Can A Charity Create Too Much Awareness?

During the heart of Komen’s Planned Parenthood fiasco there was a noticeable uptick in Komen-criticism unrelated to women’s reproductive rights. Those critiques went something along the lines of, “Enough pink stuff! Everybody is aware of breast cancer! Why don’t you work to actually fight the disease!?” Although most of the complaints were relatively tongue-in-cheek, they bring up an interesting question: Can a charity hurt itself by creating too much awareness? According to a new study by Robert Smith and Norbert Schwarz of the University of Michigan, the answer is yes.

The two psychologists wanted to know how a person’s awareness of a charity influences their intention to donate. They reasoned that when a person knows about a charity, they might see their knowledge as evidence the charity is important to them. Alternatively, they might view their awareness as evidence the charity is well known and doesn’t need their help. Smith and Schwarz also reasoned that the inverse of those possibilities would occur when a person does not know a lot about a charity. That is, a person might see their lack of knowledge as a sign the charity is unimportant, or they could view their lack of awareness as a sign the charity is in dire need of help.

Through a series of experiments Smith and Schwarz discovered that a person’s response was driven by the goal of the charity. When a charity’s goal was to raise awareness about a problem, knowing about the charity made somebody less likely to donate because the dominant perception was that the charity didn’t need help. On the other hand, when a charity had goals based on providing direct assistance rather than raising awareness, knowing about the charity made somebody more likely to donate because the dominant feeling was that the charity was important.

Smith and Schwarz began their experiments by giving undergraduates a pamphlet about a charity and then having them take a memory test on what they read. Some of the tests were easy and some were difficult. For example, the easy test would ask “Was there an increase….?” whereas the difficult test would ask “How much of an increase….?” The result was that the participants who took the easy memory test had the impression that they knew a lot more about the charity. After the test participants were asked about their intentions to donate.

In the first experiment, the pamphlet was about a charity that helped orphans in Uganda (i.e. a charity whose goal was not to raise awareness). Participants who took the easy memory test, and thus felt more familiar with the charity, planned to donate more than those who took the hard test. In the second experiment, the pamphlet was about a charity that aimed to raise awareness about rainforest destruction. This time participants who took the easy test planned to donate less money. In a third experiment real money donations were solicited for a childhood heart disease charity whose goal was to raise awareness and treat children. As in the previous experiments, those who remembered more about the charity gave less when they were told it raised awareness and more when they were told it treated children. Smith and Schwarz concluded:

Knowing a lot about a charity and its cause can hurt rather than help charitable giving, provided the charity emphasizes awareness-raising as a goal…for awareness-raising charities, high memorability can backfire when consumers infer that awareness is already high and conclude that additional donations are not needed.

So, should the Komen Foundation (or Livestrong, or whoever) be concerned? Probably not, especially if they start winding down awareness efforts and begin focusing more on showing people exactly what they’re doing to fight cancer.

In my mind the big takeaway from the study is that it’s an excellent example of how the charity sector, like sports, politics, education, and marketing, is rapidly approaching a future where person-level data is king. Many organizations have some combination of goals that includes raising awareness and direct acts of assistance. If charities have data on exactly how aware a donor is of their activities, they can then target the donor with an appeal that defines the organization in just the right way. For example, if a potential donor knows all about Komen, they can be targeted with a message about the medical research being done with donations. On the other hand, if a potential donor has never seen a pink ribbon before, they can be targeted with a message about Komen’s work raising breast cancer awareness. These are simple examples, but the idea is that each donor can be targeted with donation appeals containing the ideal combination of information on a charity’s awareness-raising and non-awareness-raising activities.
Smith, R., & Schwarz, N. (2012). When promoting a charity can hurt charitable giving: A metacognitive analysis Journal of Consumer Psychology DOI: 10.1016/j.jcps.2012.01.001

One Response to Can A Charity Create Too Much Awareness?

  1. The results seem intuitive with my own perceptions. It’s kind of like hiring a marketing firm, I would assume that the one I’ve seen advertized for the most is doing the best job. I also think certain “awareness” organizations that operate on a national scale don’t do a good job evaluating the success of their programs, where the organization sees unawareness or a need for education there may just be apathy, and as you said, the picture of the organization needs to tailor itself to the donor.

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