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.

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8 comments, sorted by Click to highlight new comments since: Today at 9:40 PM

As a non-expert, I'm really surprised by the first two points! It doesn't seem to match the most successful names in this space (except maybe Effective Altruism itself)

  • Preserve option value by giving yourself a vague name

I personally really like that AMF, GWWC, 80k, and GiveWell have non-vague names!
It makes it so much easier to remember them and talk about them, especially in groups with non-fulltime-EAs!

E.g. If I meet a chemical engineer in an EA context I might ask them thoughts about the Lead Exposure Elimination Project and don't have to go "what was the name of that org again? Let me google a description and hope I can find it".

The first ~3 times I saw someone mention Nonlinear I had to google something like "nonlinear effective altruism" to remember what you do.
If someone talks about wanting to start a "longermist" project, my brain goes "did you talk with the Long Term Future Fund?". But it takes some effort to think about Nonlinear, I think in part because of the name.

  • Keep it three syllables or less, or know that its shortened form will also be good

I really like the name "Giving What We Can"! I never heard anyone trying to pronounce "GWWC".
In speaking, the full name sounds great. In writing, "GWWC" is very easy to google (compare to ACE and CFAR). I had to google lots of things when I started reading EA content.

 

In your experience, is changing the name or creating a new org very costly? Isn't it actually better to change the name so people don't think you're still working on the old stuff? Is there something obvious I'm missing?
 

Interesting thoughts!

For vagueness you do lose out on remembering what your org does in exchange for option value. I'd say that the option value is more important though, since most of the variance in impact doesn't come from people not remembering what you do, but what strategy you follow. You want to minimize the friction for updating your strategy based on new evidence and considerations.

And then if you change strategy without changing your name (which is indeed quite costly), it also causes problems. For example, Open Phil and OpenAI have both been criticized for not being as open as their names would suggest.

I disagree with 2 and somewhat disagree with 3.

Re 2 - I think there's a lot of value early on to describing clearly what you do via your name,  and particularly how you might be different than similar organizations. A big challenge for new organizations is building a network of people (donors, employees, advisors) that are excited about what the group is doing. Making it clear to people why they might get excited to you via your name is a way to make this process much easier.

If you expand your strategy in the future you can always rebrand. Rebranding is disruptive, but it often won't be as harmful as missing out on valuable connections early on.

Re 3 - getting lots of feedback is great, and you make a good point regarding how to get feedback. However, I think you have to be careful about how you weigh that feedback. The more people who weigh in on something like this, the more likely you'll end up selecting for something that doesn't have downsides, rather than something that actively has upsides (especially non-obvious ones, such as clearly describing what you do).

"The World Wide Web is the only thing I know of whose shortened form takes three times longer to say than what it's short for" - Douglas Adams

I think #1 is a good point but disagree with #2 and #3, at least in many average cases.

For #2, your example of 80K is the case in point. It is hard for me personally to imagine that some of their success isn't attributable to the fact that their name so cleverly fits with their mission.

For #3, I see EA orgs spent inordinate amounts of time doing name selection when they should be getting on with their work. I think this is a symptom of a more general issue of EAs analyzing way too long before pulling the trigger. At Charity Entrepreneurship, we spent 1 three hour session coming up with names for our orgs and that felt like the right amount and we landed with "High Impact Professionals" for my current org. I likely can't pivot to Famine Relief, but if I want to to that I'll probably make another org.

Preserve option value by giving yourself a vague name

Seems quite possible that your donors want you to do the project you said you'd do, and not some other random project. If this is the case project lock-in through name choice could be a feature rather than a bug.

Check ea.domains for available domains! Some relevant ones include:

ontological.tech
existential.dev
agenty.org
epistemic.dev

I've always liked the name of the Nucleic Acid Observatory - super evocative, captures the mission, memorable. It fits with point 2 here, but maybe not point 1.