The Problem With Raising Awareness

The Problem With Raising Awareness—Lazar Finker

What are you passionate about? There’s a lot worth standing up for, and as an individual on the Internet, you may find yourself bombarded with messages claiming that a particular cause is important enough to warrant further action on your part. Sometimes, you won’t even get that. Plus, depending on what the message is, the way an audience is addressed may change; would you make an anti-smoking PSA the same way you’d make an anti-cancer PSA? You’d be hard pressed to find anybody that is pro-cancer, but for the target audience of a hypothetical anti-smoking ad, you may need to use some measure of persuasion. However, regardless of the cause, the recent trend is to strive to raise awareness regardless of cause or message. While raising awareness isn’t necessarily a bad thing, this trend in activism is worth examining to analyze the good and bad that it is capable of doing.

It’s worth mentioning the sheer number of “awareness” campaigns that occur yearly in the United States. The American Journal of Public Health lists almost 200 health awareness days over the course of the year, not counting the time ostensibly set aside for promoting other causes. So, any citizen hoping to be more informed certainly has their work cut out for them.

Let me be clear that I’m not deriding awareness as a concept; it’s often a vital first step to making a change. Sometimes, it’s one of the few steps necessary; in the case of some diseases, education about signs and symptoms can lead to earlier treatment and save lives. Beyond this, some causes can escape the notice of individuals until awareness campaigns bring them to the forefront; for instance, the issue of racially-rooted police brutality would likely have flew under the radar of the public eye if not for the #blacklivesmatter movement. The trouble comes when organizations focus solely on the nebulous goal of awareness without a concrete goal or next step in mind. Charities dedicate large portions of their funding to “education,” something which has earned them the ire of groups that feel that they are addressing problems without providing solutions.

The start to leveraging awareness campaigns to do good in the world is the aforementioned call to action. Promoting discussion is a good start, but the social gestalt is likely to move on to the next issue without affecting meaningful change unless charities turn that interest into action. In order to do this, they must clearly define their desired outcomes for a campaign. For instance, if they are hoping to encourage people to get tested for or inoculate themselves against a disease, it would be wise to give them instructions on how to do so. If an organization is collecting donations, they should strive to be transparent about where the money’s going and the good it can do. Many nonprofit organizations try to quantify the benefit provided by a donation, citing specific progress made to spur on potential donors and make them feel that their money is well spent.

It also behooves any nonprofit to ensure that they’re reaching the correct audience. When an organization is passionate about a cause, it’s always tempting to adopt a shotgun approach to education, informing as many people as possible without regards to whether or not they’d be in a position to help. Additionally, nonprofits can fall into the trap of continually preaching to the choir, trying to raise awareness among individuals that are likely aware enough as it is. While there is value in leveraging an existing audience to take action, it takes careful planning to reach individuals that may not have had prior knowledge and persuade them of the value of a certain cause. The more segmented your audience, the more likely it is that they’ll be willing to act on your campaign. It’s a case of the bystander effect; the more a request for assistance is publicized, the less likely it is that any given person will answer it. Of course, if a campaign goes viral, so many will respond to it that this will seem a non-issue, but improper targeting can waste resources and even lead to backlash against a cause.

Additionally, when planning an awareness campaign, it’s important to create an engaging message that will last in the minds of an audience. This is a gross oversimplification; there’s no one-size-fits-all way for every nonprofit to effectively reach their audience. However, strong campaigns tend to share well-developed, overarching goals and act as a sort of vessel for a specific call to action.

This is perhaps the worst mistake that any nonprofit can make; assuming that a solution that works for one cause will also work for another. The days of fearmongering PSAs have largely passed, and what has developed is a mire of media competing to win the attention of a massive and often fickle audience. In this free-for-all of memes, fundraising drives, and “challenges,” the truly savvy nonprofit needs to recognize that the value of awareness only goes so far and that further steps must be taken to make a difference.