This tendency transfers directly to naming – nonprofit names are often a mouthful. If you take a list of 50 large nonprofits in the US, the average name is a whopping 22 characters long, with 3.6 words and 7 syllables! 🤯 Compare that to a list of 50 globally recognized brands like Apple, Google, Nike, or Coca-Cola, which average just 7 characters, 2 syllables, and slightly over 1 word.
Nonprofit names are three times longer on average than the brands everyone remembers most.
Why Does It Matter?
Your name is among the most valuable assets your organization owns. Effective brand names should be easy to say, remember, distinguish, relate to, and use.
Your name might not be helping your brand be remembered. A full name change can risk your brand equity, cost a lot of money and confuse your people.
Often, shortening your name can serve as the fix. Let's look at the three attributes we can move the needle on: memorability, relevance, and flexibility.
Shorter Names are Usually Easier to Remember
It’s not hard to imagine why. We are all constantly subjected to a firehose of information – 5 times more data on a daily basis than we were 30 years ago, according to studies. Cognitively, we are challenged now unlike never before. Our working memory, which is like our brain’s scratchpad on which we quickly record and erase information for short-term use, is constantly pushed beyond its limited capacity.
Longer, hard-to-pronounce names increase the chances of being forgotten or misremembered because you’re working against human biology. They can also signal old-school or elitist vibes (think heritage and luxury brands like Yves Saint Laurent or Bruichladdich Scotch), which likely don’t align with your nonprofit goals.
What’s the ideal length then you ask? Generally, names with over 10 characters or 4 syllables are too long.
Your brand's job is to create a container filled with associations, representing your vision, mission, and reputation. While it's tempting to include everything, brevity enhances memorability.
Familiarity Creates Connection
In everyday conversation, people usually call you by your first name or a nickname, not your full name, middle name and last name. That would be weirdly formal in most contexts. Similarly, nonprofits often use a colloquial shorthand name internally and with partners. However, many keep their lengthy formal names in their logos, fearing loss of recognition or credibility.
These concerns are valid, but if your team already uses a short name informally, it's a good sign that it holds relevance and meaning within your organization.
Your people want to become invested in the history and personality of your brand, rather than having an impersonal, formal relationship to it. They want a more human connection. Officially elevating a shorthand name already in use to your logo makes your organization more approachable. Your audience will feel like they can relate to your brand on a first name basis.
When you go to the optometrist to take a vision test, it’s a lot easier to see the letters above the green line, which max out at 6 per line, than it is to see the letters below the red line, which begin at 9 letters per line. Given the constraint of having the same width, less letters means bigger letters and more clarity. More letters, means smaller and blurrier, and more strain on the eyes.
Now consider some of the busy, constrained spaces where your logo will need to stand out: website headers, supporter logo walls, social media tiles, videos, and newsletters.
Long names require logos with text set on multiple lines, making them appear smaller and harder to read alongside single-line logos with fewer letters. Functionally speaking, this is equivalent to self-sabotage. Your brand needs to be helping you create impact, not getting in the way of it.
Functional logos should work well in various contexts, from tiny to giant sizes. These practical considerations won’t just make your design team’s life easier – they’ll ensure your brand stands out and affords you the flexibility you need in co-branded partner coalitions without the constant headache of wrestling with a complicated logo.
Now that we've explored memorability, relevance, and flexibility, let's discuss your options: shorthands and acronyms.
Many nonprofits shorten their names using one- or two-word shorthands. These work well because they're already familiar to your audience. Examples you might be familiar with: The Met (Metropolitan Museum of Art) or Ford (Ford Motor Company). In our client work, a few similar examples include Vera (Vera Institute of Justice) and Osborne (Osborne Association). Shorter names feel more personable and are easier to remember.
Some shorthands slightly alter the focus of a name, in advantageous ways. For example we updated Brooklyn Defender Services to Brooklyn Defenders and Gotham Writers’ Workshop to Gotham Writers. In both cases, we shifted the emphasis from describing what the entity does to highlighting the people behind the organization, making the names not only shorter, but also more relatable.
To Acronym or Not
Acronyms are practical, economical, and widely used across industries (ACLU, CNN, NBA, MoMA, AT&T etc). They're beneficial when the original name creates unwanted limitations. The original name might be in another language (BMW was Bayerische Motoren Werke GmbH), in a limited geography (KFC was Kentucky Fried Chicken), or speaks to a limited demographic (YMCA was Young Men’s Christian Association). In these cases it makes sense to retain equity built into the original name by evolving to usage of its initials.
Acronyms can also add clever double meanings to names. For example, one of our clients, the Center for Employment Opportunities uses CEO as its acronym—a wink to the highest employment opportunity there is.
This approach is rarely as evocative as a shorthand name, but when shorthands aren’t a viable option, and if the acronym is already in common use within your organization, it’s fair game.
Here’s a quick acronym viability gut check:
Is the acronym already in use within your organization?
Does it benefit your organization to remove emphasis from your full name?
Can you keep it to a max of 4 letters (or syllables)?
Bonus points for using vowels to create a pronounceable word as in NASA or UNICEF (5 letters, but only 3 syllables when read as a word)
Legal concerns often deter nonprofits from shortening their names. The fear is that such changes might require structural changes, fiscal changes, endless approvals, and expensive legal fees. It doesn’t have to be that way.
There are situations when it might make sense to go through the hoops of legally changing your official names and going through the hoops that entails, but most of the time, a simple "doing business as" (DBA) can do the trick. DBAs aren’t formal business structures so they don’t offer liability protection, but they are a simple, cost effective mechanism designed to provide the branding flexibility your organization needs. DBAs allow you to use an alias that’s different from your official registered name to more effectively position your brand.
Keep It Simple
In a world where flexibility and adaptability are vital, your name might be trying to say too much.
If you’re on the cusp of reimagining your brand, it’s the perfect time to make sure you’re starting with the most concise brand name possible. Your options are likely right in front of you and in daily use by your people. Perhaps now is the time to take your nonprofit’s shorthand name from the water cooler to the world.
If your nonprofit is ready to explore a brand refresh and name trim, let's talk.