Step 1: Choose a Name
The first thing you need to do to incorporate your nonprofit is choose your organizations name.
How to Start a Nonprofit Guide
You have probably spent a lot of time thinking about your new nonprofit. You have envisioned the services (or products) you will provide, identified the population you will serve, talked to prospective board members and maybe even drafted a mission statement. Now, put all that aside, because the first thing you need to do to incorporate your nonprofit is choose your organizations name.
This is obviously an important step. The name you select is going to stick with your organization for many years. So take your time and brainstorm several options. Ideally you want a descriptive name that is easy to remember.
If you are not sure what to name your nonprofit, try these tips to help you brainstorm some ideas. First, sit down, pour a cup of tea and relax. Now write on a piece of paper (or your computer):
- “My nonprofit will?” Below this write all the action words (or phrases) you can think of that describe your nonprofit, e.g. – give, teach, heal, feed, rescue, etc.
- “My nonprofit helps?” Below this describe the population you plan to serve, e.g. – children, hungry, homeless, elderly, cats, environment, etc.
- “Our members are?” If your nonprofit has a specific type of member then it may be important to include them in your name. Doctors without Borders, Mothers Against Drunk Driving and Earthjustice are good examples of this.
Between these lists start mixing and matching the words to create a name. If the location of your organization is important then you may want to add geographical terms to your name, such as, tri-state, northern Vermont, Four Corners, Miami, etc. Though to be honest, I do not recommend putting a geographic location in your name. It can create problems if you ever expand your services.
Don’t be afraid to be creative. You could try combining words into one new word? AmeriCorps is a good example of this. There is also the option to use a play on words, such as, Peace Together (community mediation) or Wheel Ease (wheelchairs for children).
Tips on Choosing the Best Name
- Use descriptive words. A strong name should embody the mission of your organization. But be careful. Simply calling your organization The Coalition to Stop Violence Against Children (made that up, but it probably exist) may be a very descriptive name, but it lacks emotion, isn’t that inspiring and is rather long. A descriptive name should have an emotional impact.
- Make sure it is easy to spell. In 1969 the Cuyahoga River in Cleveland Ohio caught on fire. If you were around back then you may have wanted to start a river cleanup effort. And you may have been tempted to name it the Cuyahoga River Caretakers. Now, I was born and raised in Cleveland, and let me just say this, I had to look up how to spell Cuyahoga just to write this paragraph. A better name could be, Cleveland River Cleanup Corps.
- Choose a name that is easy to say. Ideally your name will roll off the tongue, so to speak. Think back to your high school poetry class. Do you remember alliteration (the repetition of consonant sounds) and assonance (the repetition of similar vowel sounds)? These techniques help words flow together. For instance, a good name for a dog rescue would be “The Canine Cavalry” (alliteration), or “Paws for a Cause” (assonance).
- Choose a name that is easy to remember. Use words that our relevant to the services (or products) you provide and that are a common part of everyday language. Let’s say your nonprofit helps low income individuals pay for heart surgery. You may want to use words like “heart” or “cardiac” in your name. But steer away from technical words like “angioplasty” or “ischemic”.
- Make an acronym. This is a common technique and very effective if done well. How about a nonprofit that mentors inner-city schools with local business leaders called, “Business and Education Succeeding Together” or B.E.S.T. Acronyms don’t have to spell anything either. NPR, NAACP and AARP are some very well known examples of this. But be careful, acronyms don’t often spell a word or describe your mission. So be sure to include your tagline or the full spelling of your name in your published materials.
Test Your Name
Once you have some ideas for your name you should run them through a few test.
- Pretend you are answering the phone in your organizations office. How does it sound? Do you feel awkward saying it? What is your emotional response when you hear it out loud? Does it sound too corporate, stiff, silly, serious or jingly?
- Does the name leave you options to grow? For instance, what if the Cleveland River Cleanup Corp wanted to expand into other parts of the state?
- Test your name out on your friends. Ask them which they like and why. Did one name sound more inspiring? Is one easier to remember?
Many states require that nonprofits have a corporate designator, such as Incorporated, Corporation, Company, Limited or their abbreviations (Inc., Corp., Co. and Ltd respectively). Check your states incorporation web page to see if a corporate designator is required for your nonprofit.
Some Final Checks
Now that you have selected your name you need to check with your Secretary of State to see if it is available. Visit the State Nonprofit Links map on this website to find this database.
It’s also advisable to do some other name checks depending on the plans for your nonprofit:
- If you plan to have offices in another state then check that states database as well.
- Check the U.S. Department of Commerce website to be sure the name you want is not trademarked.
- See if the domain for your nonprofit name is available. This may or may not affect your decision to use the name, but if the domain is already taken, it is good to know what type of content is on that site.
- If your domain is taken, but you really want to use the name, you can try adding your states name to the domain or add “inc” to the end of the domain name or put “the” at the beginning of the domain name. Also, remember, nonprofits should be .org not .com.
- Be sure that your name is not similar to another organizations name. This may be technically legal to do in some cases, but people may think that your organization is a branch of the other. In general it is best to have a unique name for your organization.
Choosing a name for your nonprofit is an exciting first step in the incorporation process. Once you decide on a name for your nonprofit, you can move on to: Step Two – Filing your Articles of Incorporation.