Building awareness versus actually doing something

OK, that headline is harsher than I meant it.  Awareness is a necessary and useful precondition for many nonprofits.  Using an example I know well, drunk driving was a late-night joke just a few decades ago.  It took awareness activities to alert a nation to the fact that it is an unnecessary, tragic, and violent crime.

But does raising awareness sell?  That is, do people want to donate money to raise awareness about an issue or organization?  Or do they want to fund efforts to remediate wrongs directly?  Robert Smith and Norbert Schwarz wanted to find out.

Actually, being good scientists, they wanted to analyze donor’s metacognition about awareness activities vis-à-vis whether the cause was already in the donor consideration set.  Which means the same thing when you translate it into English.

They found three major things:

  • When people knew more about a charity and its work, they were more likely to donate to it and the more they were likely to donate.  The researchers actually manipulated this knowledge in a cool way. They asked subjects questions about what they had read about a charity, but there were two sets of questions: an easy one and a hard one.  The people who got the easy set of questions and thus thought they knew more about the subject were more likely to donate.
  • This result reversed when the charity was engaging in awareness activities.  That is, if people thought they knew all about the charity and its aims (that is, they got the easy questions), they were less likely to want to invest in the charity’s efforts to raise awareness.
  • Looking at actual donations (not just intent to give), people gave far more to help than to raise awareness when they knew a lot about a cause.  They gave slightly more to help raise awareness when they didn’t think they knew a lot about a cause.

This makes a good bit of sense.  If you think the average person (which people usually consider to be a slightly dumber version of themselves) knows about something, why would donate money to raise awareness?  On the flip side, if you felt there was a story that was undertold, that people needed to hear, you might ante up.

This has a major implication for nonprofits as they mature: what got you here won’t get you where you are going.  In the infancy stage of a nonprofit, it is acceptable simply to point at a problem and say “this is a problem; we need to get more people like you to acknowledge the problem.”  However, as nonprofits mature and people are aware of the issue the cause represents, it needs either to adjust its fundraising efforts to focus on what it is doing to solve the problem or to find more obscure areas of its cause to reenergize its donor base.

This also has implications for donor communications: there’s a difference between what you talk about to acquire a donor and to retain one.  That is, people who are your supporters know you and your issues (or, at least, think they do).  They don’t want to support awareness activities for things they think people already know about.  On the other hand, people who are new to your organization may be willing to chip in to help spread the word.

So remember your audience when you are pitching both helping and awareness activities for greater results.

Building awareness versus actually doing something

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