Considering a Nonprofit Name Change? 3 Things to Know
Is it time for a name change? Many nonprofits avoid this question, thinking that it’s just too complicated. While changing your organization’s name shouldn’t be taken lightly, more and more nonprofits are benefitting from name changes.
There are many reasons why nonprofits consider changing their name. Sometimes organizations are undergoing entire rebrands to improve their nonprofit marketing strategy. For others, they may have outgrown the previous name and need to update it in order to fit with a changing mission statement. Whatever the reason, name changes can be a benefit to nonprofits dealing with issues like stagnant marketing, confusion from supporters, or generic names.
While the process of changing your organization’s name is not a walk in the park, it follows a logical structure. There are about six steps in the name-changing process, and it’s easy to break each one into bite-sized pieces. This guide will explain the following points about nonprofit name changes:
- Can a nonprofit change its name?
- How do you change the name of a nonprofit?
- Why would a nonprofit change its name?
- Nonprofit Name Change Checklist
Your nonprofit’s marketing may benefit from a new name. Whether you want a full rebrand or just a simple name change, the impact could be huge. Ready to learn more? Let’s get started.
Can a nonprofit change its name?
Fortunately, nonprofits are able to change their names. There are no formal requirements needed to start the name change process, but there are set procedures to follow.
First, keep in mind that there may also be requirements within your organization itself. Most nonprofits have a standard procedure for name changes laid out in the bylaws of the organization. We’ll discuss this more later, but consult any internal rules before thinking about a name change.
Beyond that, one thing every nonprofit must do is report the name change to both the state in which the nonprofit operates and the Internal Revenue Service (IRS). Reporting procedures are different depending on what type of organization your nonprofit is.There are different reporting requirements for incorporated organizations, trusts, and unincorporated associations. While most nonprofits are incorporated, we’ll cover the requirements for each organization type later in this guide just in case you fall under a different classification.
How do you change the name of a nonprofit?
There are six steps involved in changing your name as a nonprofit. It is important to tackle these steps in order to avoid mixing them up.
Keep in mind that some aspects of this process will differ depending on what state your organization is located in. This guide provides a starting point for you to reference, but check your state’s guidelines before beginning the process on your own.
Step 1: Select a new name.
Often it is easy to know when you need a new name. However, it can be much more difficult to actually pick out a new one.
The best way to get started is to agree on a goal you want the new name to accomplish. This goal should stem from issues with prior names or future marketing goals or aspirations for your nonprofit. It is important to set up a goal or baseline for the new name to ensure that the name change is not in vain. A new name should solve past problems, not perpetuate them or create new ones.
The name you choose should be descriptive and connect to your mission. For many potential supporters, a name is their first impression of an organization. Your name should be true to your mission, memorable, and easy to say or spell.
There are many ways to craft the perfect name. Highlighting your nonprofit’s location in its name is a great way to appeal to local donors. Using a last name in your name can add specificity and a personal touch. Recognizable last names are even better as they can add an element of celebrity endorsement to your organization.
Step 2: Confirm the name is available and permitted to be used.
Before moving forward with any other steps in this process, make sure the name you want is available in your state. Guidestar’s Directory of Charities and Nonprofit Organizations is a good place to start. Avoid any names that are too similar or the same as names that are already in use— this creates confusion and may not be allowed.
Consider your state’s requirements for nonprofit names. These requirements exist to prevent any confusion around what your organization is. The rules are different for each state, but here are the most common ones:
- The name cannot be the same as another in that division. Check for any organizations that have the name you are considering. If there are any names that are too similar, you should choose a different name to avoid confusion.
- The name must end with a corporate designator. Corporate designators include terms like “Inc.” or “Corp.” that follow the name of your organization. These designators serve to indicate that your nonprofit is incorporated.
- The name is not allowed to include certain words. Certain words are banned from use in a nonprofit’s name. This includes words like “bank,” “reserve,” “United States,” and “federal.” Words like this are usually banned to avoid any confusion with government agencies.
This step is important, and skipping it can halt your progress down the road.
Step 3: Consult the bylaws of your organization.
Abiding by your nonprofit’s rules for renaming is just as important as following state guidelines. Most incorporated nonprofits have articles or bylaws that outline the process for renaming. In many cases, these articles need to officially reference the name change.
Typical rules and procedures can vary across different organizations, but in most situations you will need to hold a vote. Votes may involve all members of the nonprofit or just board members, but in either case a majority vote is often required. The end goal of this process is to amend the organization’s bylaws as needed and earn the official support of your organization’s members.
So, what is the best way to get started? Take advantage of any board meetings that are coming up as an easy place to hold a vote. If the meeting seems a little far away, holding a meeting specifically about the name change is an acceptable way to take a vote.
While your organization should provide a procedure for the process, there are a few best practices to consider. Inform board members of the name change ahead of time so it isn’t a surprise. The last thing you want is an unsuccessful vote because people are confused or haven’t had time to weigh the pros and cons of a name change. Additionally, prepare to properly document the meeting before it starts to keep a written record of the results of the vote and any amendments to the articles of incorporation.
Step 4: Notify your state.
After securing a majority vote and amending your nonprofit’s bylaws, the next step is to report the name change to your state. This must be the same state that your organization is incorporated in.
Each state is different, but many use forms as a way to report name changes. Some states require that any changes in your nonprofit’s articles of incorporation or bylaws be resubmitted. You can find more specific directions and resources on your state’s Secretary of State website.
You must have proof that the state accepted your name change before you can move forward with the next step in this guide.
Step 5: Report name change to the IRS.
The IRS website features detailed guidelines on how to report name changes, but we’ll also provide a quick overview. For most nonprofits, here are the steps in reporting your name change to the IRS:
- File a tax return OR report another way. Nonprofits are required to file an annual tax return. On that return, there is a space to indicate a name change. However, nonprofits that do not wish to wait until tax season may report the change by letter or fax.
- Include amended articles of incorporation and/or bylaws. Submit any amendments made to your organization’s articles of incorporation or bylaws. You will need to include proof that your state accepted these amendments, so notify your state before the IRS.
- Request an affirmation letter that indicates the new name. After reporting your name change to the IRS, request an affirmation letter. This letter confirms the name change and shows the new name in place of the old one.
Recognize that we said that these are these steps apply to most nonprofit organizations. The process can differ slightly depending on the type of nonprofit you are, whether an incorporated organization, trust, or unincorporated association.
Incorporated organizations are legal business structures that are separate from the individuals that founded them. This is the most common type of nonprofit.
If your nonprofit is an incorporated organization, the IRS requires two submissions to report a name change. First, you must report a copy of any amendments made to the articles of incorporation. These articles are like rules for the organization. Next, you will need proof that your state approved of your organization’s name change.
If your nonprofit is a trust, it operates slightly differently. Charitable trusts are meant to accomplish some kind of social benefit for the public. They involve trustees as administrators of the trust and are not necessarily separate from the owners of the trust.
The IRS requires trusts to report a copy of the amendment to or a resolution to amend the trust instrument. The trust instrument is similar to the articles of incorporation. The amendments must show an effective date of the name change and be signed by one or more trustees.
Unincorporated associations are partnerships of at least two people who are working to better the public but have not established a formal legal structure. These groups are common, and many people form them without realizing it. They can include things as simple as joining with a few friends to raise money for a school event.
The requirements for unincorporated associations are similar to incorporated organizations and trusts. The IRS requires a copy of amendments made to your organization’s organizing document. This document should show an effective date of the change of name and must be signed by at least two members.
Step 6: Inform the public.
This step is not required by law, but it is just as important as notifying the government about your name change. Your nonprofit runs because of your supporters, so checking in with them about your new name is crucial.
Start by updating any place your new name will show. This includes websites, social media accounts, email lists, and bank accounts. It’s a good idea to include notifications about your name change on platforms where you interact with supporters, such as a social media post announcing the update. This can cut down on confusion about who your organization is.
Your nonprofit should update and inform the nonprofit sphere about its name change, too. Perform a quick Google search using your organization’s old name, noting any groups that may be using that name to advertise or increase awareness about your nonprofit. Contact any groups using your old name and ask them to change it. Additionally, update any nonprofit databases your old name may be listed in.
Why would a nonprofit change its name?
Now that we’ve discussed the name change process for nonprofits, let’s go over some of the reasons organizations choose to change their names.
The process can require a lot of time and energy, so it is important to think through your reasoning for a name change. There are a few instances where a name change may be the best thing for your nonprofit.
Rebrands are often used to revamp an organization’s personality or voice. These typically involve changing the overall branding by introducing new color schemes, logos, names, slogans, and brand voice. While the core values and purpose of the organization stays the same, the way they present themselves to supporters changes.
Most rebrands happen because the organization needs a refresh. Its current branding may appear clumsy or outdated, and a rebrand can bring its branding strategy up-to-date. In some cases, branding may have been an afterthought in the past. Rebranding can make the nonprofit’s public image more cohesive and strengthen marketing efforts.
While rebrands do not always involve a name change, they can be the driving force behind a name change. In the case of a rebrand, the name is just a small piece of a major change within the organization. Matching naming and branding creates a consistent message for your nonprofit.
Disconnect Between Name and Mission
Your nonprofit’s name should convey your mission in a short, memorable way. People should understand your nonprofit’s mission based on your name alone. Names that are disconnected from your mission don’t make for very strong marketing efforts.
Let’s say your nonprofit’s mission focuses on reducing car accidents caused by cell phone use. While this goal may be inspired by a specific person impacted by distracted driving, naming the organization something like “The Hannah Foundation” doesn’t make a connection to the mission. Instead, you should choose a name that ties into the mission such as “Drive Safe for Hannah.”
There are strategies you can use to develop a name that reflects what your nonprofit’s mission is. If you have a strong mission statement, consider drawing directly from it. This ensures a connection between the mission and your name, and it will accurately reflect the work your organization does. Use your name to tell a story about your organization by aligning it tightly with your mission.
Name Was Generic or Vague
Sometimes nonprofits may use names that apply to their mission but are too broad. The name you choose should connect to your mission and be specific enough to set your nonprofit apart. Names like this are more recognizable than simple, generic ones.
There are probably a few nonprofits that come to mind when you think about great names. Organizations like the World Wildlife Fund state exactly what their mission is while staying short and memorable. On the other hand, something like “Nature Fund” doesn’t stand out in the same way. Generic names make it hard to pin down a specific cause because words like “nature” can mean so much.
If your name is too general, start with some of these tips to add specificity:
- Use words that denote a location. If your nonprofit is rooted in helping out your local community, try using location-specific words. Including a location in your name is more specific and lets supporters know that your goal is to help in their area.
- Include descriptors about your mission. Use words that describe your mission. Let’s say your goal is reducing child hunger. Choose a name that includes the words “child hunger” rather than just “hunger.”
- Use acronyms. Acronyms are a good way to fit a lot of information about your organization into a short unit of letters. This way, you can choose a longer phrase that is specific yet easy to remember.
Your nonprofit’s name can be the key to standing out. It is crucial to choose a specific name so your organization doesn’t fade into the crowded background of nonprofit organizations.
Name Is Difficult to Remember
Your nonprofits name should be something that is easy for people to remember after hearing or reading it once or twice.
Names that are too long or complicated aren’t very memorable. If your nonprofit’s name looks more like a phrase than a name, supporters may have some difficulties remembering it. This can be a big problem for you later when potential donors cannot recall who to make their donation to.
Organizations may also have names that are confusing or difficult to spell either on paper or aloud. Names that use complicated words may confuse supporters, and this can contribute to forgetting the name. If supporters have trouble spelling your organization’s name, it may be wise to adjust it.
If your nonprofit’s name is difficult to remember, try making a name change that is simple and short. Choose a name that is as short as possible while still being relevant to your mission.
Nonprofit Name Change Checklist
We’ve discussed how and why name changes happen. The process can be long and a little confusing, but it is important to follow the steps in order.
To help you do this, we designed a nonprofit name change checklist to guide you through the process. To change your organization’s name, complete the following steps:
- Identify the naming issue. Determine the problems associated with your current name such as a disconnect from your mission, use of generic terms, or creating confusion.
- Choose a new name that addresses the issue. Select a name that combats the problems you have with your current name.
- Confirm the name is available. Check with your state to make sure the name is not already in use. Don’t forget to look for names that are extremely similar as well.
- Comply with your organization’s bylaws. Follow name change procedures outlined in your organization’s bylaws. This usually involves taking a vote.
- Pass any votes or amendments within the organization. After taking a vote and, hopefully, passing the name change, amend your organization’s bylaws. You will need documentation of these changes later in the process.
- Notify the state. Notify your state of the name change through the state’s official procedures. Visit your state’s Secretary of State website to determine the process.
- Notify the IRS. Inform the IRS of your name change on your annual tax return form. This process varies slightly depending on what type of organization your nonprofit is. Reference this section to determine how to notify the IRS.
- Increase public awareness. Notify the public of your name change by changing your name anywhere it is shown. Another way to inform donors and members is through social media or email lists.
We can’t promise the name change process will be simple, but with this checklist you can ensure you don’t miss a step. Changing your nonprofit’s name could be the refresh your organization needs to reach its full potential. Don’t let a confusing, dated, or mismatched name hold you back— consider updating your nonprofit’s name to align with your goals as a nonprofit.
Getting Attention is a great service to consider if your nonprofit is looking to elevate its branding and marketing strategy. Once you revitalize your nonprofit’s name, Getting Attention is there to help you tell the world. At Getting Attention, we specialize in enhancing digital marketing for nonprofits with Google Grants. To learn more about our nonprofit marketing services, contact us for a free consultation.
Want to learn more about nonprofit marketing and branding strategy? Check out these resources:
- A 2021 Guide to Nonprofit Marketing. This guide will walk you through what nonprofit marketing is, how to create a nonprofit marketing plan, and some best practices.
- Nonprofit Marketing Plan in 8 Steps (+ Free Templates!). If you want more information about creating a nonprofit marketing plan, this is the resource for you! Download the free templates to get you started.
- Take Your Nonprofit Branding Strategy To The Next Level. Want to improve your nonprofit’s branding strategy? Check out this resource to learn more about best practices and key components of nonprofit branding.