Objects or Individuals

Some gift income reports I’ve read use the term, “giving units,” to describe donors.  I’ve never much liked that terminology.  Too cold and objectifying.

Recently I read some fascinating research on community college presidents completed by Matt Thompson, a good friend and thoughtful higher education leader.  Matt’s research re-introduced me to the concept of verstehen – a concept associated with the eminent German sociologist Max Weber.

Essentially, verstehen is a German word that is loosely defined as understanding the meaning of someone’s actions by attempting to understanding their point of view.  It is empathy in action.

Weber suggested that sociologists (or anthropologists for that matter) do their best work when they practice verstehen – when they attempt to understand or comprehend the people and the cultures they are studying not from their own perspective as a researcher, but from the perspectives of the people themselves.

Weber suggested that doing “research on actors without taking into account the meanings they attribute to their actions or environment is to treat them like objects.”  Hmmm.

As development professionals, we don’t spend our days doing sociological research.   However, Weber’s notion of verstehen is helpful.  To do our work well, we have to know and understand, as completely as we can, the drives, interests, values, perspectives, and attitudes of our donors and prospects.  And we should know these things from their perspective, not our own.

What does your donor in Cleveland, OH, believe about philanthropy and why does he believe it?  How does your donor in Atlanta, GA, make her philanthropic decisions and why is this decision-making process logical to her?  These are the types of understanding we need to have in order to do our work well.

So, how do people in your organization interpret the actions of donors and prospects?  Do we really view donors as individuals – attempting to understand them on their terms, as Weber suggests?  Or, do we view them as objects from which we need to get something?

If your organization uses the phrase, “giving units,” you just may have your answer.


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