it. Or maybe we expect Change to stay away until we’re ready for it. We cruise along with our heads down, hustling to complete that ever-bloated To Do list until we’re smacked in the head by Change.
Pain, Pain, Go Away
Change–whether good or bad–draws us out of our comfort zones. It rips away our cozy routines, and it creates more work. Sometimes it brings painful choices. And sometimes Change brings loss.
Marriage, for example, is Change. When I got married, I gained the love of my life but lost the ability to see my parents every day. They were now many miles away. And I left a job I loved and became another DC-area job hunter.
That Change was our choice, but it still brought joy and pain, loss and gain.
In an organization, of course, Change is far less romantic. (At least it was where I’ve worked.) But organizational Change still brings joy and pain. And being human, we’d rather avoid pain whenever we can.
So we steadfastly ignore the fact that Change may visit us, bringing his unpleasant little minions with him. Then, while we’re enjoying the scenery in the Land of Denial, Change smacks us in the head, knocks us off our feet, and rocks our cozy, predictable worlds.
We can’t ignore Change any longer.
A Fond Farewell To Procrastination
I’m not telling you anything you don’t know already. If you’re over the age of 10, Change has come to visit you at some point in the past. What I AM doing is giving you a reality check and, hopefully, a swift kick in your Decisionmaker Before it’s too late.
another thing added to your list. But I’ve been on the receiving end of emergency calls from nonprofits who failed to prepare for Change until it struck, too.
They didn’t “have time” to plan for Change in advance, either. But then the organization was in crisis and had no choice but to deal with Change. They had to make time. And, trust me, when I tell you that when Change catches you off guard, you might face the pain that naturally comes with Change and the pain of being unprepared.
Still Think There’s No Time?
Nobody can predict and prepare for every possible form of Change, but we can minimize the discomfort and disruption that comes with some predictable events like the loss of a top performer who just got offered the job of a lifetime. Somewhere else.
Or maybe it’s your founder and board chair–the one with major charisma, contagious passion, and a list of high-powered contacts. The founder is retiring and taking her toys with her to Florida.
These aren’t bad events, but you’d better believe your organization will feel the pain if you’re not prepared.
Your Stakeholders Are Depending On You
Don’t wait. You can prepare your organization for Change by planning for events like the ones listed here. Gather your board and staff leaders and start the conversation right away:
- The exit or absence of key leaders and staff
- The exit or absence of key board members
- The opportunity to pursue an important new grant source
- Loss of a single major funding source
- The need for organizational layoffs
- Negative press or organizational scandal
Too Small to Fail?
Did your heart skip a beat when you read that list? Or maybe you think your organization is small enough that you can deal with those things. You may be right.
But if your program is around long enough, some of them WILL come up. Navigating those things smoothly will help your clients or customers, your funders, your community, and any other stakeholders continue their faith in your organization. And you can leverage that faith into practical support.
So What Next?
Talk about how these situations and others might play out in your organization and how your board, staff, clients, and stakeholders might be affected. Create written plans that will help you minimize the damage, take advantage of any opportunities that arise, and settle things down as quickly as possible.
If you’ve followed headlines in the nonprofit sector over the past few years, you know Change often shows up without warning. And while planning won’t stop Change, it can help your organization face the challenge with more intelligence and grace.
By managing Change well, you might just win even more support for your cause. Isn’t that peace of mind worth adding preparation for Change to your To Do list? I sincerely hope so.
Please Comment and share YOUR stories about Change. And if you found this article helpful, please share it to your favorite social media sites!
If you’re looking for a mentor to walk with you through your journey to launch and lead a charitable nonprofit in the U.S., join the Nonprofit Founders Circle membership program when it opens!