Expert view: Behaviour change takes years

New Philanthropy Capital's latest report on child abuse, Not Seen and Not Heard, has challenged the value of awareness campaigning by claiming it could find no evidence that the NSPCC's Full Stop campaign has prevented child abuse.

It comes after recent research showing that fewer people now think it's possible to address world poverty than at the start of the Make Poverty History campaign. If well-resourced campaigns that have tapped into huge wells of public sympathy find it hard to demonstrate a change in attitudes, it not surprising this kind of campaigning is being challenged.

Critics are wise to be sceptical about grandiose claims that attitudes to any key issue can easily be overturned. Attitudes can be deeply ingrained, and many years' learned behaviour is not easily unstitched by the occasional challenging advert. Pointing at other people's supposed failings can often entrench attitudes, not change them.

Even populist messages need serious money to have resonance and reach. Even where highly popular causes are concerned, both the message and the actions have to be very clear for there to be a sustained impact. It's relatively easy for a campaign to make a splash and raise awareness figures for a couple of weeks, but sustainability is everything in this arena.

Campaigns can keep an issue in the public eye and create the pressure for more resources for services. But it is difficult to demonstrate that changed attitudes do lead to changed behaviour - the gold standard for awareness work.

The evidence from Make Poverty History and campaigns on child poverty suggests the more noise there is around an issue, the more people feel it's being fixed. Paradoxically, even if the attitude changes, the level of action diminishes.

So what are the lessons? If you are trying to change behaviour, you have to be in it for the long haul. If you do not have confidence that you will have the funds to do this, don't start. If you do, identify clear mechanisms by which you can monitor change. Identify a clear methodology by which the change in attitude can demonstrably be shown to lead to a change in behaviour. If there is not an established model or means of measurement, the campaign is unlikely to succeed. Set clear success criteria; changing behaviour takes years, but there should be clear milestones.

As charities, we need to be able to demonstrate that by targeting resources in this way we really are changing the world, not just boosting our own profiles.

- Brian Lamb is director of communications and acting chief execuitive of the RNID.

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