What an awareness day can do for you

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What do pirates, penguins and pancakes have in common?

They all have special days that celebrate their merits. Yes, it's true — it seems everyone and everything now has an anointed awareness day.

Despite the proliferation of awareness days, nonprofits in Canada believe they are an essential way to communicate with large audiences about key issues, encourage engagement, and offer information regarding programs and services they offer all year round.

If you don?t yet have a time designated for "awareness", what might such an initiative do for your organization? What kind of impact do these campaigns really have, and what strategies could work to distinguish your awareness day from the rest of the crowd?

A few that are getting it right

Nonprofits enact their awareness days, weeks or months in a variety of ways across the country, from simpler means such as displaying campaign materials to more elaborate events such as splashy gala parties. Many nonprofits who have local branches or a variety of participants throughout Canada will rely on local communities to hold events that will be meaningful to their audiences.

Media Literacy Week, which began in 2006, encourages children and youth to understand the importance of media literacy. Activities include hands-on exercises in the classroom, film screenings, discussion panels and guests speakers. But it's not just the kids that participate — there are adult-focused community events for parents and professional development seminars for teachers to give them the tools to raise a media-savvy generation.

"The more collaborators that we have, the more people will know about it," says Ann Marie Paquet, communications officer at the Media Awareness Network, "and the more activities we'll get done in communities and in schools."

Other awareness campaigns have had a longstanding role in their communities, like the Canadian Mental Health Association (CMHA)'s Mental Health Week, which is celebrating its 60th anniversary in 2011. This year, the organization rebranded their awareness week, creating campaign materials, a toolkit, consistent messaging and information. With more than 150 branches, each location can decide how to use those materials.

"We're trying to create the national framework, a national understanding, but let it play out quite locally," says Lorne Zon, CEO of CMHA's Ontario division. "What makes sense in northern Alberta doesn't make sense in Toronto. And if we try and force fit it, it just won't work."

Creativity is key when designing your campaign. Nonprofits deal with so many difficult and important issues, it?s sometimes a good strategy to take a more lighthearted approach.

In honour of Rivers to Oceans Week, for example, the Canadian Wildlife Federation (CWF) is participating in the Montreal Science Centre's Eureka Festival, offering an exhibit about fish eyes where visitors can wear different goggles to see life from a fish's point of view. They're also holding a video contest where the public can submit videos about why they love their waterways.

"The whole focus of that activity was to give people a way that they could really participate and engage, and to really share in the celebration of their waterways," says Pam Logan, CWF's acting communications manager. "I think it's going to be a lot of fun, so we're hoping we'll get a really good response."

How awareness days are impacting audiences

Awareness events have become a standard practice, but are they making a tangible difference? Many nonprofits don't have the resources to survey their audiences and even with web analytics and media monitoring, it's not always easy to track the return on investment.

The Movember Canada Foundation invites men to grow moustaches each November to raise awareness about prostate cancer. Participants can attend launch events and end-of-month parties, as well as compete for prizes and titles like "Man of Movember" for the man who grows the best moustache.

Yet there is a fundraising component to the campaign, which has clearly had an impact: $22.9 million was raised in 2010, almost triple the revenue from the previous year.

The organization also receives stories of thanks from people who took action because of the health messages they received.

"We get countless stories from people who decided to go to the doctor because of Movember, or got their father to go to the doctor and they found prostate cancer and it was treated," says Lisa Potter, communications director of Movember Foundation's North Amercian division. "Stuff like that just makes it all worth it."

Money isn't everything

Some nonprofits measure success by the number of branches, members or partnering organizations that participate in awareness activities — such as Food Banks Canada, which started Hunger Awareness Day in 2006.

"We focus more on our members and our affiliate members, and we measure in terms of how many of our food banks are participating," says Marzena Gersho, communications director at Food Banks Canada. "And then we look to them to determine if they feel that they're getting that awareness out there."

Other organizations, like the CWF and the Media Awareness Network, can gauge public impact by the number of members or partners who request free information, tool kits and education materials. And the CMHA has found that, while competition for attention is fierce in larger centres, they are making significant inroads in smaller communities.

"I think it has been very important and very useful at the community level, particularly in smaller communities, where everybody knows each other," Zon says. "And they do get involved in Mental Health Week because it is highly recognizable."

Corinne LaBossiere, a communications specialist who has worked on a number of nonprofit awareness campaigns, advises organizations to diversify their strategies and use awareness days as one tool in an arsenal of many.

"The key to having an impact is not to put all your eggs in one basket," she says. "Awareness days are only one part of your overall communications. Organizations shouldn't try to make it the be-all and end-all, it should be one component that they can build upon with the rest of their activities."

Cutting through the clutter

With so many nonprofits celebrating awareness days, weeks, or months, it can be hard for your nonprofit to garner attention. Some organizations concentrate on their members and supporters, some focus on media relations, while others use social media.

Food Banks Canada, the Media Awareness Network and the CWF engage members, collaborators and supporters to spread the word. The CWF communicates heavily with its 300,000 members across the country to publicize its awareness days.

"We're very fortunate to have quite a substantial supporter base," Logan says. "We really do communicate very well with our supporters to get them engaged, and they in turn engage other people. So it's really nice because we have that filter effect."

This year, the CMHA has spent a lot of time cultivating relationships with local, provincial and national press — and not just daily news outlets.

"We have put a lot more emphasis on other types of media this year than we have in the past," Zon says. "And that's an important lesson as well. You need to look at all the different types of communication vehicles that are available to you."

Movember Canada, whose campaign is solely online, relies heavily on social media tools like Facebook and Twitter, as well as the organization's website.

"It's where our community lives. I think you can see in the growth of our campaign, that the awareness is spreading really like wildfire," says Potter.

"While we still use traditional media methods, you can't beat word of mouth. And that is driven by social media."

The key to having your organization's voice heard is targeting a specific audience and finding the best and most meaningful ways to reach them, says LaBossiere.

"Everything falls away from that," she says. "If you do the activities first, without thinking about exactly who it is you're trying to attract and how you're going to attract them, then you set yourself up for potential failure."

Despite the competition, awareness days can still be a valuable vehicle for speaking about important issues.

"Even though there may be a lot out there, we still feel it's very important," Gersho says. "Certainly, it's something that we have invested in and will continue to invest in because it's an opportunity for us, at a time when people aren't thinking about it, to keep hunger top of mind."

Tips for Hosting a Successful Awareness Day

1. Start planning early. Give yourself at least six months of lead time. Some organizations start preparing for the next year immediately after the current awareness campaign finishes!

2. Have a concrete plan in place. Do take the time to create a solid plan that defines a clear focus, campaign goals, target audiences, key messages and actions you want supporters to take.

3. Ask for input. Talk to front-line staff, especially if they are working at satellite branches across the country. Ask them what would be meaningful to their communities and what tools they need to implement successful activities.

4. Collaborate with a variety of stakeholders. Whether it's building partnerships with similar organizations or creating a volunteer committee, others can offer useful suggestions and networks, as well as information about what has worked or not worked for your target audiences in the past.

5. Provide a tool kit for participants. Make it as simple as possible for people to get involved and promote your cause. Offer posters, education materials, logos, photos, website banners, sample press releases, letters to the editor, fact sheets, etc. Having a toolkit online is an affordable way for everyone to access what they need.

6. Be consistent. Ensure that everyone, from volunteers to staff on the other side of the country, understands what you're trying to achieve and what the messages are.

7. Make it fresh. What worked five years ago for your organization might not work today. Reevaluate your content and activities every year to determine if they are still relevant for your audiences.

Sondi Bruner is a Vancouver-based freelance journalist and holistic nutrition student. Find out more about her writing services at www.sondibruner.com, and explore vegetarian, gluten-free and dairy-free recipes on her food blog, The Copycat Cook.

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