How to Name a Nonprofit in Tennessee

Trio of nonprofit owners looking at potential business names on whiteboard and laptop.

The name for your nonprofit is the most important part of your organization’s identity and image. The name must follow the legal guidelines set forth by the state of Tennessee while being memorable enough for your organization to remain in the forefront of potential donors’ and community members’ minds. When you begin the process of selecting a name for your nonprofit, we recommend following these 4 easy steps:

Name a Nonprofit in 4 Steps

Step 1: Brainstorming

The first step in naming your nonprofit in Tennessee is to brainstorm potential names. The main idea is to come up with several names you are interested in using and you will narrow them down in Step 2. When you begin brainstorming potential names for your Tennessee nonprofit, we suggest you consider the following questions:

  • What does your nonprofit do?
    Come up with a list of action verbs that describe what your organization does. Depending on the nature of your organization, you may choose words like heal, protect, foster, feed, prevent, care, change, fight, etc.
  • Who does your nonprofit help?
    Think about who your organization serves and come up with a short list of nouns and adjectives. Some examples might include needy, children, animals, homeless, etc.
  • Who are your members?
    Sometimes, it might be worth mentioning who your members are, especially if they are essential to your organization’s purpose or inspired its mission. If applicable, you may want to include words like survivors, doctors, mothers, etc.

After coming up with a list of keywords you might use in your nonprofit’s name, begin drafting a list of potential nonprofit names. While brainstorming names, keep these general guidelines in mind:

  • Memorable Words
    Use words or phrases that truly resonate with your target audience and highlight your mission. Mission-specific words might include environment, love, justice, poverty, etc.
  • Concrete > Abstract
    Concrete words and phrases are typically something you can touch, smell, see, or taste. Abstract words and phrases, on the other hand, refer to ideas or concepts. When naming your nonprofit, concrete words are ideal, but you can often make abstract words concrete by adding additional words/phrases. For example, education is an abstract word, but Teach for America is more concrete. Another example includes poverty as an abstract word, and Eliminating Food Poverty is more concrete.
  • Acronym-friendly
    If your nonprofit’s name is more than one word, you have the opportunity to create and use a memorable acronym as part of your brand - think M.A.D.D. or YMCA.
  • Be Professional
    Your nonprofit’s name will often be the first impression potential donors, volunteers, and stakeholders get of your organization and it’s imperative that you represent your organization properly. You want your supporters to be proud to write your organization’s name on a check or tell potential supporters about your organization.


    In addition, ensure your organization’s name is grammatically correct and does not include alternate spellings of words or unusual punctuation. Although this might make your organization’s name more memorable, it could be memorable for all the wrong reasons.

  • Showcase Your Mission
    Consider showcasing the fact that your organization is a nonprofit. You may want to use words or phrases that are already associated with the nonprofit world like charity, foundation, nonprofit, etc.

After considering the questions and guidelines above, make sure you’ve compiled a list of potential names for your nonprofit. This is also a great time to research other nonprofits in your niche (and not in your niche) to see what you like, what you don’t like, and what may be appropriate for your organization. Write several potential names down and then proceed to Step 2.

Step 2: Narrow Down Your List

Once you have completed the brainstorming session and have a list of potential names, it’s time to narrow them down to the best ones. When narrowing down your list, ask yourself these four questions:

  • Is it Easy to Say?
    Volunteers, donors, and members need to be able to easily say the name of your organization so they can promote it, spread awareness, and solicit funds. Ask 10 people not involved in the brainstorming process to say the names out loud multiple times and ask them for feedback.

  • Is It Simple to Spell?
    Make your nonprofit’s name easy to spell. Complicated spellings will make it difficult for people to search for your organization online and checks written with spelling errors may be rejected by banks, which will not help you get funds you need to support your cause.

  • Does it Incorporate the Mission?
    In one way or another, try to ensure your nonprofit’s name embodies its mission. If you plan to start a shelter, for example, the word “home” could embody the mission of providing a safe place for people. It also can spark warm, positive emotions that make people feel welcome. If your mission isn’t obvious from the name and donors are confused about what your nonprofit does, they are less likely to invest time or money to your cause.

  • Is it Memorable?
    A name can be memorable because of its simplicity, because of the feelings it evokes, or even because of its acronym. While not every nonprofit needs a recognizable acronym, acronyms can definitely help those with especially long names. Make sure there is something about the name you select that makes it memorable.

In addition, names that use alliteration are also memorable. Alliteration is when you use the same sound at the beginning of each word. For example, American Airlines, Coca-Cola Company, Krispy Kreme, etc.

Step 3: Naming Rules of Tennessee Nonprofits

Each state has its own requirements for naming a nonprofit or business. When coming up with a name for your nonprofit, keep the Secretary of State's guidance in mind:

  • Your name cannot imply that your business was organized for any other purpose than what is set forth in your Articles of Incorporation.
  • Your name cannot imply that your nonprofit:
    • Transacts or has power to transact any affairs for which authorization in whatever form and however denominated is required under the laws of this state, unless the appropriate commission or officer has granted such authorization and certifies that fact in writing.
    • Is organized as, affiliated with, or sponsored by, any fraternal, veterans', service, religious, charitable or professional organization, unless that fact is certified in writing by the organization with which affiliation or sponsorship is claimed.
    • Is an agency or instrumentality of, affiliated with or sponsored by the United States or the State of Tennessee or a subdivision or agency thereof, unless such fact is certified in writing by the appropriate official of the governmental entity.
  • If your nonprofit’s name contains any of these words “mortgage,” “bank,” “banks,” “credit union,” or “trust,” you must obtain written approval from the Tennessee Department of Financial Institutions before filing your formation documents with the Secretary of State.
  • Your name does not need to include the words “company”, “corporation”, “incorporated”, or “limited” since it is a nonprofit organization.

Step 4: Check Name Availability

In addition to the requirements listed in Step 3, your name must be distinguishable from other businesses operating in the state of Tennessee. To verify the availability of your nonprofit’s name, you should conduct a state-level business entity search and check to see that your desired URL is available.

1. Conduct a Business Entity Search
Your nonprofit’s name must be different than any existing corporation operating in Tennessee. To verify that your nonprofit’s name is available, access the Secretary of State’s Business Entity Search.

2. Check for URL Availability
You’ll also want to make sure that a relevant URL is available for your nonprofit. You can check for URL availability by searching GoDaddy®, an American internet domain registrar and web hosting company. Because your website will play an important role for your nonprofit — providing information on your organization, its programs, and how to donate — you should consider another name if an appropriate URL isn’t available.

Conclusion

Choosing your nonprofit’s name is an exciting step in creating your organization. As you evaluate potential options, carefully consider each name to ensure it’s memorable, it reflects your mission, and it can grow with your nonprofit. Once you select the right name for your organization — and confirm it complies with any legal requirements — you’ll move one step closer to spreading your message and services.

To learn more about how to form a nonprofit in Tennessee, access our in-depth guide here.