Better Nonprofit Naming Through Brain Science

Nonprofits are increasingly learning the value of branding to their strategic mission, but many organizations still rely on outmoded perspectives when it comes to naming.

Your name is the foundation of your organization’s brand. It spreads by word of mouth and social media. It’s how your nonprofit appears in online search results. By itself, a weak name won’t sink a charity, but it can be a drag on building awareness and growing your constituent audiences. By contrast, a powerful, distinctive name can help underfunded organizations gain traction quicker.

If you’re just starting your nonprofit, you have the opportunity to create a name that helps drive your mission forward, but even existing organizations can use the power of naming to help your programs be more effective.

What makes a name powerful?

When we first launched Pollywog in 2007, my co-founder and I wanted to understand why some names were more effective than others. As agency creatives, we had participated in many naming projects, with mixed results. Some ended with a great name, while others fizzled.

To create a process that results in great names every time, we had to understand what makes a name powerful—and by “powerful,” I mean, what gives a name impact and memorability?

To do this, we turned to science to understand more about how the brain notices, stores and recalls information. And we discovered several scientific facts that we could leverage when creating a brand*: 

  1. People don’t pay attention to boring things.
  2. The brain remembers the emotional components of an experience more than any other aspect.
  3. Memory is enhanced by creating associations between concepts.

Let science work for you

Here’s how nonprofits can leverage just these three principles of brain science to create more effective names.

Be different — The brain notices novelty. Your organization can stand out in a sea of nonprofits by choosing a type of name that’s unusual for the sector.

Nonprofits tend to follow the prevailing naming convention and choose a name that describes what they do. Such names typically require multiple words, so the name invariably gets reduced to initials, which have little impact and are easily forgotten.

Remember that once your audience learns what you do, you don’t need to keep repeating it in your name. Consider Goodwill as an early example of how to do naming right. Back in 1902, the group started collecting cast-off clothing from wealthy neighborhoods and employing poor people to repair the goods for resale. The founder wisely named the organization for its outcome, not its function. If founded today with a typical descriptive nonprofit name, the charity might have called itself “Upcycling To End Poverty,” or “UTEP”. Ick! Goodwill is so much better!

Tug on emotions  — An effective brand name triggers an emotional reaction, which causes the brain to pay attention and commit the name more durably to memory. Think of the emotions behind these nonprofit names:

  • Wounded Warrior Project (compassion, gratitude)
  • Best Friends (love)
  • F*** Cancer (anger)
  • Lonely Whale (sadness)


When it’s appropriate for your mission, you can even use humor to make your brand more memorable. For example, Pollywog worked with a local Golden Retriever rescue organization to rename its annual fundraising event. Over the years, the event had grown to be the largest of its kind in the country—hundreds of Goldens, all in one place. So we created Goldzilla, a tongue-in-cheek brand alluding to the magnitude of the event, which allowed for a fun and playful marketing campaign brilliantly executed by J. O’Brien Design.

Make a leap  — Creating associations between ideas helps the brain recall information. We know this instinctively through the use of mnemonic devices, such as rhymes: “I before E except after C.” And visual connections: “Stalactites hold tight to the ceiling, and stalagmites might grow to meet them.”

For nonprofits, naming around an idea associated with a cause instead of using words that directly describe it can result in a more memorable name. Case in point: (RED), the nonprofit founded by Bono to address AIDS—so named because “red is the color of emergency.” That’s a surprising but relevant association.

As another example, the organization formerly called Resources for Child Caring asked Pollywog to develop a name that better reflected its leadership position in early childhood education. The name they chose—Think Small—makes an association with the oft-repeated phrase, “think big,” but flips it into a rallying cry for children. It’s also a reference to one of the most famous advertising campaigns in history for the generation who might remember it.

Get Creative

As you can see, there’s a lot to think about when you create a name for your organization or programs. But it’s also fun and liberating to break free from boring nonprofit naming conventions and explore names that will be noticed and remembered because they’re different and evoke an emotion.

Coming up with a great name isn’t always easy, but Pollywog’s Five Essential Brainstorming Tools for Business Name Ideas can help nonprofits, too, so feel free to use them! And be sure to check for trademark availability before settling on a final name.

* To learn more about these principles of brain science, read John Medina’s excellent book, Brain Rules: 12 Principles for Surviving and Thriving at Work, Home, and School.

Devon Thomas Treadwell
Devon Thomas Treadwell

Prior to founding Pollywog, Devon had been an independent consultant and copywriter/associate creative director with some of the world’s leading advertising agencies, including J. Walter Thompson in Los Angeles, and Young & Rubicam, Bozell and Mithun in Chicago.

Over the 25-year course of her career, Devon has worked on many leading brands, including the Walt Disney Company, Paramount Home Video, Coffee-mate, 3M, Southwestern Bell, @Home, Berlitz, Best Buy, Harmon AutoGlass and Mexicana Airlines. Her creative awards include The Show, The One Show, the Art Director’s Club, the Gold Addy, Print’s Regional Design Annual, the International Advertising Festival of New York, and others. Devon holds a Masters of Advertising from the Medill School of Journalism, Northwestern University.

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