Does a non-profit need a trademark?

by | Jul 8, 2024 | Insights | 0 comments

Non-profit organisations, whether private like Oxfam or public like World Wildlife Fund (WWF), are some of the world’s biggest brands. The fact that they have a not-for-profit motivation behind their work does not change this. So the question is, does a non-profit organisation need a trademark, and if yes, why?

Why does a non-profit need a trademark?

The mistaken belief that a non-profit does not need a trademark probably stems from a fact that they don’t always necessarily charge the end user for their services.

For example, Doctors Without Borders and the International Red Cross provide a lot of highly valuable charitable services for free. It might seem that trademark rights are not relevant in the world of charitable activities. After all, trademarks are symbols used in commerce.

On the other hand, many non-profit organisations are big global operators that advertise their services heavily. For them, awareness and brand visibility is just as important as for private companies. For example, in 2006 UNICEF became FC Barcelona’s first-ever jersey sponsor.

A non-profit organisation needs a trademark for the same reason as any other organisation, to protect and safeguard its reputation and goodwill. With a registered trademark, a non-profit can ensure that other entities (whether for-profit or non-profit) cannot use marks that would cause confusion amongst the public or tarnish the non-profit’s reputation.

In addition, the non-profit’s activity often goes beyond their core mission. Imagine that somebody started selling T-shirts, hats, calendars, notebooks, tote bags, etc. on Amazon, using the WWF’s famous Panda logo. This would give them an unfair advantage to profit from the reputation of the WWF and their famous logo. In fact, the WWF has an online store where they sell clothing, bags, stickers, prints, etc.

Oxfam sells on its website anything from pasta sauces to vintage water jugs. In many cases, merchandise sales is an important part of the fundraising of a non-profit. If you have a non-profit that works in agriculture, and you sell sustainably harvested cocoa on your website, you must make sure that no other entity has rights to a similar name with respect to cocoa and other agricultural products.

Also, the fact that non-profit actors provide services that are not charged to the end user (like medical services in the case of Red Cross or Doctors Without Borders) does not mean that they are not using their name as a trademark.

A registered trademark ensures that you can continue using your brand without the risk that somebody else registers a similar name and makes you stop. The fact that you are a non-profit does not excuse you from respecting the trademark rights of others. Doctors Without Borders could not provide medical services under the name Mayo Clinic.

For which goods and services should a non-profit protect its trademark?

As with other companies, this depends on what they do. Merchandise is easy. You should protect the trademark for the kind of merchandise you sell, like apparel or stationary products. That determines the classes and the list of goods.

For the main activities, this again depends on what you do. Sometimes it might be difficult to articulate the actual services in terms of trademark classes. Often a significant part of a non-profit’s work is education and making reports and policy proposals regarding a particular topic.

A non-profit that acts in the field of conservation of the environment and wildlife could register their trademark for these services:

Class 36: Charitable fundraising services to promote awareness of tree and environmental conservation;
Class 41: Education and training relating to nature conservation and the environment;
Class 42: Research in the field of environmental conservation;
Class 44: Agricultural services relating to environmental conservation;

A non-profit that promotes women’s health could register its trademark in class 41 (education services) and class 44 (medical services). If your non-profit’s purpose is to offer information about the use of pesticides, that’s an information service that belongs to class 44 (information services relating to agriculture). Information services are classed based on the subject matter of the information provided. For example, medical information services belong to class 44, and financial information services in class 36.

As you can see, protecting the trademark of a non-profit does not really differ from protecting the trademark of a for-profit company. Even if the end user gets the service without directly paying for it, the non-profit is still using the trademark when providing the service. Also, providing information (free of charge) on a topic is a service.


To wrap up, here are a couple of points you should take into account as a non-profit if you’re thinking about whether to register your name and logo as trademarks.

– Brand is just as important for a non-profit as it is for a for-profit company
– Trademark registration is the best way of ensuring that others don’t take advantage of your brand and that you can continue using your brand
– Even if you provide education and information services for free, these can be protected with a trademark
– Remember to register your trademark for merchandise

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