Just Awards?

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As a PR professional, I am charged with being a keeper of client reputation, and an evangelist for their “good works.” As a result, I am consistently on the lookout for opportunities that will allow my clients to shine-- which is probably why an announcement earlier this week about a new nonprofit “award” caught my eye. Blue Avocado and Nonprofit Online News have announced the winners of the first-ever “Just Awards,” one for Abominable Press Coverage of the Nonprofit Sector, and the other for Narcissism in Philanthropy. The panel of judges chose the Rockefeller Foundation, citing the overwhelming and relentless promotion of its president, Judith Rodin for the Narcissism in Philanthropy Award and Stephanie Strom of The New York Times received the Abominable Press Coverage Award for her November 2009 article "Charities Rise, Costing U.S. Billions in Tax Breaks."

I won’t go into all of the nuanced reasons for their selections (if you are interested, you can read more here), but I do want to play devil’s advocate for a moment, and explore some of questions that were running through my mind while reading about their selections:

Is there such a thing as too much promotion of an organization and its leaders? I primarily work with nonprofit and philanthropic leaders, helping them to share their expertise, and advance causes. The end goal is promoting the greater good, something I believe we could use more of. Considering Ms. Rodin’s “win,” it seems there are those who believe there is such a thing as too much promotion. But at what point is that line of appropriate promotion crossed? When does one go from being a passionate advocate to overwhelming and relentless? The judges based Ms. Rodin’s selection on number of press mentions, but can narcissism really be determined by quantity of media coverage? In my mind the issue comes down to quality of coverage, and how people are using their visibility, not quantity (e.g. seeking coverage of 50 check presentations feels very different than providing the same number of expert comments on a topic core to mission).

Does the media understand the nonprofit sector? While recognizing Stephanie Strom as a very good reporter, the judges felt this story was the "worst story of the year" and that lack of research led to bad journalism. As one of nation’s most high profile philanthropy reporters, Stephanie Strom feels like a natural target for this award. While I believe she does understand the sector quite well, the problems that the judges identified with this story may be more reflective of a larger issue pertaining to how the media covers nonprofits. The fact that the judges selected "all of journalism" as runner up for recent ACORN coverage underscores that there may be greater issues at play, and that perhaps we should be doing more to help the media better understand the sector.

I realize the Just Awards are “tongue-in-cheek,” much like the Razzies and the Ig Nobel Prizes, and believe there certainly is a place for such awards within the nonprofit sector. I just hope that those who are reading about this year’s “winners” understand and reflect upon the true intentions of these awards. As stated on the Just Awards web site: “Some awards of this nature are just for fun. Others are intended to help make change. The Just Awards will be both.”