a) Dear Friend
b) Dear Mr. Lastname
c) Dear Ms. Lastname
d) Dear Firstname
It’s a tricky one, isn’t it? You can’t always tell people’s gender from their first name. Is Robin a man or a woman? How about Dana?
And “first name” is not always the same as “personal name.” If you have a Chen Shih Huang on your donor list, do they use the Chinese practice of putting the family name first? Then calling them “Dear Chen” is like calling me “Dear Fischman.” (Please don’t!)
I asked a group of nonprofit consultants what they thought about salutations. I found out that people I respect have different opinions on this. Let’s look at each approach.
Why You Might Say “Dear Friend”
Option A) is quick and easy. You don’t have to match the letter to the envelope with the same name on it (or be embarrassed when you send the letter to the wrong name!)
You can also make it a little more personal without naming names, as Susan Ruderman of Veritas Information Services suggests:
For example, if you are an animal welfare organization, try “Dear Fellow Animal Lover.” Or a civil liberties org might use “Dear Defender of Freedom.” When all else fails, use “Friend” with the organization’s name: “Dear Friend of the Toledo Zoo.”
Still, this was the LEAST favored option in the group, and I understand why. It starts your donor thinking, “I gave them money, and they don’t even know who I am? How important can my donation be?” And that’s deadly–especially when you are trying to renew donors.
Why You Might Say “Dear Mr. Lastname” (or “Dear Ms. Lastname”)
Options B) and C) have the advantage of not getting too personal with someone you don’t really know yet. Many donors (especially older donors) might agree with Jane Savitt Tennen, Development Director, FDU School of the Arts at Fairleigh Dickinson University: “When a stranger writes to me as ‘Dear Jane,’ it feels too weirdly familiar.”
You can do research and try to figure out the person’s gender, and even which is their family name and which is their personal name. Google the person for clues, as Mary Cahalane of Hands-on Fundraising does sometime, or use an online name directory to find out which gender the name is most commonly linked with.
But there are multiple problems with the “Mr. or Ms.” approach as well. As Hildy Gottlieb of Creating the Future points out:
We live in an age where people do not always take their spouse’s name when they get married, or may not even be married but are long-time partners. Which means that no, I am not Ms. My-husband’s-last-name, even though that’s what your records say.
Name directories also don’t help you much with women’s names like Toni or Freddi. They don’t at all address the question of people who use non-gendered titles like Mx. (instead of Mr. or Ms.), as Jane Garthson mentioned to me.
And Jessica Dally, Director of Marketing at South Sound Motorcycles, speaks for a lot of us, especially younger donors, when she says, “Don’t ever assume that gender would fit into the binary of B or C. We’re not in that era anymore.”
Why You Might Say “Dear Firstname”
Option D was the favorite of most of my colleagues, and it’s my favorite too. It avoids having to guess at a person’s gender (which is usually something that matters to people a lot).
It is more personal…and for everyone who resents the familiarity, there are probably two who would find formality cold.
It does not solve the problem of knowing which is the personal name and which the family name. It also doesn’t tell you whether you should write to your donor Mary Ann Thomas with a “Dear Mary” or a “Dear Mary Ann.”
Is There a Better Option?
Some of my consultant friends favor an option e), which is to call people by their full names. Not Mary. Not Mary Ann. Not Ms. Thomas. They would write, “Dear Mary Ann Thomas.”
If you want to avoid making mistakes, using a full name is probably your best guarantee. As long as the data in your database is correct, your salutation won’t say anything wrong. But it doesn’t seem right, either. To my ears, using all three names sounds more like you’re taking roll than addressing a letter to a friend and supporter.
Talking about what to call our donors with my consultant friends has convinced me that Isaac Shalev has it right: “Stop mailing people if you don’t know the first thing about them, and get to know them instead!” I’d follow Susan Ruderman’s advice:
Include a field–whether online or on paper–that allows people to specify how they wish to be listed or acknowledged. Sometimes what people choose is nothing at all like the concatenation of honorific+firstname+lastname.
If your donors have a sense of humor, you might follow the model that Ken Wyman, Professor of Fundraising Management at Humber College, suggests:
Dear Dennis Fischman,
Not to be too forward, but may I call you Dennis? You can certainly call me Ken, and I hope you will call me to talk about….
And then on the reply form, let the donors tell you.
Please call me
Mr Ms Mrs Miss Mx
Dr Rev. Rabbi
Sergeant Captain Lieutenant Admiral POTUS