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How to Name Nonprofits and Programs

By Tom Peterson

This dog  is named Taz. If you’re moving forward, doing anything at all, sooner or later you’ll have created something needs a name. And the choice can make a big difference.  Each time you name nonprofits or programs you really want to get it right; it’s exciting and seldom easy.

In Old Possom’s Book of Practical Cats T.S. Eliot tells us:

The Naming of Cats is a difficult matter,
It isn’t just one of your holiday games;
You may think at first I’m as mad as a hatter
When I tell you, a cat must have THREE DIFFERENT NAMES.

The first name, says Eliot, is the sensible everyday one the family uses: Peter, George. Electra. The second is more particular, dignified: Jellylorum, Bombalurina. The third only the cat knows, “and will never confess.” It’s the “deepand inscrutable singular name.”

At Heifer International, we had several names. The family (staff, volunteers, fans) called it Heifer. We encouraged that; it was short and easy. The second (official) name, Heifer Project International, Inc., stemmed from its history; it’s necessary for legal documents. The third—unknown to any single person—was our essence, our brand.

To name nonprofits, etc, think about three parts:

1. Common Name: This is the one to obsess over, get as right as you can. It’s what you want everyone to call your organization or program. It’s what appears in the news, on your materials. It has to work.

2. Official Name: If you’re naming an organization, you’ll need this for legal purposes. It’s best if it’s the same as the common name, but if that doesn’t work, it should tie closely it. (There are some state legal requirements.) If you’re just naming a program, you don’t need this.

3. Brand: While most important, it’s beyond the naming process and is, in Eliot’s words, “the name that no human research can discover.” It results from what you do that causes people over time to have a feeling about your organization or program. You can and should try to describe it. But it’s also indescribable. The essence.

To name a nonprofit or program can be a challenge. But done well, you can give your cause a giant boost for branding, marketing—adding to your success for years to come! The focus here is on the first, the family and common name. This is what you want to be known by.

Step one: Hunter/Gatherers

Don’t name nonprofits or programs alone. Get a bunch of people involved. Make big lists of all kinds of names. Have fun. Tell friends, co-workers what you’re up to and encourage anyone to make suggestions. Offer a free lunch for the person who suggests the winning name. Use libations, mind-altering substances if that’s what it takes. But be free and loose. Gather all the names you can.

Step two: Murderers

Now you should have a giant quantity of possibilities.

“Whenever you feel an impulse to perpetrate a piece of exceptionally fine writing, obey it – whole-heartedly – and delete it before sending your manuscripts to press. Murder your darlings.” —Sir Arthur Quiller-Couch.

Faulkner later called this heavy editing “Kill your darlings.” Whatever you call it, there’s no time for all these options to die natural deaths. You’ll have to murder or kill them all—except one. And that’s the name.

Strunk and White’s 14th rule in The Elements of Style is: Avoid fancy words. “Do not be tempted by a twenty-dollar word when there is a ten-center handy, ready and able.” What’s more annoying than someone saying utilize and purchase when they mean use and buy. You may want to rethink an abstract or Latin-based candidate.

Pick a name people will won’t forget. In Made to Stick Chip and Dan Heath describe what makes something memorable: Simple, Unexpected, Concrete, Credible, Emotional, Stories.

When you name nonprofits, websites can tell you instantly if the domain name is available. You should also check with the U.S. trademark office (click on trademark search) to make sure there is no conflict. At some point, you may need to hire a lawyer to help you register.

Once you’ve picked it, let it seep for a while. During this time, don’t ask people whether they like it—God forbid, don’t turn this into a vote or focus group! Instead, tell them about the organization or program using the name as though it were official. And watch for a reaction—from them and your own inner voice.

At the end of the process, you should feel good about your choice of a nonprofit name or program. (If not, go back to the drawing board!) Then you launch it! When you name nonprofits, dogs, kids, companies, it feels awkward for a few days. Then the name takes, and soon you can’t imagine it any other way.

Now, who can imagine that excitable but sweet dog with any name other than Taz?

Name Nonprofit: External Links

Tips on how to choose a domain name.

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