How to Grow Your Nonprofit Using The Tipping Point Theory

“The Tipping Point is that magic moment when an idea, trend, or social behavior crosses a threshold, tips, and spreads like wildfire. Just as a single sick person can start an epidemic of the flu, so too can a small but precisely targeted push cause a fashion trend, the popularity of a new product, or a drop in the crime rate.”

In this article I want to discuss the main points of Malcolm Gladwell’s The Tipping Point, discuss why the information matters to nonprofit organizations (to grow your nonprofit and help it spread like wildfire!), and give your organization specific, actionable ways to implement the ideas to spread your cause and grow your nonprofit.

By the way, here is a link to buy The Tipping Point on Amazon. I would HIGHLY recommend it!

The Tipping Point 

Malcolm Gladwell begins the book with this short antidote about an epidemic:

“For Hush Puppies—the classic American brushed-suede shoes with the lightweight crepe sole—the Tipping Point came somewhere between late 1994 and early 1995. The brand had been all but dead until that point. Sales were down to 30,000 pairs a year, mostly to backwoods outlets and small-town family stores. Wolverine, the company that makes Hush Puppies, was thinking of phasing out the shoes that made them famous. But then something strange happened. At a fashion shoot, two Hush Puppies executives—Owen Baxter and Geoffrey Lewis—ran into a stylist from New York who told them that the classic Hush Puppies had suddenly become hip in the clubs and pars of downtown Manhattan… In 1995, the company sold 430,000 pairs of the classic Hush Puppies, and the next year it sold four times that, and the year after that still more, until Hush Puppies were once again a staple of the wardrobe of the young American male” (3-4).

“The Tipping Point is the biography of an idea, and the idea is very simple. It is that the best way to understand the emergence of fashion trends, the ebb and flow of crime waves, or for that matter, the transformation of unknown books into bestsellers, or the rise of teenage smoking, or the phenomena of word of mouth, or any number of the other mysterious changes that mark everyday life is to think of them as epidemics. Ideas and products and messages and behaviors spread just like viruses do” (7).

Three Rules of Epidemics

“The three rules of the Tipping Point—the Law of the Few, the Stickiness Factor, the Power of Context—offer a way of making sense of epidemics. They provide us with direction for how we go about reaching a Tipping Point” (29).

In this article we are going to discuss the first of the three rules of epidemics and how your organization can use this rule to your own advantage.

Rule #1: The Law of the Few: Connectors Mavens, and Salesmen

“It takes only the smallest of changes to shatter an epidemic’s equilibrium” (18). 

Malcolm Gladwell suggests that in epidemics, or spreading ideas like our nonprofit organizations, we rely on very few people to do the majority of the work. In other words, a few people (or a series of few people) are going to cause your organization’s idea to spread like wildfire.

“…what we are really saying is that in a given process or system some people matter more than others. This is not, not he face of it, a particularly radical notion. Economists often talk about the 80/20 Principle, which is the idea that in any situation roughly 80 percent of the “work” will be done by 20 percent of the participants” (19). Even in fundraising we say that 20% of donors will give 80% of funds to your organization. “When it comes to epidemics, through, this disproportionality becomes even more extreme: a tiny percentage of people do the majority of the work” (19).

Malcolm Gladwell claims that in epidemics, Connectors, Mavens, and Salesmen are the tiny percentage of people of do the majority of the work.


Connectors are described by Gladwell as those people who seem to know everyone. You probably know a few of these people yourself, or perhaps you are one of them. It’s that person in a meeting when you talk about wanting to bring someone onto the Board and he or she pipes up that they know that person or have a connection to that person. One of my good friends thinks that I am one of these people. I have a large group of friends, who I consider friends, not just acquaintances. My husband laughs because I will always say, “My friend…” and he’ll ask me how many times I actually met this person. I usually counter with, “oh, well just once or twice, but anyways…”

“What makes someone a Connector? The first—and most obvious—criterion is that connectors know lots of people. They are the kinds of people who know everyone” (38).

“Connectors are important for more than simply the number of people they know. Their importance is also a function of the kinds of people they know” (46). Connectors are connectors because they know people from all walks of life and from basically everywhere. For instance, I have friends who live in Ukraine, Germany, England, Canada, all across the United States, and these people range in age and interests from 4 to 90 and orphanages worker to web developer to retired billionaire. Therefore, I don’t just know a lot of people who are in my same position (recently graduated from college, starting my own business, and a young family), but I know people from all walks of life.

How are Connectors a key player in spreading the idea of your nonprofit organization or your cause (and ultimately grow your nonprofit)? 

Connectors are the people who you can count on to have a connection for a large-impact donor. They are also the ones you need around to get people passionate about your cause. You want these connectors to be involved because they are going to tell their friends, and their friends are much more diverse than the people you can reach in your own friend circle.

Typically, connectors are not the people who come across a novel idea themselves. They are usually told about it. “If you look closely at social epidemics it becomes clear that just as there are people we rely upon to connect us to other people, there are also people we rely upon to connect us with new information. There re people specialists, and there are information specialists.” These are Mavens. Mavens are people who are passionate about finding new causes or new products and then want to share them with others. My brother is an example of a Maven… and who does he like to tell his new ideas to? Me. For instance, just a few weeks ago my brother came to me and said, “Steph, I found this really cool new app and I think everyone in the family should download it. Will you tell them about it, so that they’ll actually look at it?” I laughed because we both knew what he said was true. He found a really cool app, but he wasn’t going to be the one able to convince someone else to buy it. He could convince me, because I trust him as a Maven, but the rest of the family doesn’t (haha). Therefore, he (the Maven), relies on me (the Connector) to pass on the new ideas that he finds.


“Mavens have the knowledge and the social skills to start word-of-mouth epidemics. What sets Mavens apart, though, is not so much about what they know but how they pass it along. The fact that Mavens want to help, for no other reason that because they like to help, turns out to be an awfully effective way of getting someone’s attention” (67).

This also happens in the nonprofit sector, and it is your goal to find the Mavens to spread your nonprofit’s ideas and dreams to the connectors, who, in turn, spread your idea like wildfire.


“One thing that a Maven is not is a persuader” (69), which leads us to Gladwell’s third type of key person: Salesmen. “For a social epidemic to start, some people are actually going to have to be persuaded to do something” (69). Do you know a salesmen in your life? I do. I have a friend that could persuade me to buy anything. He has an ineffectual personality, and could honestly persuade me to buy ANYTHING he is selling.

I am going to save the other 2 rules of the Tipping Point (The Stickiness Factor and the Power of Context) for another day.

In the mean time, let’s move on to why this book matters for your nonprofit and how you can use this information to your advantage.

Why The Tipping Point Matters for Your Organization

First off,

Why this book matters for your nonprofit organization

Does your nonprofit fall into any of the following descriptions?

You are a new nonprofit organization wishing that more people would notice you?

Are you a nonprofit looking for new funders?

Are you a small nonprofit organization convinced that people would join your cause if they just knew about you?

Do you wish that your nonprofit would get even larger?

If you fall into any of these categories, then The Tipping Point’s Connectors, Mavens, and Salesmen matter to you.

Connectors, mavens, and salesmen can help the epidemic that you wish to spread (your nonprofit organization and your cause) to tip, and spread.


First of all, you need to find the connectors, mavens, and salesmen in your organization and nonprofit community. This will take some time and I would recommend reading The Tipping Point from start to finish, which will help you locate these people in your own circle of influence.

Secondly, once you find these people in your nonprofit and community, you can use them both inside your organization and outside of your organization to spread your epidemic.

Connectors, Mavens, and Salesmen

Inside Your Organization

One of the key reasons that your organization wants connectors, mavens, and salesmen inside your organization is to find funding. For instance, if you have connectors inside your organization, then these connectors will have connections with other people who might have the funds to donate to your organization.

Connectors and Mavens can be key players inside your organization in almost any position. Any connector or maven inside your organization, who is passionate about your cause, is going to tell their friends about it.

Specifically, connectors and mavens would be great people to have on your Board of Directors, or inside fundraising. Both of these positions are heavily involved in fundraising, where you will need connections with people who have the capacity to give. Additionally, if your organization is hoping to grow, you will need to have people fundraising who have connections to people all around the country and all around the world.

Salesmen are ideal for fundraising and marketing roles in your organization. They are going to have the social power to convince others of your organization’s cause enough to donate to it or become more involved. (Just think of the potential that a salesmen could have on your website design compared to someone who doesn’t know how to persuade other’s to donate to your organization).

Connectors, Mavens, and Salesmen

Outside Your Organization

Your organization’s Tipping Point will also rely on people outside of your organization. So, we want to market specifically towards the connectors, mavens, and salesmen so that they will turn around and spread the word about your nonprofit.

The assumption is this: if we can get just a handful of connectors, mavens, and salesmen hooked on your organization, then your organization and cause will spread like wildfire.

How can you market specifically to mavens and have them help spread your cause?

Stand out. For instance, create an incredible website, have complete transparency with your financial statements, run a really interesting fundraising campaign. Do anything that can really set your organization apart from all of the other organizations out there. You want to give mavens a reason to share your organization because THEY are interested in your organization.

I always share charity:water with people because I am hooked on their social media and website. It is probably the best nonprofit website that I have ever come across, so I tell people about it. I do the same thing with To Write Love On Her Arms. You want mavens to come across your organization and share it with their friends.

Also, consider this: In order to attract mavens, you want your organization to be where Mavens hang out. You want a nonprofit maven to come across you… where? On your website? On Facebook? On Instagram? You want them to become hooked to your organization immediately so that they can tell their friends (hopefully connectors) about your organization.

How can you market specifically to connectors and have them spread your cause? 

Connectors are connectors because they know a lot of people in a lot of different social rings.

You can market to a connector by giving them a reason to connect with their friends. Perhaps you start an Instagram campaign where people tag their friends in the comments. The person who tags the most people gets to come on your next outing. Have challenges to spread your organization with X amount of people.

And finally,

How can you market specifically to salesmen and connect them to your cause? 

One idea is to set up a fundraising campaign where people fundraise for your organization.

A great example of this is charity:water’s birthday campaigns.

People give up their birthdays and have their friends donate to charity:water instead of giving them gifts. A salesman is going to persuade their friends to actually donate to your organization rather than just visit your website.


I truly believe that connectors, salesmen, and mavens can help your organization expand and get noticed. It might seem tricky to find these individuals, but remember: you only have to find a few. “When it comes to epidemics, through, this disproportionality becomes even more extreme: a tiny percentage of people do the majority of the work” (19). 


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