You’ve already sat down with paper and pencil in your quest to choose the perfect name for your nonprofit. You’ve tapped your high school English class memories and written down active, evocative, punchy words that embody your mission and stick in people’s minds. We talked about a few tips for choosing the right name in Part 1 of Starting a Nonprofit.
Now it’s time to take your list of possible names and run it up the flagpole, so to speak. And what should concern you most are trademark issues and the role of domain names.
Trademark and Nonprofit Names
A trademark is anything used to identify your nonprofit, whether that’s simply a word, phrase, logo, design, or icon. Anything that helps distinguish your product or service from those of others is the trademark. Often trademarks are registered with the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office, but you don’t have to go there quite yet. Wait until you have the financial resources in place before you go down the path to register your nonprofit’s trademark.
However, as you consider choosing your nonprofit’s name, be aware that even unregistered trademarks and names have rights. A nonprofit, organization, or business that is the first to use a particular mark or name has claim to an enforceable trademark. The use of the name creates the trademark ownership; it is not dependent upon its formal registration.
That’s something to keep in the front of your mind as you scour nonprofit databases and the internet to see if your nonprofit name is already in use. On the one hand, it can make selecting a name tough. But on the other, it means you automatically establish trademark rights the moment you begin using your nonprofit’s name in a way that is consistent with the organization’s purpose.
How do you make sure you’re not violating trademark?
Search online. Sit down with a cup of coffee and a few open hours, and do a thorough search for your nonprofit’s proposed name. It’s much less painful to discover its use early in the game rather than later, after you’ve spent precious time and money on constructing a website, ordering stationery, and establishing a social media foothold. Do all you can to ferret out any possible trademark infringement, using nonprofit directories like GuideStar and Charity Navigator.
Think locally. Most likely your nonprofit is locally focused, meaning you’re striving to help in your immediate community. Start with a scan of local directories or visit your Chamber of Commerce to see if any businesses, organizations, or other nonprofits beat you to that perfect name.
Check the Secretary of State’s office in your state. Broaden your search from the local level to statewide. And if you plan to operate in any other state, check those nonprofit rosters too. Applications will be denied if an existing organization already bears the same name or one similar enough that it could cause confusion.
Scan the federal trademark database. Maintained by the U.S Patent & Trademark Office, this free clearinghouse lists formally registered patents and trademarks. Because these names are officially registered with the office, penalties apply to those who infringe on their use.
Watch your words. As you come to a final decision about your nonprofit’s name, keep in mind that certain words are prohibited in certain states. For example, in New Jersey, you should scrap using any of these words in your nonprofit’s title: banking, little league, cemetery, trust, or insurance. And names that imply a political affiliation will knock you out of tax-exemption eligibility.
Selecting the Right Domain Name
Maintaining an organized website is crucial to a nonprofit’s success. And most organizations choose .org domain names over .com or other options for a reason: According to the Public Interest Registry, which manages the .org domain, users have come to consider the .org domains as trustworthy for nonprofits, charities, and social-good efforts.
As you land on a possible name for your nonprofit, check whether you can stake a claim to the URL or domain name. The two do not have to be identical; however, you need to consider both. For example, the Chicago literacy nonprofit Open Books uses the domain name www.open-books.org—note the hyphen. That’s because openbooks.org is a “parked” site with no content or service connected to it. Or look at the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals. That’s a long title to ask users to type in. So this organization went with an acronym for its domain name: www.aspca.org.
There are always workarounds. If the domain name you want is already taken, check out the landing page to see what kind of content is there. You don’t want to be caught off guard. In all likelihood, your domain name will not match up exactly with your nonprofit’s name. But that’s okay. You could add a city or state to the site URL to distinguish it from an established domain, or go with your second-favorite choice for your nonprofit’s name as your domain name.
The process is time-consuming but worth your best effort. And if you run out of steam, you can always fall back on computer-generated suggestions. Nonprofit name generators can help you brainstorm ideas and locate available domains, though it’s still up to you to bring the heart and passion of your nonprofit’s mission to the search.