In the sociopsychology world, the concept of diffusion of responsibility is well studied and researched. Basically, diffusion of responsibility suggests that when individuals are confronted with an emergency, they are less likely to help when there are more people around. This diminution of helping behavior occurs because each of us believes others in the group will or should act.
Back in 1968, psychologists John Darley and Bibb Latané set up an experiment to test this concept.
An actor was recruited to fake a serious injury and call out for help. The study’s subjects were put in various settings to see how many would respond to the actor’s cry for help. When the subject was alone and heard the cry, 85% of them helped. When there were two subjects hearing the cry for help, only 62% helped. And, finally, if subjects thought more people also heard the cry for help, just 31% took action.
Because of this negative relationship between how many people are present and whether individuals decide to be helpful, diffusion of responsibility is commonly referred to as “bystander apathy.”
From a fundraising standpoint, this concept should have tremendous impacts on how we go about inviting gifts from donors.
For example, it is not uncommon for board members, workplace colleagues, or other well-meaning friends to suggest that the best way to raise money is to hold a fundraising event – maybe a big gala or maybe a smaller, private event. “If a lot of people come together for a fun event,” the argument goes, “the fundraising will flow!”
At least that is the thinking.
What we know about the diffusion of responsibility, though, suggests something far different. It suggests that we should not invite gifts in crowds. It suggests that donors might look around at the others in attendance and say to themselves, “Someone else should help (or help more). It isn’t really my responsibility.”
Instead, the findings from the diffusion of responsibility research suggest that we should invite gifts individually. We should encourage each donor to view himself as the one responsible for making an impact, doing the right thing, acting with generosity, etc.
The work of the fundraiser is not to ask for money most efficiently.
The work of the fundraiser is to invite donors to view themselves as responsible for acting with generosity.
If diffusion of that responsibility is most likely to occur in group settings, the concentration of that responsibility is more likely to happen individually.