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The Bystander Effect and Philanthropy

Nick Fellers | May 25, 2011

Malcolm Gladwell explores the Bystander Effect in The Tipping Point. He recounts the 1964 New York (Queens) stabbing death of Kitty Genovese. Reportedly, dozens of witnesses heard Ms. Genovese and her cries for help; however, no one called the police.

The story is used to paint a picture of a phenomenon called the Bystander Effect – which has been well studied since. The Bystander Effect is one in which as more people are present at a scene of distress the responsibility for action becomes proportionally diffused.

38 people heard Genovese cry for help. Each knew others heard the cries. They were loud, in the middle of a big city. Each person assumed that someone else was making a call to police. So no one called the police.

Apply our understanding of the Bystander Effect to special events. Have you been to a special event where people are crying, overwhelmed by the impact of the organization? What’s the average gift size?

Alternatively, we know that if we simply change the context and visit with our best people one-on-one the responsibility does not become diffused. The action – whether it be financial or other is increased ten-fold (at least).

There is a world of difference between a plea for help to a group and a similar request to an individual (or individual corporation/foundation).

Understanding the Bystander Effect has changed CPR training. You used to shout, “Someone go call 911!” Now you’re instructed to point at a person and say, “YOU – go call 911!”

If we need to direct the request for a simple phone call – to save a life – stands to reason that it would go the same way for philanthropy.


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