Formal vs. Informal Salutations

Dear Kim:

We have an ongoing debate about the use of formal (more traditional) vs. informal salutations. Historically, our default was formal unless we knew the individual(s). My question relates to how this is trending in the non-profit sector. For example, our ED is suggesting that our default be informal, e.g.: Tom and Susan Mitchell…Dear Tom and Susan. Even though we tend to have a younger donor base, it makes me nervous to make that global change.

~The Honorable Charles Alphonse Smithereens, III, (aka Chucky)

Dear Mr. S-3:

The nonprofit sector is so large, with 1.7 million different nonprofits in the United States alone, that there is no one trend. Some are using very formal salutations and some seem to have abandoned salutations altogether for very casual, “Hi, Friend.”

In my experience, people who don’t mind or would even prefer being called Tom and Susan are also not offended if you call them Mr. and Mrs. Mitchell, but people who really don’t want to be called Tom and Susan are offended when addressed that way, so I always go more formal when I am in doubt.

Pay attention to how the donors sign their names when they send in their money, if they give by check or if they send in a note from time to time. A post-it with “Good luck in your work” signed by “Susan” is a clue that “Susan” is fine or preferred. Pay attention to what they say during a follow up call also: “Hi, is Susan Mitchell there?” followed by her saying, “This is Susan” is a different message than “this is Susan Mitchell.” Start formal and let them say, “Call me Tom.”

These are the details we drown in. They are very important, but there is no clear protocol and we really make our best judgment. We can only hope that our work is important enough that we will be forgiven for using the wrong salutation, particularly if we have spelled their names correctly.

Good luck,

Kim (aka Kim)