Hey, Nonprofit: Are You Talking to Me?

armyI just received an email from a nonprofit with the subject line, “We Need a Tiny Fraction of You to Donate.” Exactly which fraction of me are they after? My pinky? My appendix?

All kidding aside, this awkward construction, using the plural “you,” is all too common among writers at nonprofits and elsewhere. The writers unconsciously picture themselves as addressing a crowd.

They forget that, by the time the email reaches my inbox, it’s just me. I’m expecting a personal touch — a direct appeal for funds based on a supposedly one-to-one relationship between the nonprofit and me.

But with a subject line like the one above, I quickly notice that the nonprofit is not really talking to me at all. It’s talking to a whole bunch of people. In that case, all I have to do is step aside and let the others make the donations, right?

We’re not talking complex grammar here. All anyone has to do to avoid this problem is to look twice at every use of the word “you” in addressing prospective donors. Make it singular, as if talking to just one person.

Then, don’t forget to carry this usage throughout the email or other missive — another common place where writers go wrong, as illustrated by another email that just landed in my inbox. It had such a promising, personal-sounding subject line: “My work with you.”

The writer proceeded to blow it within the first two lines: “Ilona, I’m writing to let each of you know about an important change at [our nonprofit.]” Each of me? Oh dear, I didn’t know my multiple personalities were that obvious.