Why awards really do make a difference

By Billy Gorter, TLC founder and executive director.
Tonight was another unforgettable night for TLC, spent at Australia’s Social Media Marketing Awards. We were already humbled and amazed that our campaign against domestic violence was shortlisted in two categories – Best Use of Facebook, and Best Social Good Campaign – competing directly against giant brands like KFC and projects we admire enormously like RUOK, the mental health campaign. When we actually won both categories, for a campaign powered by a video which cost $600, we were shellshocked.  Moments like this are, of course, very exciting – but if that’s all they were, we wouldn’t enter. The reason we enter is they can have an enormous positive impact on the work we do, reaching all the way to the communities we support.
 
Back in 2015, when we won the Stars Impact Award, we were still a very small NGO little known outside of “people in the know”. Winning secured a very valuable cash prize, greatly increased awareness of our work, and paved the way for new opportunities to win funding – all of which allowed us to help more Cambodians. It was a milestone which injected both the resources and the motivation to keep improving the services we were offering to communities.
 
Awards are also one way for an NGO to illustrate to potential donors who aren’t familiar with them that the work they do really is having an impact. There are tens of thousands of NGOs working across the developing world, and all of them claim to be transforming lives for the better. Many of them are but some are not, and some are even causing damage – but how does the average potential donor work out which is which? 
 
Really reputable and independently assessed awards are one way to help donors work out which organisations are making credible claims. To win the 2019 Grassroots Justice Prize, our work and its results had to be first scrutinised by experts, then confirmed by calling our referees, then assessed by an international team of judges, and finally voted for by thousands of members of the public. That is evidence that it isn’t just us saying that our work changes lives, but that thousands of people who know our work agree.
 
Perhaps most importantly, awards matter to our staff. We’ve said it many times, but as a grassroots NGO our team are our biggest asset. Yet many of our social workers and community workers do jobs which are difficult, stressful and rarely recognised or lauded by wider society. We can thank them ourselves (and we do!) but showing our staff the livestream of their work being presented onstage at the United Nations in New York as we won a global award was probably the single best way we could show our gratitude and recognise them for all they do. Seeing what is possible only motivates them to do even more.
 
These are the main reasons why we enter awards and why we encourage other NGOs to enter as well. Some respond that awards need a lot of time and resources, and that gives larger NGOs an unfair advantage. We don’t think the latter point is true – we were very small when we won the Stars Impact Award – but it does of course take some time. However, strategic NGOs which carefully monitor and evaluate their services will already have the information they need on why they undertook a project, what steps they took and what the results were. Crucially, you need to demonstrate how the project helped you achieve your objectives as an organisation. If you design projects or services with the intention of winning awards and not to achieve real change, this becomes very obvious to judges. 
 
We also sometimes hear a misconception that entering awards costs money, but in fact many of them are free to NGOs. The f0ur awards we have won so far this year were all free to enter. In fact, by winning a cash prize, awards actually directly added to our funding, as well as opening many doors for more fundraising.
 
One more benefit of winning awards is the opportunities it provides, the way it opens doorways that would otherwise have been closed. Tonight we will get to meet representatives from some of the most powerful brands in Australia, which can lead to fruitful future partnerships. As a result of winning the Grassroots Justice Prize we’ve been invited to take part in a global legal empowerment course in Europe, our costs covered. We couldn’t have afforded this before, but it has huge potential to help us improve the services we offer at the grassroots level.
 
Nothing will ever be more important to us than the work we do each day in Cambodian communities, the changes we see in families as they overcome adversity and begin to thrive, the joy of students and teachers at being part of a school which is now triumphing where once it was faltering. The greatest reward for our work is knowing we make a difference. Awards will never and should never be more important than that. But if they can help us to keep doing this work – and we have seen first hand that they can – then they are a lot more than just a nice desk ornament.

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