What's in a Name?

A recent article in the Chronicle of Philanthropy entitled “Your Discriminatory Database May be Turning Off Donors” discussed the concept and likelihood of a given nonprofit’s donor/prospect database using arcane, outdated, off-putting, and even offensive norms. The article was interesting and important, and I agree that looking at your donor/prospect database to update information is a critical part of your organization. Asking a donor how they would like to be addressed seems totally logical, but then you and your organization need to fully be open to the fact that some of the people you’re reaching out to might not be comfortable with the choices you offer. Assumptions of names, gender, and marital status can result in losing a donor for good if you are applying non-inclusive standards to the seemingly simple act of recording the person’s identity.

Checking your database to make sure that names you have are accurate (spelled correctly, removing a deceased partner’s name, etc.) will give you a neutral starting point when you’re soliciting them. It’s great food for thought, and combing through your database with accuracy and inclusivity in mind is yet another perfect activity that can be done during Covid — and that will help you immensely going forward.

This article reminded me of a situation that personally experienced several months ago.

I was at a parent’s event (a meeting, really) at one of my kids’ schools, and when I arrived at the check-in table to pick up my name tag, I was horrified that it said “Mrs. Lisa Greer”. Why was that horrifying? Yes, my name is Lisa Greer. However, my mother taught me that the only time that someone is listed with their first name with the “Mrs.” attached is when the “Mr.” is deceased. As most of my readers know, my husband Josh is alive and well, thank you.

It occurred to me that perhaps the people who put on the event (and made the name tags) thought that putting “Mrs.” on the name tag made the event more formal (or “fancy”?) I’m here to say that, sorry, writing “Mrs. Lisa Greer” didn’t achieve that — at all.

Back in the day, many of us (read: me) went to something called “charm school”, where we were instilled with the rules of etiquette. Later, I sent my kids to an “etiquette class for kids” at the local steakhouse, where they learned what a crab fork was, etc. Somehow, the importance of following some form of societal protocol (i.e. manners) has stuck with me — and I continue to believe strongly that manners are important.

When faced with the “Mrs. Lisa Greer” thing, I thought maybe I had been taught incorrectly, and that mom and charm school had erred in their teaching. So, naturally, I consulted Emily Post, and I found that I had actually been taught correctly, and the Mrs. Lisa Greer was not appropriate. Here’s the detailed guide from the Emily Post Institute.

And that’s why Ms. Bowles’ article is important to pay attention to. That one small act (making the name tag) not only didn’t feel “fancy” — it felt inappropriate, awkward and offensive. I know that the creator(s) of the name tag meant no harm, but clearly there wasn’t the appropriate amount of thought given to how important a name is to a human being.

I do have some additional suggestions, though, to make the input/database form more equitable/egalitarian. I’ve listed my suggestions below.

  1. My advice for naming is similar to my advice for any interaction with a donor or prospect — treat the donor as a human being just like you. Listen to the donor and learn what they’re about before asking them for money. Have a respectful, authentic conversation with them.

  2. Assuming you do the above, it’s completely appropriate to ask them how they would like to be addressed. If this is done via a form, you can follow Ms. Bowles’ advice if you’d like. Another option, though (one that is much easier and likely less jarring to older people) is just to write “optional” next to the honorific question. Simple, right?

  3. In terms of asking for “lived-by name” instead of “preferred name”, why not just write “name”? If you need the person’s legal name for some reason, you can list that as a separate question (and don’t ask for a legal name unless you actually do need it.) Simplicity is usually the right answer.

  4. As to the “outdated and sexist attitudes about couples” in the article’s “scenario two”, I totally agree. This is just as important as everything else in the article. For those of you who have read my book, you’ll remember that I faced this exact issue just as I started doing philanthropy work.

Every organization needs to fully understand why the way someone is addressed can immediately impact the likelihood that they will be a supporter of your NPO. Not only is this important from an organization point of view, but every single person who works at the organization — i.e. anyone who might at any time meet a person (or write their name on a name tag) — needs to fully understand how it feels to be addressed incorrectly/inappropriately. This is not a day-training kind of thing, rather, it needs to be part of your organization’s culture. It works both ways, too! Older or more conservative members might be equally offended if they’re referred to as “Sally Jones” instead of as “Mrs. John Jones”.

I’ll leave you with a cool Maya Angelou quote:

“Words are things. You must be careful, careful about calling people out of their names, using racial pejoratives and sexual pejorative, and all that ignorance. Don’t do that. Some day we’ll be able to measure the power of words. I think they are things. They get on the walls. They get in your wallpaper. They get in your rugs, in your upholstery, and your clothes, and finally into you.”

Have a great week!


I’m thrilled to share my first book, Philanthropy Revolution, with the world. I’m lifting the lid on our charitable sector with an authentic account that describes exactly how outdated the sector has become and why it’s at risk of collapse. Get your signed copy here.

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- Lisa