Using Persuasive Rhetoric to Increase Your Fundraising ROI

Many people would agree that the “Ask” is the most crucial aspect of fundraising. You must be able to ask for the resources that your nonprofit needs in a way that maximizes your audience’s likelihood of receiving an optimal amount of donations.

Persuasion, or rhetoric, is the art of discourse where the author/speaker communicates in such a way as to affect the beliefs of the audience. Aristotle’s theory of rhetoric breaks this discourse into three categories:

Ethos: relates to the credibility of the presenter
Pathos: relates to the audience’s emotion
Logos: relates to the clarity/consistency (logic) of the message 

It is important to recognize the roles that these three aspects of rhetoric play in fundraising appeals. Some individuals will respond on an emotional level, while others are motivated by logical, pragmatic assertions. To have a persuasive appeal that results in the optimal amount of funds raised, you must address all three areas.


A warm glow in the after life?
The determinants of charitable bequests.

As an example of the effectiveness of rhetoric, the following study by Sarah Smith and Michael Sanders analyzed the effect that prompts had on the probability that individuals would make charitable bequests as part of their estate planning.

The study was set in the context of a phone session with a lawyer regarding estate planning. One group was given a weak ask: “Now that you’ve looked after your family and friends, I’d like to talk you about charity. Would you like to leave a charitable gift in your will?” The second group was given a stronger prompt: “Now that you’ve looked after your family and friends, I’d like to talk to you about charity. Many of our customers like to leave a gift to charity in their will. Are there any charitable causes that you’re passionate about?”

The Results:

Weak Ask: Participants who received the weak prompt were 11.3% likely to make a contribution.

Strong Ask: Participants who received the strong prompt were 17.3% likely to make a contribution.

This study clearly illustrates the effectiveness of persuasive rhetoric. By crafting a prompt that touched upon the emotions of the audience as well as establishing a credible speaker, the likelihood of an individual making a donation increased by 6%.


Using Persuasive Rhetoric In Practice:

Organizations must develop their own compelling rhetoric in order to reach potential donors. There are, however, some general suggestions that help establish these persuasive prompts:

  • According to Herschell Gordon, the most powerful word in an effective appeal is “you.”
  • The post-script is far more likely to be read than any other section (so make it count).
  • In Rosalie Maggio’s book “How to Say It,” she suggests the use of strong words and phrases, such as the ones detailed below:

aid, advocate, essential, grateful, necessity, relief, rescue, urgent, as soon as you can , come to the aid of, a campaign to support/protect/stop, as generous as possible, our immediate needs are, join forces, make this possible

Sources: Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, buffersocial, Durham Tech, University of Bristol, How to Say It, The Centre for Market and Public Organisation



  1. Ethos, Pathos, Logos as Aristotle’s theory states are key to captivating the audience. In the world of sales, we have to pursued others to understand the value of the product or service and why it’s important to their business. I believe a similar logic applies to fundraising:

    Commitment Objective
    Pivotal agreements
    Provocative questioning
    Overcoming resistance

    All these apply in a 15 second call or 20 minute speech. Thank you for sharing your article with us Pam and keep it coming.


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