equality race social justice

Say the name – why charities need to use people’s surnames

This week protestors in the United States have been chanting in the streets: “say his name, George Floyd”. It’s been painted on walls and scribbled on signs: #SayHisName.

Declaring someone’s name is a way of giving a person the dignity that they weren’t afforded in life. It asserts their personhood and their individuality, their rights. It makes an unseen person visible. This has been particularly important for activists highlighting violence against black women. In a debate that has focused on young men, the black women killed by the police are doubly invisible. This point was made by the African American Policy Forum in their 2015 report on the subject, and their use of the #SayHerName hashtag.

I was thinking about names this week because I’m writing a book at the moment and I was looking for case studies of people on the front lines of global injustice. Several times I found a compelling story, but only the person’s first name was given. You probably know the kind of thing I mean.

  • “Tobiana used to grow potatoes to sell at the market, but heavy rains have washed away his crop.”
  • “Azmin is a mother of three. She has no choice but to take the youngest with her to scavenge for firewood.”

It’s a common formula used by journalists and by charities. Personalise the issue for the audience. Ground it in a real story, and for charities, lead with the end beneficiary of your project. It’s often well meaning, but there is a problem. I’ve been homeschooling the children, and I recognise that formula:

  • “Peter has fourteen pencils. He gives five to Oliver. How many does he have left?”
  • “Megan has nine muffins. She bakes nine more. How many muffins does Megan have?”

Peter and Megan are obviously ciphers – made up persons for the benefit of the question. They’re only there to frame the maths problem. The textbook writer hasn’t got a backstory for them.

As I find myself saying to my children “The names are not important. No, I don’t know why Peter has 14 pencils. It doesn’t matter if whether they’re colouring pencils or not. Just get to the sum.”

When a charity uses a person to illustrate a problem, they’re not a cipher. They’re supposed to be a real person, part of a community, part of a family. They do have a backstory, a heritage. They come from somewhere. They belong somewhere. They have their people, and their people have them. We should give them the dignity of a surname.

I’ve worked for charities, and I know there’s a choice here to keep it simple and personal. I know that sometimes names are changed to protect people’s identity. But without a surname, it looks like they have been made up. It looks as if they are only there to present the problem. There’s a risk that they aren’t being treated as real, and that they’re only there to frame the thing that we’re really interested in, which is the problem. Or perhaps the solution to the problem which the charity is raising funds for.

It’s a simple enough thing, a surname. But it communicates that this person has a life beyond being a convenient example for the point we want to make. It’s a way to honour them as a whole person. They are seen. Can we learn something from the Black Lives Matter movement, and say the name?

I know there are a few readers who work in charities. Perhaps you could have a conversation about it.


  1. One of the best things I have read by you – thank you so very much, Jeremy Williams.
    Framing real people’s lives in terms of problem solving is to treat them like widgets being made in a factory – and so much of what is going wrong in the current crisis is, IMO, because managerialism and the types of ‘leaders’ – merely managers – it creates cannot tell the difference between widgets and persons – it is just about the sums. Managerialism is not just rife in politics and government, but in charities.
    The significance of having a name is something that I am aware of through the cultural heritage of my own Scots name – I am literally the son of someone – Fergus, traditionally ‘Fergus Mòr Mac Earca’, in myth, the very founder of Scotland – I have a people.
    Keep up the good work.

    1. Thanks Gordon, and yes, managerialism is an interesting word. For me, it would be summed up as seeing the world in problems and solutions, rather than in relationships.

  2. I think this important point (both original article, and Gordon Ferguson’s comment) also starts to shine a spotlight into the wider implications of how charities use people to further their cause. Unfortunately what plays best with donors (especially ‘us’; general public givers) often works against proper respect and recognition, and even basic decent treatment, of the people we should be serving. Lots of perverse incentives here. How can we get wiser and better in how this whole system works?

    1. It is a tricky one, because storytelling is important and can also honour the people the charity works for. It can make invisible people visible, and build understanding.

      One of my favourite pieces of work on the topic is from Norway, when researchers took some typical aid agency ads to Africa and ran focus groups on how people felt about them. Very interesting, and it demonstrates the first principle of these kinds of questions: ask the people who matter, and try not to make assumptions on anyone’s behalf.

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