Martin Edwards: Give your charity a fighting chance in awards season

As a seasoned awards judge, I see plenty of organisations repeating the same mistakes - here is a list of things to avoid

Martin Edwards
Martin Edwards

Over the years I have been a judge on several charity award schemes. If you plan to put yourself up for an award – or if you are going to be a judge – here is some advice.

Many entries don’t even answer all the questions on the nomination form, immediately weakening their case. However, the more common mistake is for a charity to describe what it does normally and how good it is at it. This should be a given: it’s what your charity is expected to do.

Judges are looking for the exceptional. What was daring or different? In what way have you redefined your mission, broken new ground, challenged orthodoxy, transformed your service reach or led campaigns that had effects far beyond your own beneficiaries? If you haven’t achieved the above, it might not be the right time for you to enter.

Once you have something to shout about, put your best writer onto producing the nomination. All too often, applications are a random stodge of words such as "evidence-based", "partnerships", "pathways", "sustainability", "representation", "consultation" and "evaluation". Some people even evaluate their consultation pathways.

All that is worthy, but dull on the page. Your words should jump off the page, focusing on need, innovation and transformation.

If you are shortlisted to see the judges, don’t send one person to fend for themself. Send your best team, which is not necessarily your top team. Make sure, if possible, that the voice of the service user is heard. This is difficult if you’re saving gorillas, but use your imagination.

And finally, for contestants: if you win, great, but have a plan for how you will use your win. It’s a platform, so use it to attract coverage, new supporters and funders to your cause.

I have three pieces of advice for judges. First, do your preparation: set aside enough time to consider thoroughly all the examples of excellence before you. Second, be ready to compromise on judging day: not every one of your passionate picks will be a winner.

The third is a cautionary tale. A few years ago I was a judge on a regional awards panel. I decided to attend the awards dinner, but was horrified when I saw the table plan.

Every other judge was on table 1. I was on table 28, which was fine, except that everyone else on my table was a nominee, and I knew that none of them had won an award. It was like the scene in Four Weddings and a Funeral where Hugh Grant realises he has been placed on a table consisting entirely of his ex-girlfriends.

They didn’t know that they hadn’t won, of course: they arrived in a state of high excitement. It didn’t last. Vomiting Veronica from Four Weddings wasn’t on my table, but the atmosphere turned queasy as the evening wore on.

One by one their hopes turned to dust. By the end I had perfected my sympathetic expression and words of encouragement for next year. Nobody gave me their business card as they left.

The truth is, of course, that it’s a big achievement to be a finalist, and you can still use it to gain momentum for your charity. Maybe they realised that the morning after.

Martin Edwards is chief executive of Julia’s House, which runs children's hospices in Wiltshire and Dorset

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