Most clients that approach me for assistance with the § 501(c)(3) application have already determined a preferred organizational name and may have already put it into use.  However, many organizations that will depend largely upon public support from diverse donors do not fully grasp the significance of how name selection may impact fund raising.

A common practice is to select an organizational name that is internally significant, but which may not give any clues to the external world what the organization actually does.  While a name may not have universal appeal, it should appeal to those in the support base.  For example, terms that have common Christian connotation, such as “great commission,” may not be recognized by the secular world,

The chosen name should also be distinctive and not one likely to be confused with organizations having a similar name. Common terminology such as “New Hope” or “World Outreach” should be avoided for this reason.  While such terms may be meaningful to the organization itself and even vaguely communicate the organization’s activities to potential donors, the name is likely to be lost in the crowd.

While an organization’s founders may have opportunity to explain what the name means, this may not always be the case.  A prospective donor may encounter an organization’s name through a Google search, a listing on the ECFA’s website, or a list of ministries supported by a church.  In such cases it is best that the name appeals to the particular interests of potential donors.  If one has a strong interest in such areas as nursing home ministry, Hindu evangelization, or veteran care, for example, that person will be drawn to a name that informs them of an organization with that particular focus.  “New Hope” does not provide any helpful guidance as to the primary thrust of an organization.  There are many opportunities for giving through churches and various ministries for those desiring to “give” without a specific need in mind.  A ministry really needs to set itself apart by providing greater insight as to the actual work being performed.  Those who share an organization’s passion should be attracted by the name to support the work.

In addition to these practical considerations, state and national laws also addresses the name selection process.  All states have a requirement that a new corporate name not be confusingly similar to another name already registered in that state.  Also, the name generally must not be misleading by indicating that it is involved in certain activities when it is not.  These rules are defined for each state in the corporate or nonprofit corporate section of the state’s code.  For example, the name requirements for Georgia are found in § 14-3-401 of Georgia’s Code.

Federal trademark and servicemark law speaks to the use of the same name as an organization in another state.  One can search the website (www.uspto.gov) to ascertain what names are registered.  But while it is clear that an organization may not use a name that is registered as a trademark by another organization, there is less clarity on the use of an existing name that is unregistered.  Such questions generally fall to the common law of trademarks.  An existing organization may well seek legal redress if a new organization attempts to use the same name in the same market area. The possible related complications make it critical to avoid name duplication. Basic internet searches can alert an organization of potential duplications while other nonprofit listing sites such as http://www.guidestar.org are invaluable in establishing whether a particular name is already in use.

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