Good Names and Doing Good: Naming Advice for a Charity or Nonprofit

Contributed content / By Margaret Wolfson / 27 November 2019

A name is one of the most important part of a nonprofit’s brand. Learn what goes into choosing a brand name and considerations to make. You could even win a free brand naming project — River + Wolf is offering this opportunity to one lucky nonprofit or charity this year.

While the term “brand” was once reserved for business-to-consumer (B2C) enterprises, more and more organizations are jumping on the branding bandwagon — among them business-to-business (B2B) companies, cities, and countries.

Even individuals are understanding that a person can be a brand, from the rising sea of influencers who use social media to craft a distinct digital presence and build niche audiences to the layperson who, whether consciously or not, takes pains to cultivate a consistent sense of self in their online postings. 

Charities and nonprofits, including hospitals and public universities, are no exception. And though some view “branding” as a form of marketing manipulation designed to shine up a mediocre enterprise, or worse, dupe unsuspecting people into buying something they neither need nor want, the most forward-thinking realize that branding is simply a thoughtful way to shine a light on what they do and who they are. 

In fact, organizations that ignore the importance of branding do so at their own peril. Studies have shown that a well-articulated brand that authentically reflects who you are can boost donations. Beyond driving dollars, a thoughtfully branded organization can increase audience and employee engagement and transform casual participants into passionate advocates. 

Once you’ve defined your organization’s brand, it is conveyed in many ways, tangible and intangible. Tangible ways include your logo, messaging, colors, typography, and your name. Of these, your name is the most crucial. It is the heart of your brand, the start of your story. It is generally the longest-living artifact of your enterprise. Moreover, it is omnipresent, plastered everywhere — on websites, social media pages, digital ads, thought leadership articles, and more. 

Yet strangely, the number of pedestrian names in this sector suggests that many in the nonprofit and charity space don’t give much thought to their monikers. And while many of these poorly named organizations admirably fulfill their missions, a good name can add luster to an already strong organization. Moreover, it can help it stand out from the crowd. This is especially important given the exponential growth of benevolent organizations over the years.

So, what are some things you’ll want to consider in developing your name? 

The Four C’s of Naming

A name, whether for a profit or nonprofit enterprise, is built from four key ingredients. At River + Wolf, we call them the 4 C's:

  1. Character
  2. Communication
  3. Construction
  4. Continuum

Character relates to a name’s tone of voice or personality. Do you want a name that feels, for example, playful, classical, sophisticated, or scientific? Whatever you choose, it should match the personality or character of your brand. 

Construction is the build of the name. There are many kinds of naming constructions, among them single dictionary words, lexical blends misspelled and truncated words, short phrases, and acronyms.

Communication refers to the message or messages you want your name to telegraph, directly or indirectly.  

The fourth C — continuum — highlights the idea that all brand names fall on what the United States Patent and Trademark Office (USPTO) calls the Spectrum of Distinction. On one end of this spectrum, you’ll find generic names and on the other, fanciful ones. Falling between these two extremes are descriptive, suggestive, and arbitrary marks.

To expand your naming palette, it’s wise to have a grasp on each of these typologies. Let’s take a look at each. 

Generic Names 

A generic name is a term that is commonly used to identify a kind of goods, service, or business. No one can have exclusive rights to a term that simply describes a goods or service — e.g., shoes, chairs, etc. That said, context matters. A cereal company called Cereal would not be trademarkable. If, however, a travel and lifestyle magazine calls itself Cereal, the name is definitely trademarkable. 

Quick Tip: Avoid naming your nonprofit or charity (or any enterprise) with a generic name. Such a name is not only incapable of securing trademark protection, but it is missing imaginative appeal. 

Descriptive Names

This is the go-to place for a vast number of nonprofits and charities because descriptive names instantly convey what you do, pointing to function. Examples include World Wildlife Fund, charity: water, and American Cancer Society. 

Unfortunately, descriptive names don’t have much charisma. This isn’t to say descriptively named organizations can’t be successful. Many are and wildly so. But a lot of that success comes from their long and noble histories. In today’s crowded nonprofit space, overly functional names aren’t going to generate the kind of buzz needed to set your organization apart from the pack. 

The organization charity:water launched in 2006 to bring clean, safe drinking water to people in developing countries.

This doesn’t mean you should rule out descriptive names. Just raise the bar a bit. The organization charity:water launched in 2006 to bring clean, safe drinking water to people in developing countries. It's name is descriptive but refreshingly different because it pairs together two words not commonly associated.  

Quick Tip: If you prefer to stay on the descriptive end of the naming continuum, add some panache. One surefire way to do this is through alliteration (repeated consonants) and assonance (repeated vowels).

These sonic devices make descriptive names like Habitat for Humanity and Save the Whales far more memorable than "Houses for People" or "Whale Rescue."   

Suggestive Names

These kinds of names hover between descriptive and arbitrary. They aren’t as obvious as purely descriptive names, but they still suggest something about the underlying company, goods, or service. 

Head Start (originally Project Head Start) was established in 1965 to help preschool children break free from the cycle of poverty through programs designed to serve their physical, emotional, and social needs. 

Another successful suggestive name is Pencils of Promise, a nonprofit with the mission of creating schools, programs, and global communities around the world. 

Pencils of Promise is a nonprofit with the mission of creating schools around the world.

Quick Tip: Suggestive names have more flair than purely descriptive names. Not only that, they often point to a benefit which is an important element in nonprofit or charity naming. 

Arbitrary Names

Arbitrary names have no direct connection to a company’s offerings. They are real words that are completely unrelated to the business or product. 

In the profit sector, Apple is an excellent example of an arbitrary name whose relevance as a name only becomes clear with some imaginative effort — an apple could point to the Tree of Knowledge (Adam and Eve story), education (teachers are often gifted with apples), or science (Newton and the apple). Perhaps, given the streamlined look of an apple, the name is meant to highlight the company’s minimalist aesthetic.  

In the nonprofit world, Kiva, an international organization that provides micro-loans to the unbanked, is an intriguing arbitrary name. 

Kiva is an international organization that provides micro-loans to the unbanked.

Once you understand that a kiva is a Native American ceremonial chamber related to spiritual ascent and uplift, this nonprofit’s name takes flight. 

Quick Tip: Arbitrary names may require more imagination to understand, but once they catch on, they are highly memorable. Metaphorical names like Kiva are also multi-dimensional and, as such, make it easier for an organization to stretch beyond its original area of service. 

Fanciful Names

Fanciful names are invented words or neologisms. Lunesta, a sleeping drug, is a fanciful name composed of the word “luna,” for the moon, plus “esta,” from siesta.

Pinterest is another fanciful name, created from “pin” plus “interest.” Other fanciful names — think Kodak and Oreo — are devoid of any discernible meaning.  

Similarly, foreign words unknown to the average customer can fall into the fanciful category. Appamada, the name of a nonprofit center for contemporary Zen study, is an example of this. The name comes from a Pali word, meaning mindful and active care and, according to legend, it was the final word spoken by the Buddha. 

Traditionally, fanciful marks have not been common in the nonprofit and charity space because they require more marketing muscle to make sense. Given advertising’s prohibitive cost in the past, such wariness made sense. But with today’s raft of budget-friendly promotional tools, it is easier to tell the back story of your name. 

Used judiciously, fanciful names can be an interesting choice for a nonprofit or charity. 

Quick Tip: Fanciful names may require more explanation, but they can be highly ownable from a trademark perspective. When well done, they can help your organization stand out in an industry saturated with descriptive and suggestive marks.

4 Things to Consider When Naming Your Nonprofit

Beyond familiarizing yourself with these naming typologies, you’ll want to pay attention to the four considerations below. They are important for all kinds of naming but are especially germane to nonprofit and charity naming.  

Break Boundaries 

Be sure to choose a name that can grow with you. 

When Hearing and Service Dogs of Minnesota joined forces with another organization, its service area expanded beyond Minnesota. 

Hearing and Service Dogs of Minnesota joined forces with another organization.

The new name — Can Do Canines — not only crossed state lines but its catchy sound and positive message better resonated with the organization’s personality.

Be a Moving Force

A strong name elicits emotion. It makes you feel something when you hear it. People are busy and inundated with messages and requests for their time and donations. To earn their support, you need to move them. An emotive name can be an invaluable way to draw people to your organization. 

But emotive names are not one-size-fits-all. An interesting study by Behavioral Economics demonstrated that “organizations seeking to promote the welfare and humanitarian causes should use compassion in their campaigns, over all other positive emotions. Contrastingly, organizations seeking to promote equality and justice causes should utilize gratitude in their campaigns.” 

So, be sure the emotional quality you choose for your name is in sync with the focus of your organization. 

Know Your Audience 

Like a for-profit brand, charities need to understand their target audience — the people most likely to support their cause. When developing your name, put yourself in the shoes of your supporters to ensure your name is a good fit. 

A stodgy name isn’t going to cut it with brand-conscious younger donors. Similarly, an edgy name like Barbells for Boobs — an organization that highlights the importance of fitness in breast cancer care — might be less appealing to an older, more conservative demographic. 

Get Over Yourself

Nonprofits sometimes name themselves after their founders, i.e., Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation and The Clinton Foundation, but that can be risky. 

Remember, after a newsworthy scandal, the Lance Armstrong Foundation had to change its name to Livestrong. So, if you plan to use your name, try adding a twist. Livestrong incorporates the “strong” in Armstrong, but it also sends an energizing message that works independently of the founder’s name.  

On the flip side, a personal name can add a degree of human warmth and connection as is the case with Danny and Ron’s Rescue. 

Don’t Forget Trademark Search

A good name won’t help a weak nonprofit or charity, but a strong name can set a non-profit apart in a crowded landscape of benevolent organizations. That said, we know creating great names is fiendishly difficult. Sometimes you’re lucky and catch lightning in a bottle after a few tries, but that is the rare exception, not the rule. 

Not only is it challenging to capture a message or idea in a few short words that are aurally pleasing, but legal issues abound. With more than 1.56 million nonprofit organizations registered in the U.S., according to the National Center for Charitable Statistics, finding a name that doesn’t infringe on another organization’s mark can be a Herculean task.  

Like many companies, the team at River + Wolf strives to do well by doing good. In that spirit — and the spirit of the season — we are pleased to offer a free-of-charge brand naming project to a registered nonprofit or charity. If you would like to learn more, please reach out to us with a brief description of your charity or nonprofit using the contact field on our website. We will be reviewing requests — and setting up calls — until the end of December 2019.

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