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Fostering an inclusive culture

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Names and words are integral to our sense of self, how we navigate the world, and create an inclusive culture. For fundraisers, we choose our words wisely to effectively communicate our mission and case for support to diverse audiences. Many of us know the phrase “junk in-junk out” and the importance of an updated database. We’ve all received feedback from a donor about mistakes to their name, salutation, or marital status.

For many same-gender-loving partners, the prefix conundrum weighs heavily in day-to-day activities. For two men in partnership, Mr. and Mr. works just fine because it’s always Mr. regardless of their marital status. But when you address my wife as Mrs. Cole does that mean she is married to herself since her maiden name is Cole? Our preference is to be addressed by our names rather than traditional salutations, but that is rarely the default for how we are addressed.

But what if a person is transgender or nonbinary? The experience of being referred to by their dead name, incorrect prefix, or pronoun is more than an inconvenience: it is invalidating and can harm their relationship with the organization.

There are a few steps you can implement to support inclusive culture, language and practices with staff, donors, and those you serve. LGBTQ people are part of every community, racial group, and economic status, so you might not know we are part of your organization, but we are. Inclusive practices to support us also help allies, such as parents and family members of LGBTQ people, feel a greater sense of belonging.

Include pronouns

I include my pronouns (she/her) in my introductions and email signatures. Doing so improves communication because guessing someone’s pronoun means we are relying on gender stereotypes that dictate ideas of who is “supposed to” or “allowed to” dress or act certain ways. When supporting the practice of sharing and asking for pronouns, we make communication more efficient while decreasing the likelihood of using the wrong pronoun and the negative impact this error can have on our interpersonal relationships.

Pronouns are easy to take for granted, but these word choices are as important to a person’s sense of identity as their name. Pronouns articulate to others who we are. I have not had the experience of being misgendered, but my wife experiences this often when interacting with a new person or in a customer service situation. Inclusive pronoun practices help to build a culture of respect, learning, and belonging for all employees. LGBTQ people are not the only people who challenge traditional ideas of gender identity and expression.

Add they/them

Some people do not use “he” or “she” as their pronouns, and instead use the word “they.” A person’s gender identity could be their reason for using they/them pronouns, and many nonbinary people use they/them pronouns, among other options. But it may also be a point of personal preference and comfort not tied to someone’s gender identity or expression.

When I do not know someone’s pronouns, I either use their name or I use the pronouns they/them. This way I am using gender-neutral language and making no assumptions about their gender identity. Generally, I also avoid assumptions about people’s marital or family status and orientation. I try not to default to assuming everyone is straight, people of a certain age have children, or that everyone in a partnership is married. If you are having a conversation with someone whose pronouns you don’t know, you can always ask!

Provide more choices

Application and intake forms can often be the first introduction to your organization or services. For questions regarding gender, include a “self-identity” option rather than “Other” and include nonbinary as an option. Do you need to include prefixes on your form? If so, can you add the gender-neutral term Mx.? Best practices are evolving in this area, and we do not recommend including questions about sexual orientation or transgender as a gender identity option.

At the time of this blog, there remains an absence of federal protections for LGBTQ people in America, and legislation and policies aimed at reducing access or fair and equal treatment abound at all levels of government and public space. Remember that some employees may not feel safe revealing all parts of their identity if they are not sure where the information will be housed or who will review it.

This is an evolving area of best practice. While the most inclusive policy would welcome employees, volunteers, alumni, and other stakeholders to confidently and with the greatest of ease share their pronouns, orientation, and gender identity, the fact remains adding these questions to application forms could make the person feel vulnerable and exposed to discrimination.

Does your application form include a question about husband or wife? About mother or father? Change these options to be gender-neutral as well. Instead, label those sections “Spouse/Partner” or “Parent 1/Parent2.” I also encourage more spaces and options for people to share about their families. Many households are blended, and children have sets of parents or are being co-raised by grandparents. Don’t relegate these important family members to the emergency contact section or force people to squeeze their names into the margins.

Good evening, fine people

Using gendered terms to address people as a form of respect can be deeply cultural, and we know it usually comes from a place of intended good. However, we recommend removing formalities to avoid public or interpersonal instances that can be at a minimum annoying and awkward and at the worst diminishing and undermining. Instead of beginning a meeting or formal event with the welcome of “Good evening, ladies and gentlemen,” try gender-inclusive greetings such as “Welcome, good people.” “Good evening, colleagues, supporters, and community.”

This is a journey for all of us, and it calls on each of us to be humble, curious, and vulnerable. There will be mistakes, and best practices and language will evolve. Our progress and evolution are what makes us beautifully human, and in striving to create a culture of belonging, our organizations will be more human-centric and welcoming.

Want to learn more about fostering an inclusive culture?

Join me on March 24 at Candid’s webinar “Foster an Inclusive Culture for Your LGBTQ+ Staff and Partners.” I’ll provide a 101 overview of LGBTQ+ identities and the discrimination and exclusion experienced by the LGBTQ+ community. You’ll walk away with resources and action steps for creating a more inclusive work culture and an increased ability to serve the LGBTQ+ community. Register for the webinar.


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