A focus on action rather than knowledge will deliver better outcomes for charities

In recent years the focus of interventions in public health and sustainability has been on behaviour change. The essence of behaviour change is action – for people to stop a problem behaviour and/or adopt a desired behaviour. This focus is due to a recognition that knowledge based approaches are not always sufficient in encouraging and supporting people to take action.

Take the “five a day” message. Roughly 9 out of 10 people know this is the recommended daily intake of fruit and veg. However, only about 30% of adults (19-65) achieve this and between 2007 and 2012 fruit purchases declined by 14%, and vegetable purchases by 5%.

One reason for this is that people’s decisions on what to buy and eat are often influenced by immediate and emotional factors such as taste, value for money, convenience, availability, whether the kids will like it, or whether it will help take the edge off a stressful day, as opposed to a rational consideration of the longer term risks and benefits.

Just because we know something, does not necessarily mean we do it. This is a challenge for charities that spend resources on disseminating information materials – it may not be having the impact they think it is.

In response to this challenge, WCRF (UK) has been working with Fiveways to implement a behaviour change approach to develop its “Smart Snacking” project aimed at encouraging parents to offer their children healthy snacks.

The key to designing successful behaviour change projects is taking the audience’s perspective and applying the theory of “exchange” which states that people are more likely to take action if the benefits of action (from their perspective) outweigh the barriers preventing them doing that action.

Following research amongst the project’s target audience (mothers of pre-school children) WCRF (UK) discovered that the benefits that were most important to them included having fun with their children and making a social connection with other parents. The benefit of decreasing risk of illness was not as prominent, illustrating the point that the issue that matters most for the charity may not be the one that motivates an audience to take action. Barriers to change included the perceived time and cost needed to prepare healthy snacks, and the difficulty of encouraging young children to eat vegetables.

Using this insight Fiveways has worked with the charity to design the “Smart Snacking” project to maximise the benefits for the audience (e.g. ideas for fun activities to do with your child, and using social media to encourage sharing of experiences between parents) and decrease the barriers (e.g. practical ideas suggested by parents to disguise vegetables in food and prepare snacks on a budget).

The fact that WCRF (UK) is implementing a behaviour change approach – focusing on action rather than knowledge, and striving to make the desired behaviour attractive, easy and normal for the audience – will ensure the charity delivers demonstrable outcomes based on what poeple have actually done as opposed to how many people might know what to do.

It is an approach that other charities which rely on information provision to change people’s behaviour could also benefit from.