Nonprofit Awareness Campaigns: The Complete Guide for 2021

See how awareness campaigns can skyrocket you to success with OneCause

Awareness campaigns are one of the most popular, effective, and flexible ways to raise public interest and educate your community about your nonprofit’s mission.

Because awareness campaigns can attract such wide audiences during existing national awareness months (think Breast Cancer Awareness Month in October), many nonprofits plan around these timeframes to capitalize on the exposure and increase donations.

However, standalone awareness campaigns can be just as effective for raising visibility for nonprofit missions. If there’s not a national awareness month or week for your cause, make your own! You’ve almost certainly heard of one of the biggest awareness success stories in history, the ALS Ice Bucket Challenge, which has raised more than $115 million for ALS research since it began in 2014!

Regardless of the exact context of your own campaign, catching the attention of your audience (and then motivating them to get involved!) can be a major challenge. That’s why we’ve compiled this complete guide to planning and hosting your own awareness campaign. Here’s what we’ll cover:

Already have some awareness ideas brewing for your own mission? Let’s get started.

Let's start with the basics of nonprofit awareness campaigns.

Awareness Campaign Basics

Let’s start with the essentials:

What are awareness campaigns?

An awareness campaign is any time-bound, strategic campaign aimed entirely at increasing public visibility and awareness for your cause. For nonprofit organizations, this means planning a campaign to spread the word about your mission, explain why it matters, and show supporters how they can get involved.

What are the goals of an awareness campaign?

First and foremost, the main goal of an awareness campaign is to raise visibility for your mission. By spreading awareness of your nonprofit’s cause, you’ll grow your audience and create a stronger base of support to drive your mission forward.

However, it can be difficult to measure “raising awareness” as a concrete goal. This is why many nonprofits choose specific key performance indicators (KPIs) to gauge the success of their awareness strategies. Common goals for awareness campaigns involve audience growth and digital engagement. We’ll cover the KPIs you can use to measure these goals in a section below.

Note: Generating donations isn’t a core goal of awareness campaigns. While your awareness campaign likely will result in increased donations to your nonprofit, fundraising shouldn’t be the central purpose. Keep the focus on spreading the word and showing a wider audience why your work matters – the donations will follow!

When would a nonprofit launch an awareness campaign?

As mentioned above, there are two main times that your nonprofit might choose to plan and launch an awareness campaign:

  • If an existing national awareness day, week, or month is coming up and directly relates to your mission. For instance, Black History Month in February or Mental Health Month in May would be perfect opportunities to launch awareness campaigns if your nonprofit’s work relates to either of those topics. Research the 2021 lineup to see if there’s an upcoming awareness period or holiday that can help springboard your next campaign.
  • If your nonprofit simply wants to grow its audience and reach new supporters. If it’s time to scale up your efforts and expand your base of support, an awareness campaign is a smart move. Social media and virtual events have made it easier than ever for nonprofits to launch successful standalone campaigns. If you’re strategically thinking ahead, growing your audience a year or more before a major expansion project or capital campaign can help you build a stronger foundation for future growth.

What types of strategies can you use in an awareness campaign?

Awareness campaigns are extremely flexible. You can mix-and-match a variety of strategies and digital tactics to reach and engage your audience. Common strategies include:

  • Social media campaigns and viral challenges
  • Multichannel marketing strategies
  • Peer-to-peer fundraising and ambassador campaigns
  • Virtual awareness events
  • Partnerships with other local organizations

We’ll cover each of these tactics and more in the steps below.

Learn how to plan and start an awareness campaign with these steps.

How to Start an Awareness Campaign: 9 Steps

These 9 steps for planning an awareness campaign can be adapted for all types of missions.

Start planning an awareness campaign by doing research and setting goals.

1. Do your research and set goals.

Start planning your awareness campaign by determining its focus. As mentioned above, awareness campaigns are typically either standalone projects or hosted as part of broader national awareness days, months, or weeks.

Next, take time to reflect on your mission and your supporters. You already understand your mission, but it’s worthwhile to think about what motivates your most loyal donors. Ask questions like:

  • What draws donors to your mission?
  • What messages and events are the most engaging for them?
  • Are they interested in annual giving or do they fall into the social donor category?
  • What aspects of your mission do you want to draw the most attention to?
  • What’s the current public perception of your cause?
  • Will you target mainly existing donors, or will you aim to grow your audience with new supporters?

These insights are useful to gather in advance, as they can help shape the specific strategies and goals that you lay out for your awareness campaign. The ultimate goal of an awareness campaign is to increase the visibility of your mission, but you need concrete ways to measure that growth and visibility:

  • Audience growth, measured by one or more specific metrics:
    • Reach, or the number of impressions your campaign receives in various marketing channels like social media and email
    • Subscribers or followers gained throughout the campaign
    • The number of new donors or participants you secure during the campaign
    • The number of searches on Google for your nonprofit’s name or cause
  • Engagement rates, measured with metrics like:
    • The number of clicks, shares, or likes your digital marketing materials receive
    • Event attendance and engagement
    • Peer-to-peer participation and sign-ups
    • Traffic volume on your awareness campaign’s landing pages

Determine your awareness campaign’s goals (and the specific KPIs you’ll use to measure them) early in the planning process. When you know what you’re aiming for, it’s much easier to craft a strategy that will get you there.

Set the right date or timeframe for your awareness campaign.

2. Select the right date for your awareness campaign.

As with any campaign, you need to allow enough time for your team to plan your awareness strategies and for your audience to thoroughly engage with it. This allows your cause to build momentum over the course of the campaign.

Determine a specific timeframe for your awareness campaign with plenty of time set aside in advance for planning and preparation. If your campaign coincides with an existing national awareness month, week, or day, build your timeframe around it. For standalone campaigns, consider your audience and the scale of your goals when choosing a timeframe. Will a single day of awareness activities be enough to help you reach supporters, or will a week or month be better suited to your goals?

Regardless of the exact focus of your awareness campaign, we recommend either kicking off or concluding it with a main event (either in-person or virtual as needed). An event will help you capitalize on your audience’s energy to keep them engaged through to the end or to encourage them to keep taking action after your campaign ends. Just be sure to give yourself enough time to plan it and promote it to supporters.

Define the audience for your nonprofit's awareness campaign.

3. Identify and define your audience.

While some awareness campaigns might target a nonprofit’s entire supporter base, this isn’t always the case. You’ll need to consider who you’re hoping to engage now so you can develop the marketing and outreach strategies that will be most effective. Narrowing down your audience segment can help your team better target the message, voice, and specific communication channels of your campaign.

We recommend using donor personas to pinpoint the supporters who’ll be most likely to engage with your awareness campaign. Explore your CRM to learn more about audience demographics and answer questions like:

  • Who has participated in past awareness campaigns?
  • Who are our most loyal supporters in terms of long-term engagement, donations, and event attendance?
  • Where are most of our supporters located?
  • How old are our target supporters?
  • What types of campaigns or messages have been most effective at engaging them?

As you answer these questions, think about where these donor segments overlap. Those intersections will be ideal places to focus your efforts. For instance, supporters who’ve given to your organization once before (possibly during Giving Tuesday or another high-volume giving day), are located in your city or region, and engaged with you through an online channel might be the perfect segment to focus on re-engaging through an awareness campaign.

As your campaign strategies come together, continue using audience segments and past data on the performance of your marketing campaigns to finetune your outreach.

Craft your awareness campaign's message.

4. Craft your awareness campaign message.

Your awareness campaign should connect back to your overall charitable mission. Research shows that donors who understand and are connected to a nonprofit’s mission have a higher likelihood of completing their donations and staying engaged beyond the single campaign. To create the most effective message, aim your promotional efforts at increasing awareness and excitement with your current donors and a new, wider audience.

Sometimes, nonprofits find that an awareness campaign falls relatively close to another annual fundraising event. This is okay, and it’s why messaging is so important. Many nonprofits actually brand their awareness campaigns differently than their event fundraising to make them stand out.

Focus on one particular aspect of your mission to give your campaign a more engaging level of specificity. For example, if your nonprofit’s mission revolves around education and children’s welfare, your awareness campaign might focus on child poverty or literacy issues in your community. This gives your audience of new supporters a more specific societal issue to focus on rather than feeling overwhelmed by your mission as a whole. Then, as you grow your relationships with new supporters, you can connect them back to your broader mission over time.

Recruit awareness ambassadors to help promote your campaign.

5. Engage ambassadors to reach and raise more.

Creating reach and casting a wide awareness net is core to your campaign’s success. Involving your board, junior board, executive team, and your most loyal supporters can help to significantly expand your campaign’s visibility.

We recommend enlisting your most ardent supporters as “ambassadors.” Ambassador fundraising allows you to turn these loyal supporters and donors into active advocates and fundraisers for your awareness campaign. Ambassadors can help you reach your goals in several ways:

  • Spread the word about your mission online
  • Recruit new peer-to-peer fundraising participants
  • Fundraise directly on your nonprofit’s behalf
  • Promote your virtual awareness events and securing registrations

Even if fundraising isn’t a core goal, ambassadors are invaluable partners for growing your reach and adding a new level of energy and enthusiasm to your campaign. If ambassadors sound like the right move for your campaign, check out our complete guide to ambassador recruitment and fundraising to learn more.

Secure sponsors for your nonprofit awareness campaign.

6. Secure your awareness campaign’s sponsors.

Sponsors and partners are a must-have in the world of nonprofit fundraising, and this trend doesn’t end with awareness campaigns. If you’re worried about competing with other nonprofits during a cause’s specific awareness week or month, try partnering up! This way both of your groups are benefiting from each other’s audience and donor base. Sponsors can help supercharge your efforts during standalone awareness campaigns, as well.

Large corporations with well-developed nonprofit sponsorship or corporate social responsibility programs make reliable partners for any campaign or event, but don’t forget to think local. For smaller organizations, awareness campaigns often focus on how issues are specifically affecting their community or region. Local businesses and celebrities or influencers are perfect candidates for growing your reach and visibility with the supporters who’ll drive your campaign to success. Local businesses, restaurants, TV stations, and radio hosts can all make highly effective awareness partners.

Set up a web page for your awareness campaign.

7. Set up your awareness campaign’s web page.

Once your campaign’s core guidelines and main strategies are in place, you need to figure out a way to drive your supporters to actually engage with your cause. To simplify this process, try investing in an online donation platform that makes it easy for supporters to engage, support, and donate to your nonprofit.

If you’re just getting started with online fundraising software, keep the following in mind:

  • Determine your budget, and keep this in mind as you evaluate platforms on the market. Do extra features and functionality cost more?
  • Make a list of must-have features, and don’t just stop at this one campaign. Will your team need auction software?
  • What type of support and training do your vendors provide?

At a minimum, create a centralized campaign page that includes donation tools and plenty of information about your mission and impact. For more complex awareness campaigns that include ambassador fundraising and virtual awareness events, a comprehensive virtual event center will be your best bet for maximizing engagement and providing the best possible experience to new supporters.

Create a plan for your marketing your awareness project.

8. Create a multichannel marketing plan.

For promotion and marketing plans during awareness campaigns, it’s all about the multichannel reach. Don’t throw all your eggs in one basket. Instead, spread your campaign out across multiple channels to reach all of your supporters and drive more engagement back to your core campaign web page. Some popular channels include:

  • A dedicated page about your campaign and its purpose and goals
  • Social media posts that encourage tons of shares
  • Emails targeted to your particular audience
  • Direct phone calls to smaller segments of your audience

One best practice here is to know where and how your supporters want to engage with your team before you even launch your campaign. If most of your donors prefer to receive phone calls, it might be a good idea to strengthen your outbound call team. Or, if social media seems to draw the most donations, step up your production schedule and post multiple social posts every day. Just be sure to actively direct your audience back to a central location (your campaign web page) where they can take next steps like signing up for an event or making a donation.

Host your virtual events if they'll be a part of your awareness campaign.

9. Host your awareness events.

Once your awareness campaign is underway, you’ll need to have a plan for concluding your outreach and fundraising. Events are a great way to bring your campaign full-circle, thank your donors, and celebrate the milestones from your fundraising efforts. The rise of virtual events in 2020 has made it easier (and more cost-effective) than ever to launch remote awareness events, including virtual galas and even 5Ks and bikeathons.

For a complete breakdown of virtual event best practices for nonprofits, study up with our guide.

Remember, awareness campaigns are all about creating long-term relationships with existing donors and attracting new supporters who can help drive your mission forward over time. With these nine steps, your team can get your next awareness campaign up and running in no time.

See how awareness campaigns can skyrocket you to success with OneCause

Remember these awareness campaign do's and don'ts.

Do’s and Don’ts for a Successful Awareness Campaign

When planning and hosting a nonprofit awareness campaign, there are a few essentials and a few pitfalls to keep in mind. Here are our top do’s and don’ts:

  • Do give your audience specific actions and next steps to take. Your campaign’s marketing materials should all be anchored with specific calls to action (CTAs). These are clear directions about the next step you want readers to take, whether that’s following you on social media, learning more about your mission, or sharing your posts. Then, be sure to link your readers directly to the appropriate place for them to take that next action.
    • Don’t give your audience vague directions. Without clear CTAs, you can easily lose your audience’s focus and attention. Plus, it’ll be difficult to reach your campaign’s specific engagement goals without actively showing readers what you want them to do.
    • Don’t ask too much too soon. Awareness campaigns are extremely useful for reaching broader audiences and growing your contact list. Be mindful not to immediately ask your new audience for too much. While your readers will be happy to learn more and stay engaged with your nonprofit, it might not be time just yet to ask for a donation or a volunteer sign-up. You can always follow-up with these supporters later once you’ve had a chance to grow your relationship further.
  • Do stay focused on your mission and specific issue. People will engage with your awareness campaign because they’re drawn to your mission. Lean into that natural connection by keeping your messages mission-centric. Focus on educating the public about your mission or issue, the different factors that impact it, and its importance in your community.
    • Don’t make it all about you. Avoid focusing only on your organization or your specific impact. While it’s always a good idea to remind supporters about the impact of your work (and how their support enables it), your first several messages in an awareness campaign aren’t the time to talk about yourself. As readers continue engaging with your campaign, you can begin including light calls to action directing them to new ways to engage with your nonprofit specifically.
  • Do set and measure diverse, meaningful goals. Your awareness campaign’s goals should be specific and reflective of all the different ways that supporters can learn about your mission. Email signups are a common (and extremely valuable) goal, but don’t forget about petitions, social media follows and shares, or peer-to-peer fundraising options. Then, back up your handful of engagement goals with specific metrics or KPIs that you’ll track to measure your progress.
    • Don’t focus too heavily on a single vague goal. Many nonprofits launch awareness campaigns with a single, vague goal in mind, like simply “generating more email signups.” As mentioned above, limiting yourself to a single type of engagement can cause you to inadvertently leave potential new relationships on the table. Think ahead about the different types of messages and opportunities you’ll promote throughout your campaign, and develop specific goals around them when relevant.
    • Don’t forget to actively measure your progress. Without concrete benchmarks and KPIs determined in advance, it becomes very difficult to accurately measure your success by the end of the campaign (let alone course-correct during the campaign). For example, if you don’t hit your benchmark goal for social media shares by a set date, you’ll know to jump into action and focus more heavily on that area in the coming days.

Overall, remember to stay flexible. Your awareness campaign should reflect your unique mission and tap into why it’s compelling and urgent. Keep your strategy focused from start to finish.

See how awareness campaigns can skyrocket you to success with OneCause

Use these awareness campaign ideas and examples to brainstorm your own project.

5 Top Awareness Campaign Ideas & Examples

Awareness campaigns are naturally flexible when it comes to the specific strategies and ideas that you can implement. After all, every mission and its community are completely unique. Follow the core steps outlined above to give your awareness campaign a solid structure, but take some additional time to consider the different twists and ideas that might resonate with your audience. Here are five ideas and examples to get the ball rolling:

1. Create a sense of community.

Social media has made it easier than ever to reach and directly engage your nonprofit’s audience. During your awareness campaign, you’ll almost certainly rely on Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter to help spread the word about your cause, but try to take it a step further.

Instead of using social media as just an outlet for posting your campaign messages, think of it as a community-building tool. You can exponentially increase the value of these platforms for your campaign by encouraging supporters to actively post about your campaign, share your messages, and join conversations. Here’s a OneCause success story to illustrate this idea:

Faith's Lodge launched an awareness campaign that generated a sense of online community for supporters.

Faith’s Lodge is a nonprofit focused on child loss and supporting grieving families through hosting healing retreats. October is Child Loss Awareness Month, so the organization wanted to join the conversation and launch an awareness campaign to spread its mission to a broader audience.

Using OneCause awareness and peer-to-peer fundraising software, Faith’s Lodge was able to quickly launch the “Say Their Name Challenge” on October 1st, giving their community a platform to share their experiences and start conversations. The social media-based campaign quickly spread online to a wide audience and was picked up in local news coverage, raising their visibility even further.

The results? Faith’s Lodge raised over $30,000 in October, with 65% of those donors giving for the very first time. More importantly, their social media awareness efforts helped them reach 12,350 supporters with their mission, a testament to the power of community-building through savvy social media awareness tactics.

Read the complete Faith’s Lodge success story to learn more about their powerful awareness campaign.

2. Start conversations with your awareness campaign.

Building on the previous tip about building a sense of community, your awareness campaign should also actively start new conversations about your mission. Engaging social media techniques and other viral-style challenges have quickly become the norm for accomplishing this goal.

The ALS Ice Bucket Challenge is a classic example that helped the organization raise $115 million to fund ALS research. This success was driven by the fact their challenge sparked conversations, encouraged tons of social shares, and introduced an extremely wide audience to the challenge of ALS for the very first time.

Viral challenges and impactful messaging can help to start these critical conversations and drive engagement by creating a knowledge gap. Essentially, your awareness campaign should introduce new supporters and readers to your mission in a way that gets them curious to learn more. An excellent example is the men’s health organization Movember that grew out of the wild success of their first awareness campaign, an annual mustache-growing challenge.

Movember is a highly successful awareness organization that starts conversations around its mission.

Movember’s annual awareness campaign works because it raises awareness in both the digital and real worlds. Their social media and peer-to-peer efforts help to spread their visibility online, but, more importantly, their participants’ mustaches start conversations and allow individuals to share their own motivations. People naturally take note and ask questions when their relative, neighbor, or coworker suddenly begins sporting a mustache, opening up perfect opportunities for new conversations about men’s health at a personal, one-on-one level.

3. Tap into existing Giving Days.

The calendar is already full of established awareness months and giving days, so take advantage of them when possible! Tapping into the increased buzz of these days and months is the perfect way to help your awareness campaign stand out and more easily reach readers who’ll be inclined to become long-term supporters.

For instance, Giving Tuesday is one of the biggest fundraising days of the year for nonprofits of all sizes. Preparing in advance to launch an awareness-raising campaign and fundraising push for Giving Tuesday can have incredible results, even for small or local organizations. For example, the St. Francis DeSales High School in Louisville, Kentucky launched a full-scale Giving Tuesday campaign to engage their community and raise support amid the COVID-19 pandemic.

DeSales High School used awareness campaign tactics to exceed its Giving Tuesday goals.

Rather than canceling their annual in-person events, the school quickly pivoted to start conversations and ask for support online. Their social media strategies were particularly effective at keeping supporters updated and reaching the broader community with their “DeSalesGives20” hashtag sharing campaign. DeSales raised $15,000 on Giving Tuesday alone and set themselves up for success in 2021 with a solid foundation of funding and increased community awareness.

While DeSales High School focused its Giving Tuesday efforts largely on fundraising, any other nonprofit looking to raise awareness and support online can learn from its success. Giving Tuesday is a prime example of a time when supporters will be more likely to tune into your messages, but any other annual awareness months or weeks related to your mission are ideal times to tap into that increased energy. You’ll just need to make sure you’re prepared with the right tools and strategies to get started right away.

4. Centralize your nonprofit’s online experience.

In today’s digital-first environment, offering supporters a seamless online experience should be a top priority for all new campaigns and initiatives your organization pushes forward. For awareness campaigns, this is particularly important since you’ll only have the attention of brand new supporters for a short time when they’re introduced to your cause and messages. Make it count by meeting your audience with a centralized, intuitive online experience.

Create a dedicated campaign page or microsite all about your awareness campaign. This will serve as the central location where supporters can learn more about your mission, connect with the community, and engage with your organization. Then, actively direct your audience to this central location whenever possible. In an awareness campaign, you’ll likely rely on a few key digital outlets to help spread the word, each of which can open valuable opportunities to drive more engagement:

  • Your social media posts. In your posts, keep the focus on your mission but do provide a direct link to your campaign’s page or site. Actively encourage readers to click through to learn more.
  • Your followers’ social media posts about your campaign. Peer-to-peer sharing is a crucial part of successful awareness campaigns, but make sure your followers’ posts are helping to drive more traffic to your website, too. Encourage your supporters to link directly to your campaign’s page or site in any posts they create. You might even create easy templates for supporters to fill in the blanks about why your mission matters to them.
  • Emails to existing supporters. In your awareness email blasts to existing subscribers, make it easy for them to learn more by linking to your campaign’s page. If your email is the only outlet where a supporter hears about your awareness campaign, you’ll need to make that touchpoint count.
  • Direct mail and newsletters. Include the URL for your awareness campaign’s page on printed materials, too, to ensure that recipients know where to learn more.
  • Word of mouth. While you can’t guarantee that new visitors will find their way to your website after talking about your mission with a supporter, you can make it easier for them to find what they’re looking for if they do decide to look you up. Prominently link to your campaign page or microsite on your organization’s main homepage and navigation bar.

Awareness campaign software can help you centralize your supporters' experiences.

Awareness tools that allow for embedded virtual events will maximize engagement from supporters.

For more complex awareness campaigns that incorporate virtual gatherings and livestreams, look for awareness and fundraising software that makes it easy to provide supporters with everything they’ll need in one location. For example, your campaign’s microsite could include a virtual event center to keep the entire experience centralized and intuitive, no navigating to a third-party livestreaming platform needed.

5. Optimize your campaign’s landing pages.

Once you’ve created a central digital location for your awareness campaign, you’ll need to make sure that it’s fully optimized to encourage engagement.

Web design plays a key role in ensuring that visitors immediately understand what your campaign is about and how they can get involved. Start with a simple, intuitive layout that avoids any unnecessary visuals or text that could distract readers. An impactful or eye-catching image should be prominently displayed, along with short, bold text that communicates your mission. Although you likely won’t immediately ask visitors for donations, you should actively direct them toward a new opportunity to learn about your mission and why it matters.

Here’s an example from Peace is Loud, a nonprofit advocacy organization focused on promoting influential women leading peacebuilding initiatives around the world:

Effective web design plays a critical role in awareness campaigns.

This well-optimized landing page includes all the essentials: a simple layout, impactful image, concise text, and a button that links straight to a new engagement opportunity, in this case a documentary they produced. Remember, awareness campaigns are all about catching the attention of new supporters and encouraging them to learn more without overwhelming or distracting them. Effective web design is a crucial part of this equation today, so study up with examples of top nonprofit websites to see how other organizations have pulled it off.

Wrapping Up

Nonprofit awareness campaigns are extremely valuable for reaching broader audiences and raising visibility for your mission. They can help you engage your supporters in quicker, more casual, and more impactful ways than is often possible in more formal fundraising-focused campaigns. However, awareness campaigns still require just as much (if not more!) planning and strategy as other types of campaigns.

With a solid planning process, the right toolkit, and engaging ideas to rely on, you can develop and execute a highly effective awareness campaign that meets and exceeds its goals. As you gear up for your own campaign, keep exploring with these additional resources:

See how awareness campaigns can skyrocket you to success with OneCause