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Telling a story that “sticks” with prospects and donors: Does Your Message “stick”?

William C. McGinly, Ph.D., CAE
Published:  06/06/2007

When Dan Heath joins us for our AHP International Conference in Philadelphia, his concepts surrounding “Made to Stick: Why Some Ideas Survive and Others Die,” his most recent publication with his brother, Chip, will provide some intriguing suggestions as to how professional fundraisers can make their concepts appealing and apply “stickiness” to the memories of our potential donors.

Dan and Chip’s publication highlights many interesting aspects of the human mind as it relates to the things that we hold onto and those which make a significant impression upon us. Clearly, surprise gets our attention. The Great Wall of China is the only man-made structure visible from space; we only use 10 percent of our brain; and we should drink eight glasses of water a day. It is often the surprising aspects of a fact or story (whether true or not) that garner attention. However, it is interest on the part of the listener (donor for us) that maintains an individual’s interest over time.

Quality "sticks"

“Made to Stick” also opines that quality sticks. We all know that quality in health care is a significant issue. What we face in providing health care is very similar to what the corporate world faces in the competitive nature of the services and goods provided. We all know that Nordstrom is a department store known for outstanding customer service, like taking a return of a fur coat, held by the customer overnight and containing opera tickets, never used, in the pockets. Or the story of accepting a return of tire chains supposedly purchased at Nordstom’s when Nordstrom doesn’t sell tire chains. The quality of service, and the urban legends surrounding that quality, have carried Nordstrom and many other worldwide companies’ tremendous success because that concept sticks with buyers, patients and donors.

A memorable story

Mr. Heath has countless concepts relating to making our programs, services and persona memorable. Using examples and analogies, and concrete ideas which are easy to remember, clearly makes what we do memorable. The key, of course, is how to make ideas concrete. Being particularly good at what one does, as Dan outlines, is one of the major traits of “stickiness,” followed by being credible, and finding a way to tell a compelling story, which will remain with the listener far longer than acts and data alone.

Communication is the transfer of an idea or concept from my mind to your mind with no work on your part (an impossible thing to achieve.) What we will learn from Dan is that in order to make an idea stick in a long-lasting fashion, it has to make the audience pay attention, understand and remember it, agree and believe what they hear, care about it on some level, and be able to act upon it.


We have much to learn as we try to focus on how this applies to our fundraising programs and relationship building with donors. One of the key elements is simplicity—and clearly, simplicity will help us achieve all of the other elements by maintaining our integrity and, very importantly, our credibility in all that we do.

Dan and Chip present an interesting challenge with a clear understanding about why some ideas and concepts survive and others do not. While they present a modified, scientific approach to this process – presenting or addressing something unexpected, dealing with it in concrete terms, making it credible and understandable, having an emotional appeal as part of the presentation, and connecting it in a memorable story format—the authors also recognize that making things stick is an art form, not a science.

If you haven’t read “Made to Stick,” I would recommend it to you, particularly if you plan to hear Dan at our International Conference in Philadelphia.

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Meet The Author

William C. McGinly, Ph.D., CAE

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