Our spectacular, gleaming, aerodynamically-sound Patreon patrons have once more voted on the topic they’d like us to explode with our thermodynamic wisdom and our nuclear gifs. Their selection was:
“What’s the deal with raising awareness?”
Okay, okay, my language was actually a good deal more colorful. I think the phrase I used was “raising awareness is a fucking scam” or “raising awareness is the biggest scam of all time,” something like that. Yes, I could look it up, but no, I will not. The past is in the past! We live in the now!
Yes, it’s true. I have some… strong thoughts on raising awareness.
Awareness: yes, and…?
Before I shit all over the concept of raising awareness, let me raise awareness about its useful aspects. It’s an essential step in many charitable endeavors. And sometimes, raising awareness is the primary step. Because there are some very noble causes whose tallest hurdle is ignorance.
Take, for example, a charity run by a mutual friend of the Bitches. She worked in special events, and noticed caterers would often throw away their uneaten food at the end of each event.
“Why don’t you guys donate that food to a shelter or a food pantry?” she asked.
“We’re not allowed to,” was the answer. “If someone got food poisoning, they could sue us.”
Our friend thought this was pretty preposterous. Shouldn’t there be good samaritan laws that shield those who donate food in good faith? Well, it turns out, there was exactly such a law. It was passed under President Clinton. (For the children: that’s Bill, not Hillary. Everyone please take a moment to sob into a pint of too-hard ice cream. I’ll wait.) Many smaller venues were ignorant of the law, and larger chain venues were reluctant to dedicate the resources needed to organize the logistics of large-scale food donation.
So she started a nonprofit whose core mission is to educate caterers on how to donate food. You could say that this is essentially “raising awareness,” as the key step is the transfer of knowledge from the knowledge-haver to the not-haver.
Are you aware that awareness alone is worthless?
But there’s a huge difference between educating and merely informing.
Our friend’s nonprofit helps develop and share food donation techniques among industry professionals. Certainly along the way she points out that many Americans go hungry, the planet is kinda dying, and the institution in question just put three hundred pristine fish tacos into a dumpster. But her mission doesn’t stop after illuminating these problems.
Let’s say you’re on fire (because aren’t you?). Now someone runs up to you and says, “Sir or ma’am or honored nonbinary individual, you are on fire! Being on fire is a very serious condition. Seven Americans die every day in house fires!”
Congratulations. Your awareness has been raised, and you’re still on fire.
Now if a slightly brighter person—brighter mentally, they’re not also on fire—ran up and said the exact same thing, but followed up with a reminder to stop, drop, and roll, they have supported that awareness with action. And now, hopefully, you’re no longer on fire.
Awareness alone is almost always useless. It needs a meaningful call to action. And if that crucial action step is missing, then the nonprofit is not actually helping anyone do anything. They’re more of a book club for problems.
Awareness alone rarely solves the underlying problem
Most altruistic missions involve a good deal more action than talk. But let’s look at a few more situations where information distribution is crucial to mission success.
Let’s say you are deeply invested in preventing traffic deaths. Insanely, 13% of Americans still drive vehicles without first attaching their seatbelt. That’s around 41 million people. Let’s say it were possible to identify these 41 million people, knock on each of their front doors, and explain to each of them that it’s very dangerous to drive without a seatbelt fastened.
Do you think that 100% of those people would wear seatbelts 100% of the time thereafter?
Or let’s say you’re invested in preventing sexually transmitted diseases, and you somehow found a way to speak directly to the 65% of Americans who have unprotected sex. Would condom usage now be perfect among all those people, every time?
The answer is: certainly fucking not.
Of these people who drive and fuck unsafely, surely a vast majority of them understand that their behavior is risky. Sadly, we are but simple primates working with simple primate brains. Not all of the decisions we make are purely logical. While information can change some behavior, information alone is often insufficient to trigger immediate action. It’s harder still to form permanent habits.
Raising awareness is often euphemistic
If you type “our mission is to raise awareness…” into Google, you get quite a lot of results, and some of them seem quite odd. I don’t want to shame any particular group, so I’ll give you a made-up example based on real-life results.
“Our mission is to raise awareness for this rare disease with no known genetic, behavioral, or environmental factors.”
What, may I ask, is the benefit of raised awareness for such a thing? Being aware of its existence does absolutely nothing to prevent it, prepare for it, or support those afflicted with it. I am aware of the existence of many, many diseases and conditions that I will never contract. By merely being aware, I add no net benefit to those who will. Surely it would be better to raise funds for researching to determine its cause, or raise funds to find new and better treatments for it.
… oh. Wait. That’s probably what they’re doing.
They’re probably raising the awareness of wealthy donors, large corporations, the granters of grants, and others with deep pockets for giving.
So why not just say, “Our mission is to raise money for additional research into this rare disease with no known genetic, behavioral, or environmental factors?” Frankly, I’m not sure, and I believe it varies from organization to organization. Some—I suspect many—may merely be guilty of stuffing their mission statement with familiar lingo. Maybe they want to measure what they do in something that sounds warm and human, not cold and actuarial. Certainly some are run by exhausted, burnt-out people who are sick and tired of begging for a barebones operational budget.
And a few may be obscuring something a good deal more sinister.
The work of awareness-raising is never done
Some nonprofits are run more efficiently, honestly, or humanely than others. We covered this subject earlier this year. We really like organizations with SMART goals (specific, measurable, achievable, realistic, and time-bound).
“Raising awareness” goals always raise my eyebrows, because they so rarely meet a single one of these crucial criteria.
Whose awareness? When? Where? To what degree? How will we measure? How do we define success? If your goal as an organization isn’t measurable by any of these metrics, it’s a goal that can never be achieved. And if it’s a goal that can never be achieved, it’s not a goal, it’s a wish your heart makes when you’re fast asleep.
It makes me deeply suspicious that the real aim of the organization is to make money indefinitely by cynically preying upon the hopes, fears, and egos of their donor base. “Raising awareness” is not a benchmark for success that anyone can be held to, which makes it a great choice for people who want to dodge scrutiny. There are some seedy nonprofits that run this kind of scam, and you can learn more about them here.
Even if the intent is good, I only have so much money to donate to charitable causes in a given year. I would rather give it to organizations that have a clear goal and a practical plan to get there.
Our friend who runs the food nonprofit started off by limiting her goal to all the large and midsize vendors in just one city. Defining a clear goal with a limited scope made it much easier to succeed in her overarching mission. It will also make the work she does easier to scale and systemize in the future.
Plenty of awareness-raising campaigns just straight-up don’t work
Remember a year or two back, when all the middle-aged ladies on your Facebook feed started posting one-word colors as their status? If you don’t remember, consider yourself lucky, because it was fucking insipid. Saints deliver us if we’re subjected to it again this year.
The punchline was that it was the color of their bra. Liking or questioning the status would lead to a message that boiled down to “it’s for breast cancer awareness, tee hee hee, pass it along!”
If anyone’s life was saved by this blithering nonsense, I will eat my hat. Well, I don’t own any hats, so I guess I’ll eat Piggy’s hat. Sorry if I’m wrong, Pigs, but I’m pretty confident and I know you’re not a big hat person either so I’m hoping you have one and wouldn’t miss it anyway. (Piggy edit: I can confirm that I am a hat-owning person.)
“So what?” you might think. “It may be dumb, but it’s harmless.” That, friends, is false because…
It makes us feel like we’re doing something when we’re actually doing diddly-squat
A study done at Cornell in 2001 showed that 80% of people believed they would donate to a charity if given an opportunity. Yet when given that opportunity less than half did—and they gave only half as much as they originally indicated they would.
Our brains love us. They want to protect us from harsh realities with unconscious cognitive sleight-of-hand. Most people have a strong internal conviction that they are good people. We seem to need little or no evidence to support this conviction.
The feeling you get when you do something philanthropic is wonderful. For me, it feels like someone has reached inside my chest and turned the key on an old hurricane lamp, flooding my being with a warm and reassuring tungsten light.
I suspect that many people who “did the ice bucket challenge” felt their own warm glow after participating. I bet that light was fed by every like and share and comment on the videos of them doing it. And I bet they felt that way whether or not they actually followed through on donating to the ALS Association.
If choosing a pink beribboned stapler convinces me I’ve done my good deed for the day, I wonder what opportunities I will pass up on? After all, I am already a Confirmed Good Person.
Awareness can be harmful
There are some circumstances where raising awareness can actually harm the root causes organizations seek to address.
You may remember that there was some controversy last year over the appropriate age when women should begin having mammograms. The American Cancer Society recommends starting at 45. The American College of Radiology, the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists, and the American Society of Breast Disease all suggest even earlier, at 40.
The earlier you detect the cancer, the better your survival rate will be… right?
Turns out, early mammograms are far more likely to harm than help. That’s why the U.S. Preventative Services Task Force issued their controversial but scientifically sound recommendation to wait to start until age 50.
Cancer is a very complex disease. Not all things that look like cancer early on are cancer, and not all cancers are fast-growing or aggressive enough to merit treatment. What’s more, mammograms do nothing to improve the treatment of the most fast-growing and aggressive cancers. Finding them early does nothing to make them less deadly.
For the tiny percentage of lives saved by early detection, far more were badly impacted or ended by unnecessary medical treatments and incorrect diagnoses.
This paradox isn’t unique to medical charities. Consider Take Back the Night marches. Beginning in the 1970s, the purpose of the marches was to raise awareness about sexual violence. But the most high-profile marches have been in response to rapes and murders of women by serial killers. These events also often deliberately bar men from participating, citing the desire to create safe spaces for women.
This harms their central goal in several key ways. For one, the awareness it raises focuses on sexual violence from strangers—a slim minority of sexual violence. Additionally, it further ostracizes the men and boys who are also victims, whose experiences of shame and isolation are often magnified by a toxic culture that both ignores and mocks their own painful experiences. It also reinforces the assumption that sexual violence is solely a women’s issue, when men certainly have a responsibility to help stop it.
This is the double-edged sword of awareness, raised. If you provide facts without their full context, you can misdirect their meaning altogether.
Finally, a call to action
This is my perspective, friends. I am not a fan of the concept of “raising awareness.” At least, I’m not a fan when it’s an organization’s be-all, end-all Purpose For Existing. I’m very picky about the charities to whom I donate my time or effort, and the spectral quality of “awareness” pulls awareness-raising organizations down to the very bottom of my list.
I know a lot of our readers work (or have worked) at nonprofits, which is awesome—us too! We love you. If your organization still uses the phrase “raise awareness” to describe its mission, please encourage them to ditch this vague cliché and get specific.
Consider this: October is Breast Cancer Awareness Month, Downsyndrome Awareness Month, Sudden Infant Death Syndrome Awareness Month, Cyber Security Awareness Month, Spina Bifida Awareness Month, Domestic Violence Awareness Month, ADHD Awareness Month, Mental Illness Awareness Month, Disability Employment Awareness Month, Dyslexia Awareness Month, Pregnancy and Infant Loss Awareness Month… the list goes on and on and on.
The world is a complicated place. The human race has more troubles than stars in our night sky. There are injustices, illnesses, missions, and triumphant causes all jangling for our attention—and our dollars.
Release the concept of awareness, and embrace the concept of action.
I call for a rousing chorus of “thank yous” for our beloved Patreon patrons for selecting this juicy topic for this month! If you’d like to join us, a mere $1 will get you in on the Cool Kids Who Vote Club. Our supporters are peerless, poreless, and priceless. The only awareness I want to raise is your awareness of how much we love you for keeping this bitchfest alive.