Giving Awards | Do Your Research

The way nonprofit organizations select award recipients and those whom they wish to honor at events like fundraising banquets and galas is not discussed often in our sector. Although it seems simple and straight forward, you might be surprised. Guidance is needed.

Most awards are undoubtedly properly given. But I have seen more than one nonprofit organization select an award recipient who is not the person(s) who truly deserves recognition for outstanding volunteer service, or for making a life-changing financial commitment, for instance, but rather the decision has been based upon who will generate more publicity.

And sadly, I have witnessed the anguish experienced by genuine nonprofit heroes who stand by silently as someone else takes an award for their work. But it is short-term gain and long-term pain to honor a less worthy award recipient, or the wrong person entirely!

We all wish people would share Denzel Washington’s high-minded view of awards. And there is certainly no harm in honoring a genuinely worthy candidate, nor in giving someone public recognition for their achievements. Such events reflect well on the nonprofit organization. They can also serve as a form of cultivation, and a way to inspire others to attain similar lofty goals.

But sometimes a well-known individual in a community has a louder public “voice” than a more gentle, generous and hard-working nonprofit volunteer. I have also seen instances where a company that purchases a great deal of advertising in the local newspaper gains more media coverage overall, and the community watching those media outlets assumes that person is doing the most work for a local cause and that they are responsible for a nonprofit’s success. Business executives who too strongly seek to promote their companies can be guilty of attention-grabbing tactics (and chambers of commerce are sometimes susceptible). Public opinion polls can also be misleading.

My point is, one must conduct careful research prior to giving awards.

A major gift donor who is quiet and works as hard as a nonprofit’s staff members on a major gift campaign, for instance, may not be as visible or vocal as another volunteer. But they deserve the favor of your attention. Honoring the correct person means you may see more major gifts in future years, and potentially a sizable planned gift. But most of all, your nonprofit will be seen as having integrity, a trait our sector must continually cultivate.

Kudos to those nonprofits that have selected lesser-known but genuinely deserving award recipients, not because the honoree will fill seats at the fundraising gala because they are popular, nor because they will generate publicity, but quite simply because they deserve it.

Be sure to thoroughly vet those individuals, companies or groups you decide to honor at your nonprofit organization. The most appropriate award recipient may not be as obvious as you might think. Interview executive directors, development staff (top to bottom), Board members and volunteers, as well as civic leaders in the community at large prior to making such an important decision. Doing so will help ensure you make the right decision and that your nonprofit stands out from and above the rest.

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