Made to Stick

What if there was a way to trigger a $150 billion influx of new money into the social sector?

Recently, in my public speaking, I’ve been talking about and why Kiva is like a “gateway drug to social investing”. The fact is, most people are not sitting around wishing that they could make high impact social investments. When Kiva was formed, it was not designed in reaction to a large group of everyday people who were looking for a simple way to make small loans to impoverished people in the developed world. Instead, Kiva built a model that was incredibly compelling and hooked everyday donors into the world of microfinance, which until Kiva was a social investing practice reserved for institutional grantmakers.

How did Kiva do it?

Well one model of what makes ideas spread is outlined in the book Made to Stick, by Chip & Dan Heath. The model is called SUCCESs and it lays out six principals of what makes an idea “sticky”. It is amazing how perfectly Kiva, which is one of the “stickiest” ideas in social investing, follows the SUCCESs model.

Simple: Simplicity isn’t about doing little things. It is about focusing on a core message. Kiva offers the simple premise that you can lend money to aspiring entrepreneurs in impoverished countries and help them improve their lives.

Unexpected: To get attention, you need to do something unexpected. Kiva’s pitch is that you can lend (not give) your money, get it all back and still make the world a better place.

Concrete: While the Red Cross says that they “help prepare communities for emergencies and keep people safe every day”, the home page of Kiva asks you to make a $25 loan to a specific person with their photo and bio.

Credible: According to the SUCCESs model, credibility comes from “human-scale statistics and vivid details”. Kiva’s website is overflowing with information about all their historical loans so that a first time visitor can quickly see specific borrowers and lenders and reams of fully paid back loans.

Emotional: People care about people, not numbers. The Chip brothers argue that people care more about self-identity than self-interest. Again, the home page of Kiva features a constantly updating profile of Kiva lenders, with short bios and their answer to the question “I loan because…”. After a few minutes clicking around their website, potential lenders will run across an existing Kiva lender whom they identify with.

Stories: Kiva borrowers keep a journal that explains to the lender how they’ve used the loan and how things are going. A lender is first presented a story about the individual requesting the loan and then given story updates as the borrower deploys the loan.

Kiva isn’t a freak accident. It is a masterfully executed, “sticky” idea.

We tend to spend a lot of time talking about what sort of giving is effective. But there is another issue facing philanthropy. During the last 100 years, charitable giving has run at about 2% of gross domestic product. Making philanthropy and nonprofits more effective isn’t going to change that number. Making philanthropy and nonprofits “stickier” is the key. Bumping giving from 2% to 3% would trigger a $150 billion influx of money into the social sector. That’s real money. That’s the kind of number that is thrown around when wars are started, banks are bailed out, health care is reformed. What if that kind of number was channeled towards effective philanthropy? What if giving went to 4%?

If you care about effective philanthropy, then you need to care about making effective philanthropy “sticky.”


  1. Sean,

    Excellent post.. I think every non-profit has a lot to learn from Kiva in so many areas.


  2. Rachael Barrett says:


    Agreed. Kiva has a good job at promoting their work. Unfortunately, there have been some issues with Kiva’s simplistic albeit sticky messaging that should be part and parcel of a case study for npos on messaging, communication, transparency and, of course, honesty. Didn’t the Heath Bros. book start off with an analysis of what makes the urban legends sticky?

    In October, the blogger and microfinance expert David Roodman started digging around Kiva’s site…The first entry he posted is titled: “Kiva is not quite what it seems to be” The blog generated much discussion, including a response from Matt Flannery, co-founder of Kiva and subsequent corrections to their website. Here is a link to that first post:


  3. Indeed, great post. the SUCCESs framework is very useful and the book is a must read for anyone.

  4. Rachel,
    You’re absolutely right. I wrote about the Kiva debate as well.

    However, I don’t think Kiva is promoting an “urban legend”. But there were problems with how they described what they did. To their credit, they listened to the criticism and changed how they describe their process.

    Sticky ideas can be used to promote garbage (urban legends) or great ideas. Maybe I should have stated this more clearly, but my post is about how powerful sticky ideas are and why those who promote effective philanthropy need to figure out how to make their ideas stickier.

  5. Rachael Barrett says:


    I thought you had written about the Kiva debate, apologies for not referencing your posts…still, I think the Kiva debate and the power of sticky-ness brings me back to your recent head-heart-gut posting (ala Gladwell) and my uneasiness with that posting.

    Yes, you can be a donor who gives because it feels good; or you can be a donor because you want your $$ to have impact. Kiva presented themselves to donors as if the donor could have it both ways. Would they would have continued to mis-represent their work but for Roodman (or someone like him)?

    Afraid I have seen the so-called impact of nonprofits spun upside down in order to attract/please/compel donors. And, of course, on the flip side, seen too many donors use their resources and often scant knowledge of the issue to sway resource-needy npos. Effective philanthropy can only happen when both sides are painfully honest and humble about their motives, their intended impact and their theory of change.

  6. I just don’t think it is either/or. Authentic stories can be told in compelling ways. My point is that just doing impactful work isn’t good enough if you aren’t motivating donor demand for your activities. I’m advocating for people to realize that simply hoping that donors will embrace impactful philanthropy isn’t going to work. Impactful philanthropy needs to be packaged in ways that spread like wildfire.

  7. Jeff Mowatt says:

    Aside from the compelling stories it moves away from treating people as abstract and distant. It’s also congruent with the point we make about people-centered economics, that investing in helping others create sustainable business through business has an advantage over charity in that “multi-millions of dollars are donated each year to charities, after which the money is typically given away, spent, and gone.”

    Muhammad Yunus makes much the same point, in his call for social business.

    ‘To Yunus, the investment opportunity is and will continue to be attractive to those who seek wise use of their money as well as measurable social benefit. “A charitable dollar can be used only once,” he writes. “A dollar invested in a self-sustaining social business is recycled endlessly.”‘

  8. Rachael Barrett says:

    My only concern derives from behavioral economics (see Sway, Nudge), or a neat synthesis by Katya Andresen, et al: Homer Simpson for Nonprofits: The Truth About How People Really Think and What it Means for Promoting Your Cause…or the study that having a hot drink in hand makes one more generous and trusting (

    Given our human tendency toward selection bias, confirmation bias, value attribution, diagnosis bias, etc. how do we get the impactful work in front of the donor? We blur the finer points, we engage in salesmanship (nudge, sway), we package the “authentic” and if it works, the shades of truth woven into the package end up becoming the facts of the ground for both the donor and recipient. Once this happens, it then becomes incredibly difficult for either side to question what is really happening and is it really good?

  9. Tony Wang says:

    Hi Sean,

    As always, I appreciate your writing and its thought-provoking qualities. I have little to comment on the crux of the post (how Kiva embodied the thesis contained within Made to Stick), but wanted to instead single out this idea of increasing charitable giving as some sort of desirable end.

    While I’ve been blogging off and on at Blueprint about this question of “What Capital When?”, one thing that’s struck me is how little we know about the Big Picture. There is a lot of talk about the benefits of giving and the benefits of social investing, and some discussion of when to use specific intrusments at a micro level, but no one has stepped up to the plate to articulate how much grantmaking is ideal at the macro level.

    Perhaps it’s a bit academic of me, but I find this really problematic for my inner economist. If we’re going to talk about increasing charitable giving, we have to recognize the decrease in available financial capital in the traditional markets that corresponds with an increase in charitable giving. When you ask “What if giving went to 4%?” I wonder whether that’s actually an improvement and what sort of empirical evidence we could find for advocating giving as a higher percentage of GDP (or at the very least, some sort of theory). And without the kind of nuanced analysis that would lead us to some sort of ideal percentage, it seems one could argue any arbitrary number – why not 10%? 20%? 100%?

    I don’t have any Grand Theory about the Big Picture and where Philanthropic Capital fits in, but it would certainly be nice to have one. That way, I wouldn’t feel so devoid of logic and reason when I hear people advocating for an increase in mission investing, startup funding, or charitable giving.

  10. Jeff Mowatt says:

    A lot of this ground seems to be covered in Matthew Bishops talk on Philanthrocapitalism, which reveals the divide between traditional philanthropy and targeted social impact investment.

    What works and what doesn’t work is the question he asks, focussing on the high net worth individuals who made most from the boom and now direct their attention to solving inequity and disease.

    Matt Flannery and Kiva were not of this stable, as we know.

    What Bishop is saying in favour of a philanthropic business approach is along similar lines to the call for introducing microfinance in the Russian city of Tomsk 11 years ago. It was achieved by leverage – applying a business strategy to make the case for investment of $6 million and yield `10,000 new businesses with full return on investment . The concept of applying capitalism to social outcomes then being so radical as to be considered economic heresy as this interview from 2004 relates.

    The Big Picture, which so far advocates for strategic investment have missed is “an issue at once so simple in its construction and so dire in its implications as to inspire utter disbelief.” Capitalism has allowed numbers to trump humans.

  11. Fehmeen says:

    About simplicity, Prof. Yunus himself states that only a simple yet elegant structure will succeed in the microfinance world. And as for stories, although it’s a great marketing tip, we have to draw the line when this emotional appeal turns to emotional exploitation. How Kiva will remember to differentiate between the two, only time will tell