4 min Read
August 11, 2016

What are we raising awareness for anyway?

What most organizations say they hope to achieve when they talk about “raising awareness” is usually vague or, at best, underestimated. More nonprofits should question what raising awareness really yields before they commit, and then chart a deliberate course so time and money are wisely invested.  

When raising awareness recruits people into programs

Before embarking on a successful awareness campaign, the smartest organizations note their starting point and define their objectives, in quantitative terms if possible. This is often most manageable for organizations that are trying to raise awareness to attract and recruit program participants or members.

Some organizations can define their target market in their area – for instance, how many people are affected by heart disease in America, or how many homeless people live in New York City. They can also measure how many of those people they currently serve in existing programs.

Consider writing a brief such as: “Our target market for Program Y is _________. We are currently reaching and engaging ____  per year, or __% of this market. Our objective is to reach ________ by ___________(specific date), and/or achieve growth at a rate of __________% over the next ___ years.” Doing this will help you get clear where you’re starting from and where you’re heading in specific, measurable terms. Be sure to use numbers you can realistically track and update along the way.

When raising awareness educates and changes behavior

Changing behavior or perceptions around an issue begins with awareness, for example, that using condoms can reduce your risk of certain sexually transmitted diseases, or shaking your baby can have damaging long-term effects.

Raising awareness to change hearts and minds doesn’t necessarily raise awareness for your organization. Rather, it focuses on the behavioral impact you want to have on society at large.

The same type of brief described above can work here, too, although measuring it may be harder. Your nonprofit will likely have to conduct public opinion surveys or poll repeatedly to see if the audiences you want to reach are becoming more educated and/or changing their behaviors over time.

When raising awareness grows revenue

Too many organizations aspire to become a household name to boost their fundraising. While the idea sounds good, the investment required to get there makes this highly improbable for most organizations.

A campaign to become better-known as a first step towards raising money is, well, just a first step. To move the people who are now ‘aware’ to the ‘supporter’ level on your ladder of engagement, you’ll have to launch additional campaigns: direct mail, for example, or other ‘asks’ requiring additional time and money. You’ll also have to give them actions to take beyond inputting their credit card number into your website so they feel connected, and not like an ATM machine.

When the goal is to identify and attract new donors, consider defining the persona of the person you hope to attract as a starting point. You might write a brief such as, “We currently have ___ donors who are between the ages of X and Y giving annually at an average gift of ____. They support our organization because Z (motivation) and want to know that we are (results). Our goal is to grow this segment of our donor base by XX% by (date).” Breaking down the general public into more practical segments you can tackle is also key. (For more on that, read this great blog by Elizabeth Ricca.)

Setting objectives around donors is harder if you’re not sure how big the market is. Consider informing your brief with any data you’ve gathered over many years and industry data from sources like the Association of Fundraising Professionals (AFP)’s resource exchange.

Unless your donor retention numbers are above average, consider boosting your base of fundraising support with a donor retention campaign before you launch new awareness-raising campaigns. After all, only 19% of first-time donors (who are higher up the ladder of engagement) are likely to give again. But if they do, you’re much more likely to keep them. That’s low-hanging fruit. 

And while you’re at it, please get real about research

Too few organizations spend time and money on research. Many see it as an unnecessary investment or are, perhaps, daunted by it. Those that take the time to conduct research thoughtfully usually become converts; even the smallest amount of research can have a profound positive impact on a campaign by shaping it to be much more specifically useful.

When possible, we use qualitative research, such as interviews, to get to know a target audience better and craft messages that truly resonate. Quantitative research, such as national or local omnibus surveys or Big Duck’s Brandraising Benchmark (which helps you measure if specific audiences are familiar with your organization, trust it, and are likely to donate) can help you get more statistically valid data.

Don’t assume you have to spend months or all of your budget to gather useful data. Research can be done formally or informally, deeply or lightly, by your organization or by specialists. At a minimum, add a ‘conduct research’ phase to the plan for your campaign, and then leverage whatever you can to do it well. Anything will be better than nothing.

Leverage your brand

Last but not least, remember that although campaigns usually target very specific audiences, they are still an opportunity to engage people more deeply with your organization. Developing campaigns that feel “on brand” can help people connect the dots faster.