Awareness Ribbons Can Help Make Nonprofits Visible

Ribbons for awareness are part of our cultural landscape. These symbols offer wearers the ability to quietly and quickly raise awareness of organizations and campaigns. On Sunday, a plethora of Broadway luminaires walked the red carpet or presented awards at the 71st Annual Tony Awards wearing royal blue ribbons in support of the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU). Others wore lapel pins featuring Planned Parenthood’s logo, rainbow ribbons in support of Pride Month, ampersand shaped lapel pins in support of the Gay & Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation (GLAAD), and pins supporting the unionization of casting directors at a rally during Tonys rehearsals.

Penney Laingen is often credited with popularizing awareness ribbon. In 1979, inspired by the 1973 pop song “Tie a Yellow Ribbon Round the Ole Oak Tree” by Dawn featuring Tony Orlando, she used a yellow ribbon to signal support for her husband and other men being held prisoner during the Iran hostage crisis. About two decades later, at the 45th annual Tony Awards on June 2, 1991, Visual AIDS and actor Jeremy Irons used a red ribbon and the resulting media curiosity to create an international symbol for AIDS awareness virtually overnight. Yet the most indelible example belongs to Susan G. Komen who handed out the first of the now infamous pink ribbons to all the breast cancer survivors and participants of the Komen New York Race for the Cure in 1991.

Here are some tips for nonprofits considering gaining exposure with ribbons:

1.) Research how a color has been used before.

The ACLU smartly added white lettering to the royal blue ribbons they asked people to wear at various 2017 awards shows. Without a doubt, they wanted their ribbons to stand apart from the myriad of other campaigns that have raised awareness with navy blue ribbons. After all, the royal blue ribbon has been used to raise awareness for child abuse, transverse myelitis, and syringomyelia.

Websites like Disabled World do a great job of listing all the known uses for the different colored ribbons.


2.) Know your goals.

Sharing ribbons with celebrities who attend award shows serves as an extremely low-key way for nonprofits to get their message out without saying a word. This quiet approach keenly utilizes a quickly identifiable visual that people can easily look up to discover its meaning.

Unfortunately, the efficacy of these ribbons may not be easy to track in terms of dollars. The ACLU knows and can report that they received $24,164,691 from 356,306 online donations in the weekend following Trump signing the order to suspend our nation’s refugee program and ban entry to the US of citizens from seven predominately Muslim countries. Certainly, a noticeable uptick in donations during a limited timeframe following a red carpet and/or awards show could be measured and considered. Although, it should be noted that translating social media impressions from photos of the ribbons, hashtag usage about the ribbons, and similar to actual earned donations is difficult to calculate. More often than not, people who donate to nonprofits do so after experiencing multiple contact points with the organization.

3.) Don’t oversaturate.

From a spectator’s perspective, the royal blue ACLU ribbon almost looked like a uniform at the 71st annual Tony Awards. Watching the broadcast, the presenters bedecked with the ribbons greatly outnumbered those without them. Because of this, the GLAAD ampersands worn by Jonathan Groff and Brian d’Arcy James and the rainbow ribbon worn by Lin-Manuel Miranda were more eye catching than the ACLU ribbon.

The red AIDS awareness ribbon became a media sensation because – as the host for the 45th annual Tony Awards – Jeremy Irons was the only person wearing the ribbon at that awards show. Also, he and the presenters purposely did not speak to its meaning. This intentional silence ignited and fanned the flames of the curiosity of the media covering the event. Sometimes less is more.

Screenshot of Jonathan Groff and Brian d'Arcy James hosting The Creative Arts Awards at the 2017 Tonys.