More Than Money
Issue #26

Effective Giving

Table of Contents

“The Tipping Point By Malcolm Gladwell”

Reviewed by Pamela Gerloff

Change doesn't work the way we think it does-at least it doesn't have to. It can be sudden and dramatic, even easy, because little things can tip the scale. That's the basic message of The Tipping Point, a delightful and informative read by The New Yorker magazine writer Malcolm Gladwell.

But it's not just any little things that cause a situation to reach a moment of critical mass and "tip" into significant change, it's specific little things. And once we know what those are, we can intentionally create change on our own. That's why the book is relevant to wealth stewardship and philanthropy. If we want to create change with our money, we would do well to understand the true nature of change-how it happens and how we can help it along.

The Tipping Point likens the change process to the process flu epidemics follow as they spread. In fact, it says that creating any kind of large-scale change is like starting an epidemic. To start an epidemic, pay attention to (a) the people who transmit infectious agents, (b) the infectious agent itself, and (c) the environment in which the infectious agent is operating. To create change in each of these areas, Gladwell offers three "rules of epidemics:" the Law of the Few, the Stickiness Factor, and the Power of Context.

The Law of the Few says that it's a few key people who spread a movement, idea, or trend. They are certain types of people, whom Gladwell calls connectors, mavens, and salesmen. Connectors know tons of people and happily connect them with each other. Mavens seek out knowledge and share it with others. Salesmen instinctively garner support. Paul Revere, Gladwell explains, was both a maven and a salesman-which accounts for his success rallying the minutemen against oncoming British troops during his famous midnight ride into Lexington, Massachusetts. William Dawes, who also rode that night to spread the alarm, remains a lesser known figure precisely because he lacked those qualities. Along the route he traveled that night, the men didn't rally. The moral of the story: If you want to create a "social epidemic," find and fund your mavens, connectors, and salesmen.

Similarly, if you want to be intentional about change, pay attention to the Stickiness Factor. The HIV virus, for example, is "sticky." Once you get it, it stays. Messages, too, are either sticky or not. Says Gladwell, "We tend to spend a lot of time thinking about how to make messages more contagious, how to reach as many people as possible with our products or ideas. But the hard part of communication is often figuring out how to make sure a message doesn't go in one ear and out the other." Stickiness makes a message have impact. You can't get it out of your head.

The third rule, the Power of Context, suggests that we humans are more sensitive to situational context than we know, and this offers real hope for creating deep-level change. By making small changes in context, seemingly intractable problems can be shifted relatively easily. In one of the book's more inspiring examples, Gladwell attributes the sudden drop in the New York City crime rate in the 1990s to the Power of Context. He explains how deliberate crackdowns on seemingly small violations, like fare beating and graffiti in the subway, caused serious crime in the whole city to "tip" downward, at a time when other cities were not experiencing such downturns.

--Pamela Gerloff

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