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Beyond Reports: Moving From Awareness to Behaviour Change

How not-for-profits can turn awareness into real change

Most leaders of not-for-profit organizations are well acquainted with the constant conflict between a deep desire to do your utmost to advance your mission and the harsh reality of limited resources.

You’re trying to make every dollar stretch as far as it will go and you’re trying to satisfy the expectations of funders and all those involved in your cause. So you do the research, analyze the information, and create and distribute reports or guides to educate the public.

You hope those reports have the desired impact. But at the same time you know it’s incredibly difficult to make your organization’s voice heard amongst all the competing interests out there. And you know it’s difficult to demonstrate the impact your efforts are having when it comes time to report back to funders or write that next grant application.

It’s even harder – and seems riskier – to go beyond reports and try something different when there is so much at stake.


The benefits of reports

The reality is that research IS essential and reports have their place. There are a number of reasons why reports have long been considered the gold standard in public education:

  • They tell the whole story, serving as a container for a deep level of information.
  • They are a form of communication that people recognize, which signals credibility.
  • They can be validated through primary and secondary resources.
  • They visualize the data.
  • They reach a large audience.
  • They are preferred by policymakers who want the validation of the report in their hands to gain buy-in for issues.

The limitations of reports

So far, so good. But the fact is that traditional reports also have many significant limitations:

  • People don’t read, they scan – at most they might read 20% of the text on a page (Nielsen Norman Group, 2008).
  • There are no useful metrics – with PDF reports we can only measure if people have clicked on the link, shared it or liked it. We don’t know if they’ve actually read it.
  • Information overload: You run the risk of burying the most important research, data and stories in long-form publications.
  • Reports can transfer knowledge but they rarely change behaviour.
  • Reports are untargeted and impersonal: When you design for everyone, you actually design for no one. Trying to reach a broad audience often means missing the very group of people who most need to hear your message.

The keys to behaviour change

We know that change happens when people DO something different, not when they simply KNOW more. In a nutshell, this is the main failing of reports – they don’t enable people to do something new.

Here are ways that people can do something different – steps that are small, incremental and vitally important for building momentum for a campaign or a cause:


So, how can not-for-profits encourage people to take steps that create real behaviour change?

  1. Use your research to pinpoint and define a specific user group or target audience to fully understand who they are and how they learn. When you do this, you significantly raise the probability that your highest priority audience members will get something valuable from your research. Don’t worry, other people will still see value in it, too.
  2. Supplement reports by creating other learning assets that specifically target those people and appeal to their mindset and motivations. Fit the delivery method to the task at hand. For example, if you are trying to make a data-driven argument to compel your target audience to action, use an infographic. Or if you are trying to help them develop a new skill requiring practice and feedback, use a simulation-based e-learning module.
  3. Finally, consider how to measure some of the ways people can change to validate, calibrate, and adjust the tactics of your campaign and the design of your outreach assets based on user feedback. Once data is collected you can design new campaigns and optimize old campaigns based on real information versus simply guessing.

Marcus’s story (currently in beta) is an interactive learning experience to create awareness and reduce the spread of HIV among college students.

Marcus’s Story

For example, we’ve designed a number of reports for the Human Rights Campaign, including Making HIV History: a Pragmatic Guide to Confronting HIV at HBCUs.

One idea we’ve proposed to increase the impact of this important report is Marcus’s story, which is a text chat between several characters.

Marcus’s story targets a specific audience – college administrators, who are in a position to make a significant impact towards the goal of an HIV- and AIDS-free generation. It is designed to create empathy for students living with HIV on college campuses and would be part of a larger public education campaign to create awareness and reduce the spread of HIV among college students.

Immersive learning experiences like Marcus’s story can be used to model best practices for preventative health care, HIV campus policies and more. In this way, administrators could gain the practical tools and resources they need to reduce the risk of HIV on college campuses, increase HIV awareness and prevention, and provide better support for students living with HIV.


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