An Idea That Spreads: Intercontinental Ballistic Microfinance

I’ve written a number of times about the tension between logic and empathy. I think it is critical that the effective philanthropy movement recognize that while data is an important input to good decision making, it can also dampen the very emotions that drive giving. That’s why I think it is critical that high performing organizations learn how to tell authentic stories about their impact. Stories that are based on solid data about what works, but which respect the role of emotion in the field of philanthropy.

Kiva is an organization that I’ve held up in the past as really understanding how to tell an authentic story that “sticks” (in the vocabulary of the must-read book Made to Stick: Why Some Ideas Survive and Others Die). The point of Made to Stick is that a good story is true, but it must also be told in such a way that it spreads. Too often I worry that the effective philanthropy movement is convinced that if they can just find the “truth” about what works, the rest will take care of itself. But I don’t think that’s enough. We need to discover the “truth” about what works and learn how to tell the story of that “truth” in a way that spreads.

Here is a new video by Kiva. The video presents data about the increasing level of microfinance loans made by the organization over time. But this ain’t no Excel graph…

(click here to watch the video if you’re viewing this in an email)


This data is just as “true” as a simple chart like this one (which actual does represent Kiva’s loan growth from early 2006 through late 2007):

Kiva Loan Growth

In the book Made to Stick, the authors talk about how a group of food scientists spent a long time telling people about how much fat was in movie popcorn. But it wasn’t until they figured out how to tell the story of how bad movie popcorn was for you through laying out a table top covered with bacon, eggs and cake to demonstrate how much fat was in the product that people started paying attention.

First we need to figure out what works. Then we need to figure how to communicate the story about what works in a way that drives people to action. Too often, “effective philanthropy” is obsessed with the first step and ignores the second. Too often, successful fundraising is done with the second step in mind while the first is ignored.

What we need is storytelling for impact that drives people to take action in service of programs that work.


  1. Thaler Pekar says:

    Sean, this is a great post, thank you. The video, however, is in no way a story: it is data visualization. It does a terrific job of illustrating the message that Kiva’s loan activity has been growing, and rendering that message sticky.

    The caption asks, “What happens when 620,000 lenders fund 615,000 entrepreneurs, students, and other microfinance borrowers around the world?” Well, what happens? The answer, and the stories that illustrate it and will make that answer sticky, are more than dots moving around a screen. A story will clearly show the viewer how the giving or receipt of a Kiva loan changes a particular person. Kiva has lots of stories about the impact it is making; this is not one of them. It is a terrific depiction of complex data and a sticky way of communicating an important message.

  2. Thaler Pekar says:

    What story do you see, Sean?

    Messages, frames, data, and stories – these are all important tools in making ideas sticky. Semantics matter: when we call messages and frames stories, we dilute the ability of people to find and share the extremely effective communication tool that is story. And communication is ultimately more than a device used to transmit / transfer / stick information onto a listener – it is a way in which we connect with, realize, and shape our world. Getting it right matters, especially in philanthropy.

    Here’s a piece I wrote on what story is and why it matters in philanthropy:

    And here’s a wonderful short video of Matt Stone and Trey Parker offering a great explanation of story structure: