Keep it legal: Trademarks and branding

A charity's good name and reputation are among its most valuable - and vulnerable - assets. If its brand is damaged, a charity's work could be seriously harmed. On the positive side, effective use of the charity's brand can have great benefits both for fundraising and for increasing the charity's profile and cause.

As a general rule, trustees should make the following three steps the cornerstones of any legal strategy to protect their charity's brand: register key names and logos, carry out clearance searches where appropriate and ensure all branding-related agreements are clearly set out in writing.

One of the most infamous branding problems suffered by a charity was the World Wide Fund for Nature's long-running trademark battle with the World Wrestling Federation over the use of the WWF initials. In the end, the charity succeeded in forcing the federation to change its name to World Wrestling Entertainment.

The main reason the charity succeeded was that it had registered WWF as a trademark. Many charities have not taken this basic and inexpensive step in brand protection, making it difficult to protect their names from misuse.

However, trademark infringement can work both ways. If you rebrand your charity, or start a new activity under a new name or logo, you could find yourself encroaching on an existing trademark. This could result in an expensive (and embarrassing) rebranding exercise. It is therefore advisable to conduct a trademark search before adopting a new name or logo.

Trademark registration also turns your name and logo into an identifiable asset. This makes it easier to use it for other purposes that could benefit the charity, such as sponsorship agreements with commercial partners.

If you do decide to enter into some form of affiliation with a commercial partner, it is vital to have a written agreement that clearly sets out the obligations of each party. If you are allowing a commercial organisation to use your name and logo, it should be carefully controlled to ensure your brand is not damaged by inappropriate use.

Similarly, if you agree to use commercial branding as part of a sponsorship deal, the agreement should allow you to refrain from doing so in circumstances in which this might be damaging for the charity's image.

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