Using exemplars to motivate philanthropic behavior: A test of charitable appeal strategies
Student researchers

Virginia Harrison (Graduate Student)
Ryan Wetzel(Graduate Student)
Andong Cheng(Graduate Student)
This paper was based on a project as part of the “COMM 506” course.

Faculty Supervisor

Dr. S. Shyam Sundar


With so many organizations relying on philanthropic funds to operate, maximizing the generosity of donors is important to the survival of many causes and people they aid. This paper seeks to inform these organizations and advance theory on philanthropic behavior by testing what motivates donors to respond positively to appeal letters for charitable organizations. This paper focuses on how a written appeal can be framed to evoke the maximum sympathy and intention to help from possible donors who organizations are sending appeals to every day.

Research question / Hypotheses:

RQ 1: For individuals, controlling for demographics, income, prior philanthropy attitudes, and appeal format/length, what is the relationship between the advocate exemplar in an appeal, the recipient exemplar in the appeal, and post-stimuli attitudes for philanthropic behavior?


This research is a between subjects experimental design ran in a classroom with voluntary participants using a questionnaire. The study contains data from 105 participants, all undergraduate students ranging from ages 18-22. Participants are asked about their previous attitudes about a targeted charity, and then they view one of four possible appeal letters that describes the recipient as either an exemplar or a cause and the advocate exemplar as either a famous philanthropist or a layperson. After seeing the stimuli appeal letter and passing a manipulation check for the independent variables, the participants answer questions concerning their post-attitudes toward the charitable organization.  


There is a three-way interaction between the independent variables advocate exemplar type, recipient type, and previous attitudes towards a targeted charity when predicting post-stimuli positive attitudes for the cause. Previous attitudes towards the charity works as a moderator and the interaction is highly significant when predicting future intentions to help out the charity, with F(1,97)=17.49 (p<.01) and sympathy towards the charity, with F(1,97)=7.25 (p<.05).Thus, this study finds through a general linear model that for those with high pre-attitudes towards a targeted charity, an expert advocate exemplar in the appeal leads to post-stimuli attitudes of intention to help and empathy/sympathy when the recipient exemplar is a cause; a similar exemplar advocate leads to post-stimuli attitudes of intention to help and empathy/sympathy when the recipient exemplar is an individual.


This research’s findings have important theoretical implications for philanthropic behavior and practical implications for those in the fundraising industry. As a highlight for theoretical implications, this paper contributes to the persuasion literation, focusing on how to maximize people’s positive attitudes towards a charity when it comes to philanthropic behavior. As for practical implications, this study has important implications for fundraisers and those who work for organizations that rely on philanthropy to operate as every organization uses email or letter appeals to motivate its constituents to donate money or time to the organization to support its mission or cause. Understanding what characteristics in written appeals motivate donors the most is crucial to the success of the appeal message in getting the reader to engage philanthropically with the organization.

For more details regarding the study contact

Dr. S. Shyam Sundar by e-mail at or by telephone at (814) 865-2173

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Media Effects Research Lab at College of Communications, Penn State University