Once it has been decided to start a non profit organization , the members need to decide and reserve a name for the non profit organization.
A good name should be indicative of the activities proposed to be undertaken by the organization. It should also be easy to understand and must have a high recall value. Besides this, the organization needs to take care of the following legal issues when choosing a name.
A) Availability with the secretary of states: The name should be available for incorporation with the respective office of secretary of state. The incorporation office will straight away deny the application, if an existing organization has been incorporated with the same name. The application may also be denied, if the proposed name sounds similar to an existing organization and if it could lead to confusion between the two brands. Now a days most of the offices of secretary of states have provided online access to Individuals to conduct a preliminary check of name availability. Click here to check name availability for your respective state. (Opens in a new page and you will then need to click on the link to your respective state address to be directed to the name database).
B) Trade mark Conflicts – A name application may be denied if it is being used as a product or service name by other organization. Thus if an organization uses the same phrase in their logo or product name, the trade mark law of the respective state might prohibit using the same name. Trademarks in itself is a vast and a evolving topic in itself and you do not need to go deep into this matter as not many non profit organizations get into all those complexities. The bottom line – If a phrase is likely to arise confusion between two organizations, it would qualify as copyright infringement.
As a precaution, you should do the following checks when choosing a name for your non profit organization –
1)Internet search: Conduct an Internet search for the proposed name and look out for any possible trademark infringement.
2)Federal Trademark database: This is a database maintained by the U.S Patent & Trademark office and it contains a list of formally obtained patents and trademarks. These words or phrases cannot be used by any other organization and there are heavy penalties for infringement. To check the name against this database visit www.uspto.gov. This is a free database with a comprehensive listing of all registered trademarks. Alternatively you can visit the Local patent and trademark depository library (PTDL).
3) Local directories: Search local directories including business directories published by the local chamber of commerce for extra precaution.
4) State Trademark registries : For additional safety, you can conduct a search of the State trademark registries. Contact the local office of secretary of state and request for information about the agency that is entrusted with the responsibility of maintaining trademark database for the state.
A trademark infringement because of willful neglect can be avoided. Due diligence is all that needs to be done to avoid any such issues at a later stage.
Registered Trademarks are like water tight compartments and should be avoided. On the other hand unregistered trademarks should be avoided if they pertain to an organization that works on similar subjects. If you come across some other organization using the same phrase, you can still use the phrase – provided the existing organization is not a close competitor.
C)Reserved Words – Each state publishes a list of reserved words that cannot be used as a part of the name except if the organization meets certain criteria. For e.g the word ‘bank’ is prohibited from use by a non-banking entity. Check out the restrictions for you state by clicking here (Link to your respective state offices).
D) IRS requirements : If you intend to obtain a 501(c)(3) registration avoid names that indicate some political affiliation or lobbying connection as such organizations are not eligible for tax exemption. For eligibility rules- see the section on 501(C) (3)
D) Availability of Domain names : It is highly recommended that a non profit organization maintains a website. Most of the non-profit organizations choose .org domains as opposed to .com or other extensions. A .org domain is indicative of an organization as compared to for-profit entities that generally opt for .com domains. If the name of the proposed organization is long, you may consider choosing a domain comprising of the abbreviations for the domain registration.
You can check the domain name availability with several domain registrars like www.godaddy.com, www.nic.us and others.
If the domain name is available, you can register the domain online. If however the domain name is not available you would like to check if the domain is actually being used by some other organization or it has just been purchased and parked by a domain reseller. If the domain is in actual use by another organization, you should consider some other name. If the domain is parked by a reseller you can send mails to the reseller through the contact details mentioned on the web page asking his seeking price for domain transfer.
P.S : Do not sound too eager to buy the website or the reseller may ask for a higher price. You can negotiate the price with the reseller.
If you do not wish to negotiate, you can also back-order the domain at www.godaddy.com. In this case Godaddy Inc identifies the reseller and negotiates the price for you in return of a nominal charge.
After going through the above, you should be able to shortlist a name for your organization. However before filing your article of incorporation with the secretary of states , it is a good idea to cross check with them about the name availability.
In most of the states you can also reserve the name with the department for a certain time period by paying a small fees. This is a good idea, if you expect some time lag before actual filing or if it is likely for the department to be approached by others for registration of the same name.
If you are planning to explore the development sector or want to start a nonprofit organization, we recommend:
"Step by Step Nonprofit for Newbies" - A complete nonprofit reference handbook.
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