If Hermione had named her organization H.E.R.O (House Elf Release Organization) instead of S.P.E.W, she might have gotten a lot more traction.
Similarly, aspiring charity entrepreneurs know that finding a good name for their organization or project can play an important role in their future impact. After starting four EA organizations (with varying degrees of name quality), I am often asked what I think of a charity entrepreneur’s name for their new venture. I always have the same three pieces of advice, so I thought I’d put it into a blog post so others can benefit from it as well.
1. People will shorten the name if it’s too long. Name accordingly
Consider how people will shorten your organization’s name in everyday conversation. People don’t like saying more than two or three syllables at once. In everyday conversation, no one wastes their breath on the lengthy names of ‘Eighty-thousand Hours’ or ‘the Open Philanthropy Project’. They say ‘80k’ or ‘Open Phil’. Your name should either have 1-3 syllables in the first place (‘GiveWell’) or look good when shortened to 1-3 syllables.
The full name can have more than three syllables if it has a snappy acronym. It’s great if your acronym spells a word or phrase, especially if it evokes the organization’s mission (e.g., ACE, CFAR, ALLFED).
If your acronym doesn’t spell something, avoid Ws - it’s very awkward and long to say ‘double-you’.
2. Don’t artificially lock yourself into a particular strategy with your name
Your name shouldn’t tie you to a specific project, method, goal, or aim. Over time, you will hopefully change your mind about what’s the highest impact thing to do; a vague name preserves your option value.
If the Against Malaria Foundation wanted to work on tuberculosis instead, or 80k decided to focus on donations rather than career choice, they’d be stuck. Names like ‘Lightcone’ and ‘Nonlinear’ are evocative, but they don’t imply that the organizations are working on anything in particular. At Nonlinear we could switch our focus from meta work to direct work tomorrow and the name would still work.
Of course, names won’t necessarily stop you from pivoting. Oxfam is the shortened form of the Oxford Committee for Famine Relief, and now they do far more than help those facing famine. However, it increases the friction of updating based on new evidence or crucial considerations, which is where a massive percentage of your potential future impact comes from. So don’t artificially limit yourself simply because of a name.
3. Get loads of feedback on loads of different names
Generate LOTS of options - potentially hundreds - then choose the best 10 and ask your friends to rate them. Don’t just choose one name and ask your friends what they think. First, they can’t tell you how the name compares to other possible names - maybe they think it’s fine, but they’d much prefer another option you considered.
Second, it’s socially difficult for your friends to respond ‘actually, I hate it,’ so it’s hard to get honest feedback this way. Even if you name your child Adolf or Hashtag, people will coo ‘aww! How cute! How original!’ If you send your friends options, it’s easier for them to be honest about which they like best.
So there’s the 80/20 advice on naming your organization or project:
- Keep it three syllables or less, or know that its shortened form will also be good
- Preserve option value by giving yourself a vague name
- Generate a ton of options and get feedback on the top 5-10 from a bunch of friends
Reminder that if this reaches 25 upvotes, you can listen to this post on your podcast player using the Nonlinear Library.
This post was written collaboratively by Kat Woods and Amber Dawn Ace as part of Nonlinear’s experimental Writing Internship program. The ideas are Kat’s; Kat explained them to Amber, and Amber wrote them up. We would like to offer this service to other EAs who want to share their as-yet unwritten ideas or expertise.
If you would be interested in working with Amber to write up your ideas, fill out this form.