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Are you prioritising awareness or action?

Non-profit organisations need money to perform their work. Cash, moola, bucks... that’s what puts food into the hands of malnourished children, gives life-saving supplies to people in crisis, ensures refuge for displaced communities – and gets kittens rescued from stinky drains. Can ‘awareness’ do that? Marisol Gutierrez joins the debate on awareness versus fundraising campaigns.

Like you, I’ve 'Liked' dozens of interesting posts on Facebook, clicked on as many smiley, sad and angry face emojis, commented on issues, shared pictures, discussed the creativity and technical merit of non-profits’ ad campaigns both on and offline – and so much more – and that’s not even counting the stuff that I purposefully seek out.

What’s telling though, from a fundraising point of view, is the actual inaction in all of the above. In other words, while I was giving the thumbs up, pulling faces and engaged on some level, I didn’t donate. No cash exited my bank account to enter a charity’s . . . and that’s where Tom Ahern’s article* HOAX! “Raising awareness” unmasked comes in.

Ahern, who’s regarded as one of America’s leading authorities on donor communications, wrote an interesting piece on the subject of awareness campaigns. According to Ahern, who quotes several experts in his article – chasing awareness is a waste of time.

In the article, Jeff Brooks, from his blog Future Fundraising Now, asserts: “Some ‘marketing experts’ would have you believe fundraising is a two-step process: First you must make prospective donors ‘aware’ of your organisation, then you can ask them to give.

"Two-step fundraising is a colossal waste of money. You basically double your cost and get nothing in return. The truth is, if you have limited resources, there’s almost no way you can justify spending them on awareness campaigns. The reality is that most awareness campaigns make no measurable difference for fundraising campaigns."


Ahern also quotes Tobin Aldrich, who, among other achievements, led World Wildlife Fund UK to new fundraising heights. He wrote in his blog, “. . . one of those counter-intuitive things about fundraising is that people don’t actually have to have heard about your charity before [they’ll] respond to a fundraising ask.

“I’ve lost count of the times I’ve been told by smart, senior people with a marketing background in some famous company that the first thing that <insert name of non-profit here> must do is get their name out or raise awareness of the cause. Only then should we start asking for money. So let’s start with a big awareness raising campaign (hey, maybe we could get an ad agency to do it for free!).

“Sorry, but that’s bollocks basically. The first thing any non-profit should do is fundraise. When you fundraise you tell people about your cause, you make them care about it and they give you money as a result. And do you know what; you raise money and awareness too. It’s amazing, isn’t it?”

As we say in Mzanzi: ja well no fine . . . although Aldrich has a valid point.

Achieving a balance between raising awareness and raising money – through the same campaign – requires mastery in both fundraising and communication. It can – and should – be done and one shouldn’t happen at the expense (literally and figuratively) of the other.

If executed well, these campaigns are integrated, seek to fulfil clear objectives – and are measured and monitored from start to finish. They’re also adjusted along the way, if necessary, to maximise their impact.

Campaigns behaving badly

Whether you’re thinking of an awareness or fundraising campaign – or both – three of the most critical questions to ask at the outset: “What do we want to achieve?” (set clear objectives), “Who do we want to reach?” (target your audiences) and “How will we know if we’re achieving it?” (monitoring and evaluation). You can ask 100 questions if you like, but make sure you ask and answer those three. Please.

At the risk of stating the obvious, a campaign is not a lone billboard on the way to the airport. Neither is it an event – no matter the glitter factor of the guest list – or an SMS-to-donate ad. If that trio represent elements of the campaign, different story.

A campaign has clear objectives, is planned, sustained and speaks clearly to the organisation’s mandate and its communications and fundraising strategies.

Effective campaigns start conversations around issues, generate interest in and support for the organisation’s work, raise awareness
(of course) – and raise money. The best of them cut through the suffocating clutter of useless and useful information that we’re constantly bombarded by, and get us to do two things:
give a damn and give money.

Marisol Gutierrez is Communications and Partnership Manager at DMI. Send your campaign questions – with or without pictures of kittens – to:


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