There is a concept in social psychology called the bystander effect that can sometimes apply to inaction seen in nonprofit boards. This post defines the bystander effect and highlights areas where bystander effect can compromise a board’s basic responsibilities.  Hopefully by being aware of this phenomenon you can see it and help overcome it in your own organization.

As summarized on the Psychology Today website,

The bystander effect occurs when the presence of others discourages an individual from intervening in an emergency situation.

This phenomenon was developed by social psychologists Bibb Latané and John Darley who popularized the concept following the infamous 1964 Kitty Genovese murder in New York City. Genovese was unfortunately killed outside her apartment while bystanders who observed the crime did not step in to assist or call the police.

“Latané and Darley attributed the bystander effect to the perceived diffusion of responsibility (onlookers are more likely to intervene if there are few or no other witnesses) and social influence (individuals in a group monitor the behavior of those around them to determine how to act). In Genovese’s case, each onlooker concluded from their neighbors’ inaction that their own personal help was not needed.”

So how does this apply to nonprofit boards?

  • In boards that are relatively high functioning, I’ve seen board members sit back and assume that everything is in great shape and their individual efforts aren’t needed. This is ironically the case in the presence of a strong Executive Director and/or Board Chair who do have most things running smoothly. Even so, these same Executive Directors and Board Chairs still need help from their board members. They need help saying thank you to specific donors in a personalized way. They may need help tackling a specific issue where a board member has specific expertise to offer.
  • In boards that aren’t performing well, the bystander effect kicks in when board members can see that the organization isn’t functioning as it could, but they look around to see that no one else is really stepping up to help either. Then they make the unfortunate conclusion that social norms are favoring inaction over action. This is how organizations fall apart when good governance declines.

The bystander effect is dangerous whether it’s applied to strong or weak boards because it can undermine the very purpose of nonprofit boards. As referenced in a previous post about Board Source’s Ten Basic Responsibilities of Nonprofit Boards, the bystander effect can compromise these specific and basic board member responsibilities:

  1. Providing proper financial oversight
  2. Ensuring adequate resources
  3. Ensuring legal and ethical integrity and maintaining accountability
  4. Ensuring effective organizational planning
  5. Enhancing the organization’s public standing
  6. Determining, monitoring and strengthening the organization’s programs and services
  7. Supporting the chief executive

So if you see the bystander effect happening in your nonprofit, I hope you remember this concept and choose action over inaction. Just because everything looks OK on the surface doesn’t mean your Executive Director or Board Chair or Development Director couldn’t use your help, especially in securing adequate resources for the organization that you care so much about.

Is your organization ready for a change?

Stephanie Blackburn Freeth is the creator of The Strategy Tango.


The Strategy Tango is designed to move through seven tried and true planning steps while also accommodating the unique needs of your organization in each moment.


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