A Good Nonprofit Name Makes a Mission Memorable

A rose by any other name may smell as sweet, but may not provide a clue to a nonprofit’s mission. A good name can make a mission clear and memorable.

A rose by any other name may smell as sweet, but may not provide a clue to a nonprofit’s mission. A good name can make a mission clear and memorable.

‘A rose by any other name would smell as sweet,’ but is the same true for a brand? Maybe not. A good name is an important clue, sweet or otherwise.

Companies, as well as nonprofits, go to considerable lengths to pick names for their organizations, products and services that attract consumers and donors. They want a name that conveys their brand personality, if not describing what the brand is all about. Think “Jet Ski” or “Salvation Army.”

Shakespeare’s famous line from Romeo and Juliet suggests the separation between a name and its essence is illusory. A rose is a rose, after all, no matter what you call it. The contemporary dilemma is to select a name that is unmistakably linked to what it is.

Lots of brands and products have names with no apparent intrinsic meaning. All of those drug names you see in commercials come to mind. To the extent that you attach a thought to the drug name, it may be on the list of its possible side effects.

The lesson to draw from ubiquitous drug commercials is that their meaning is conveyed by visual imagery – someone suffering from rheumatoid arthritis being able to play with her grandchildren or someone with chronic obstructive pulmonary disease being able to go on a hike.

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Brands have logos to go with their name. In the case of high-profile brands with million-dollar advertising budgets and loads of product placements, logos can become everyday familiar – Nike’s Swoosh is a perfect example. Some companies (Intel, American Family Insurance) associate their name and logo with an earworm jingle. Others (Jack in the Box) have characters. Some nonprofits (St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital) command national attention because of their size and the connections of their founders.

For many brands and most nonprofits, more cost-conscious tactics are necessary. One of the most cost-effective tactics is a good name combined with a logo, tagline and iconography that provide a visual explanation and leave a memorable impression.

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While the Pittsburgh Zoo is a self-explanatory name, its black-and-white iconography underscores a sense of playful discovery. The logo for the Bronx Zoo features animals, too, and uses the elongated legs of giraffes to give it a sense of place near Manhattan. The Tour de France uses a unique script that forms a logo and emphasizes its Frenchness.

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Finding a name that conveys meaning and has the potential to become familiar is the core challenge of building an identity. Names such as World Wide Fund for Nature, Doctors Without Borders, Feeding America, Stand up to Cancer, Save the Whales and Teach for America are evocative and instructive. You have a pretty good idea what these nonprofits do. While they all have excellent logos, their names are the pack mules of meaning.

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One of the secrets of these names is they incorporate each nonprofit’s mission. They use short, concrete and powerful words. They roll off the tongue. Some of the best nonprofit names (Mothers Against Drunk Drivers – MADD) form easy-to-remember acronyms.

There is no fixed formula to devise a brand or nonprofit name. But a good place to start is exploring simplified ways to express a mission and turn them into inspirational names, taglines and images. Then test the names and imagery with staff, stakeholders and donors. It is an iterative process, but not rocket science.

The effort is worth it. A solid name can create a second “first” impression, pump up morale, increase financial support, perk interest on social media and redouble commitment to the mission. That would be a sweet-smelling rose.