Weapons of Charity

Before Christmas my Grandfather received a letter from the Peter MacCallum Cancer Foundation asking for a donation. Given that his English is not so good, I said I would read it for him and translate in my best broken Italian. The envelope included: a double sided letter, a donation form, a return envelope, a page of 36 customised stickers of my Grandfather’s address, a cotton dove on a ribbon and cut-out paper dove.

As I read, I noticed something particular about this letter: it was dense with complex persuasion strategies. The amount of literary and psychological techniques employed in this document inspired me to break it all down.  The quotes below are taken directly from the letter.


“I need your urgent assistance…”

Here the word ‘urgent’ creates a pressure for action. If something is urgent then we are expected to respond in a manner of haste. This gives us less time to think and opens us up to being guided how to act by other techniques employed throughout the message. This has primed the reader to feel that they need to take action


I need your urgent assistance…”

The reader is presented with an interpersonal situation here. Peter Mac has decided to begin the letter by showing framing it in the first person singular.  Writing in form is more emotionally evocative because it’s easier to empathise with an individual than it is with an organisation. This modulates how the other information in the letter is received by the reader.


“…to raise $200 000 before 12 December…”

Creating a time frame for the action needed builds on the sense of urgency. It is also an attempt to prevent people delaying their response and potentially forgetting to donate or having time to rationalise why not to donate.


“…Peter Mac can help even more people…”

This is, in essence, a statement that Peter Mac is already a reputable institution in terms of saving lives threatened by cancer. This technique is used to strengthen the credibility of the other information given in the letter. People are more likely to take on board the statistics, anecdotes and other details if they believe Peter Mac already does good work.


“First, please let me introduce myself. I’m the Executive Director of the Peter MacCallum Cancer Foundation.”

People respond positively to authority and credibility. The greater sense of authority Peter Mac generates then the more power they hold to persuade. This persuasive effect has been shown to work reliably in social psychology experiments, such as the Milgram Experiment.

Here we also see the personal framing technique again. This reinforces the emotive tone of the message.


Carole, 57, was diagnosed with a rare and aggressive cancer of blood and bone barrow…”

Our brains have developed to empathise with other individuals with exceptional emotional depth. That’s why telling an anecdote about the problem is far more effective than listing statistics. We can visualise a story and find it evocative far more than a collection of numbers. In this letter, Carole’s story is the bulk of the content.


“…you will find a special gift to help us spread the message of hope…”

Psychologists and anthropologists purport that the rule of reciprocity is a social norm fundamental to the human make-up. This innate rule compels us to repay what another person has provided. In evolutionary terms this allowed for humans to aid each other by giving out goods while being confident they would be repaid.

A good example of this is demonstrated by how the Hari Krishnas learned to generate income. Since they often didn’t receive donations because of their eccentricity, they now give ‘gifts’ to people on the street. The moment the unsuspecting person accepts the gift, our Hari Krishna friends ask for a donation in return, thus exploiting our natural proclivity to reciprocate.

Peter Mac included the various items in this letter and called them ‘gifts’ in order to evoke the same feeling of obligation.


So now that you know some of the techniques involved in persuasion, remember only to use them for good, my young Jedi friends.  Especially when events and disaster necessitate a call for donations, there are many strategies one can use to make your plea more effective.

The Peter MacCallum Cancer Foundation is a strong and admirable swordsman in the fight against cancer, as evidence by the research and effort that went into the construction of this letter.

Being human, and not just a literary deconstructing machine, I certainly felt the effects of the aforementioned techniques.  Hence, Peter Mac gets my cash any day.


2 thoughts on “Weapons of Charity

  1. Great article. My dad had cancer treatment at Peter Mac and we gave a substantial donation from his estate when he passed away. They do an amazing job at Peter Mac. Great article too.

  2. Pingback: Tweets that mention Weapons of Charity « Mr Simon Taylor -- Topsy.com

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