What’s in a Name?

First, a story about my mother. It’s the kind of story I can tell, but you can’t, because she’s my mother, not yours.

My mom, who recently turned 87, is a very traditional woman of her generation. And she never quite understood that, though my wife Pat decided to take my last name when we got married in 1983, she certainly did not subsume her identity to me. So for years every time my mom sent a birthday card to Pat, she addressed it to “Mrs. Alan Cantor.” It drove both Pat and me nuts: Pat took my last name, sure, but not my first!

Then the time came when Pat earned her doctoral degree, and to mark the accomplishment my mother sent her a card. Reflexively, my mother addressed the envelope to “Mrs. Alan Cantor.” Then, realizing that the reason for the card was that Pat had just earned a different honorific, my mom crossed out the “Mrs.” and wrote “Dr. Alan Cantor.” But, hey, the card wasn’t for me, my mother realized, and I’m not a doctor, so she crossed out the “Alan.” Finally the battered, crossed-out envelope read, “Dr. Patricia Cantor.” Imagine! we thought. All it took was Pat earning a doctorate for my mom to recognize her individuality!

I think about that every time we get a solicitation letter – or worse yet, a thank-you letter – addressed to “Mr. and Mrs. Alan Cantor.” (On occasion we’ve received an even more tortured form: “Mr. and Mrs. Alan and Patricia Cantor.”) Blech. We never refer to ourselves as Mr. and Mrs. And if the organization was going to insist on formality, then the correct address (I looked this up) would be “Dr. Patricia and Mr. Alan Cantor.”

But the nonprofits (and their software packages) forget what we want to be called, and what we specify on all our gift envelopes: “Alan and Patricia Cantor” or “Al and Pat Cantor.” And I think we represent the large majority of donors, at least here in the Northeast, and certainly most people 65 and younger.

Forms of address can be fraught with landmines. And not only from Baby Boomers like the two of us who are drawn toward the informal. I know an older woman, a widow, who insists on being referred to as “Mrs. John Jones,” rather than “Katherine Jones,” or “Mrs. Katherine Jones,” because (as she emphatically told me) not to have the deceased husband’s name implies that she is a divorcee, not a widow.

Other challenges: How do you address same-sex couples? Unmarried straight couples? Households comprised of an elderly parent and a middle-aged son or daughter? What if you’re not sure if people are married, or – simply by looking at the name – if they are men or women?

How you address envelopes and letters is not a huge strategic development issue, but it is a small-but-important part of building relationships with donors, and in development activities everything comes back to relationships. You don’t want people mad at you before they even open the envelope. You don’t want to mess this up.

Here’s my advice for nonprofits.

Simply because your donor software package allows you to add the Mr. and Mrs. and other forms of address, that doesn’t mean you should. The default should be simply to go with first and last names: “John and Jane Jalicki,” or “Barry Backstrom and Mary Chen.” Then, make exceptions for the small group of people who are either so notably august that you don’t feel comfortable calling them by first name (governors, judges, ambassadors, bishops, and certain doctors, for example), or are, like the widow I referenced before, insistent on a particular form of address.

This may strike people as terribly informal, and it may not work in all parts of the country – but I’ve found it to be the way to offend the fewest number of people. And the last thing we want to be doing as nonprofits is offending people.

Let me know what you think. And if you write – just call me Al. Please.

Copyright Alan Cantor 2012. All rights reserved.

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5 Comments. Leave new

  • Cue the Paul Simon song. Nah nah nah nah, na-nah nah nah, nah nah nah, na-na-na-na, nah, nah…..

    • Yes, Jess, you and Paul Simon can call me Al. Then there was the Depression-era song, “Hey don’t you remember? They called me Al. It was Al all the time. Say don’t you remember, I was your pal? Hey Buddy, can you spare a dime?”

  • All good points–but did you notice you always put the man’s name first, even when referring to you and your wife? I wouldn’t mind a Patricia and Alan Cantor once in a while:-)

  • This is a dilemna in our shop and one we still have not solved, although we have made attempts. Our basic rule on data entry is to use the person with whom we have the closer relationship as the name key. We have a formal salutation, which is generally Mr. and Mrs, and an informal salutation, John and Judy and we always ask our donors how they would like to be listed/addressed. So, in some instances it is John and Judy, in others it is Mr and Mrs and in still others it is a single name (I make the donation to you, not my spouse). We have some board members who want to be listed alone, others with their spouse. And then there are those who don’t share the same last name. There is no one size fits all that’s for sure and we find ourselves constantly updating the data base (don’t discount the fact that a donor might one time say they’d like to be addressed as Mr and Mrs and another time they’ll tell you John and Judy).

    My gut reaction is that we have a mature donor base and there preference is a more formal salutation–especially if they have not met me. How many of us called our friends’ parents by their first names? Or even do so today? But, for younger donors, the informal is more accepted.

    I guess the best answer is ‘know thy donor base’ (Lessons from my mother: If you want an A, give the professor what s/he asks for).


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