Awareness Shouldn't Be Your Campaign Objective! Engage and Create Real Change!

Contributor: Weronika Paszewska


Imagine all these awareness days did work...

Let's close our eyes. Imagine the world around you full of people understanding very well various faces of white supremacy in our social system, being aware that voting is citizen responsibility, knowing the real roots of social inequalities and being able to competently explain climate change causes.

In our imaginary scenario, this all happened because, in the past year many organisations, celebrities, political parties, governments have run lots of expensive, large-scale awareness-raising campaigns. People have become aware of these problems. It wasn’t easy because most people tend to reject messages that were too far away from their values, ignore them when they were too uncomfortable, or even experience the opposite effect of becoming aware...(as Ann Christiano and Annie Niemand notice in this article). But we made it. We raised awareness of these issues! 

Also, you can probably imagine that nothing else has happened in the world. Climate catastrophe is progressing, white supremacy is strengthening, social inequalities rising even more. This is because just raising awareness doesn't actually accomplish much of anything. 


Awareness isn't your goal!

The failure to create actual change will stay with us if we continue to set our sights on the wrong objectives. We should not aim in our work, our campaigns to raise awareness. It might sound a bit drastic to put things like this. But I also think that we do not have the luxury to continue doing business as usual. It just doesn’t work. As illustrated in an article by Ann Christiano and Annie Niemand published in the Stanford Social Innovation Reviewscholars and academia have provided ample proof for that. It costs all of us energy, time, and money and it doesn’t bring the world that is so close to our hearts. These resources are basically lost.

Awareness itself should not be the campaign's objective. Too rarely we speak critically about awareness-building campaigns, and too often these campaigns are launched. Probably mostly due to the habits and also lack of the idea of how to build a proper theory of change and how to get closer to measuring our impact. It is sometimes also an excuse for us as it is difficult to believe we can make a change and with a fear of failure we prefer to choose goals that are easy to accomplish and show that the proper work was done. And at the same time, it allows us an easy excuse to not be accountable for a successful outcome of real change.

Measuring our reach in social media, or media coverage are not good metrics for our impact. They might work for intermediate steps in executing our tactics that are part of the bigger picture called strategy. But these metrics do not tell us much about our impact. With awareness, we have a similar problem as we have with going viral. It is a shiny object - often funny but rarely does the job.


A tool to open another door

If awareness shouldn’t be the end game, then is there any sense in raising awareness at all? Awareness can be a tool but only if applied strategically as a part of the larger sequence of actions. When in Poland at Akcja Demokracja we were campaigning against the international trade agreement TTIP and CETA, we knew that the topic was not present in social and political discourse at all. So we knew we needed first to bring it to the media presence, to a scientific and economic conference and discussion panels. We needed to raise awareness but at the same time, we were inviting people to join us and ask questions to experts, sign petitions, join rallies, write emails to politicians or order reports and then read them. Change happens when people feel that there is a place for them to take part when they feel moved and they can be a part of something bigger. Raising awareness can be a useful step in the process when you want to bring people into action. But you should never think about it as an outcome itself. There are plenty of scientific proofs to the fact that awareness does not translate into behaviour change or impact (check out another article from Ann Christiano and Annie Niemand summarizing it).


Engagement should be at the core of our theories of change

The awareness trap is there and will continue to be. How can we find meaningful alternatives that do the job? First, keep in mind that people do not like to be lectured. Opinions are formed by being a part of something bigger. And if you worry that awareness needs to be raised then the only real way to do it is by inviting people to participate in making change.

Here are three things to consider:

  1. Connect with people on the value level. Speak with them through intrinsic values, these are the best motivators for actions. 
  2. Have an invitation. Call to action. Do include your supporters in your work in a meaningful way.  Have a job for them to be done. Meaningful is here an operative word. It needs to be actionable and achievable. Rather “come for a meeting on Sunday”, than “Save a planet with us”. 
  3. Have a convincing theory of change or logic of action that supporters can see. This one is not easy. A theory of change that sounds like “If we gather enough voices and if many people will sign a petition, we will bring this topic to the attention of decision-makers' is not enough. A theory of change is a good litmus test for your strategy. I can guarantee you that if you have a solid theory of change then people will join you.