The way in which nonprofit organizations select award recipients and those whom they wish to honor at events like fundraising banquets is not discussed often. Although it seems simple, and we assume those who are honored deserve those honors, you might be surprised. Guidance is truly needed. I hope more nonprofit leaders with experience in such matters will rise to the occasion and fill the knowledge gap.
Although most awards are undoubtedly properly given, I have seen more than one nonprofit organization select award recipients not based on who truly deserves recognition for outstanding volunteer service or for making a life-changing financial commitment, but rather based on who will provide them with publicity and potential future donations.
And sadly, I have witnessed first-hand 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, or 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 to them). 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 that you decide to honor at your nonprofit organization. The most appropriate award recipient may not be as obvious as you might think. Interview your executive director, development staff (top to bottom), your Board and fellow volunteers, as well as civic leaders prior to making such an important decision. Doing so will help ensure you make the right decision, and that your nonprofit stands out from the rest.