Ask the Ethicist: Using Gender and Pronouns Correctly

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Dear Ethicist,

A recent post to PRSPT-L about which name to use for a transgender student got me thinking about my organization’s use of gender and pronouns. We have not started a project to update or change constituents’ gender data in our system, which currently has three options: male, female or other. Nor do we have a place to record pronouns.

Do we need to do this? My organization has been talking more about increasing diversity in our donor base, but where do we even start to update all of this? Is there organizational value if this only impacts a few donors?


Overwhelmed by Changing Options


Dear Overwhelmed,

In Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet, Juliet says, “What's in a name? That which we call a rose by any other name would smell as sweet.”

With all due respect to Shakespeare, this is not completely true. What you call someone is powerful and has meaning. You wouldn’t call a donor “Kat” if their preferred name is Kathleen, would you? As a society, we are accustomed to using nicknames or formal names when asked. This social grace should be extended to all names and pronouns.

Resistance to accurately referring to trans or non-binary people by their requested names and pronouns sends a clear message about whose identities are considered legitimate and whose are not. Using someone’s preferred name and pronouns is a sign of respect and a building block in cultivating a relationship with a potential donor.

Deadnaming (the use of the birth or other former name of a transgender or non-binary person without the person's consent) or misgendering our constituents is not good stewardship. Fortunately, we have resources: NPR’s “A Guide to Gender Identity Terms” can be a helpful starting point in this discussion.

Yet, many of our databases are still utilize data tables for gender which are often horribly out of date. If you cannot update the out of the box table, consider creating a custom field that will allow for more options and will also allow you to record when and where the data came from. Organizations can also add a code table value for more inclusive salutation options, such as Mx. (Merriam-Webster defines Mx. as a title for those who do not identify as being of a particular gender, or for people who simply don't want to be identified by gender).

Ideally this data should come from the donor. Do not assume you know the gender based on the name, and if your database uses any logic to automatically fill in gender based on name, please stop that function.

Legal name versus preferred name can cause confusion within databases. You may need to have an alias for legal name for receipting purposes, while also acknowledging the donor’s preferred name. Legally updating a name is an arduous task, so we should be nimble enough to have both names in our system while using preferred names in most communications.

You alone cannot make all of the changes at your organization around this issue. This is the perfect time to collaborate with other fundraising departments: donor relations and alumni Relations, data governance, individual fundraising and marketing/communications. Each area will bring a different perspective to the conversation, and together you can figure out what processes work best for your organization. Where and why are you using gender data? Do you need to reconsider how titles are used? Is the language used in communications inclusive?

Apra’s DEI Data Guide has resources to help with surveys or other questions you may encounter in this process. Also, aasp recently released an updated best practices document, “Gender Maintenance,” which is a reference guide for nonprofits that are currently faced with trying to implement solutions for working with constituents’ gender.

Being inclusive in gender and pronoun use in our databases and fundraising practices takes work. Our donors deserve that respect, and the work is worth it.


The Ethicist

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