(Nonprofit Quarterly) Smaller nonprofits would be well advised to avoid logos, taglines and slogans that resemble those of larger, established nonprofits—many of whom are resorting to legal action to protect what they call “historic investments in brand and reputation.”

A small group of local volunteers called Mush for a Cure organized a dog sledding event in 2007 to raise money for breast cancer research.  Last year, the group raised $30,000 for the National Breast Cancer Foundation.  They were surprised to receive a letter from an attorney at the Susan G. Komen Foundation, one of many sent out by the leader in breast cancer fundraising for supposed trademark violations.  Komen opposed Mush for a Cure’s trademark application for use of the phrase “for a cure,” commonly used by many smaller cancer-focused nonprofits and grassroots fundraising events.  Komen dropped their opposition to Mush for a Cure’s application after increased media scrutiny, but the story is an important warning for smaller nonprofits.

Mush for a Cure argues that at the end of the day, their small organization shares the same ultimate goal as Komen—finding a cure for breast cancer.  The two organizations should not be wasting their resources fighting each other in court, but instead devoting all their time, energy and money toward that shared goal.  This may be especially true when one side has deep pockets and the other can barely afford to be in court—and donors likely won’t be happy that their money is going toward a lawsuit instead of their chosen cause.

On the other hand, nonprofits often lose brand recognition when another organization appears with a similar name, logo and mission—and such brand recognition is valuable because it directs donors to the right charity.  Additionally, if a nonprofit that shares similarities with another nonprofit violates the law or gets into other trouble, it can tarnish the reputation of the other nonprofit.