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In the Spring of 2002, Caroline MacGillivray was working at a temp job to pay the bills when her cell phone rang with some exciting news.

As the founder of Beauty Night Society, a nonprofit that that provides makeovers, life skills programming and fitness services to women in Vancouver's Downtown Eastside, MacGillivray learned she had received a national Flare Volunteer Award.

"I just wanted to scream and jump up and down because I was very excited," she recalls of the special moment.

The magazine flew her to Toronto that May for a photo shoot and awards ceremony, where she was recognized for her countless unpaid hours organizing Beauty Night, as well as for her volunteer work with Vancouver's WISH drop-in centre.

At the time, MacGillivray was planning to launch Beauty Night in Victoria, BC and Prince George, BC, but once she found herself in Toronto she extended her stay and began making phone calls about a possible east coast chapter of her nonprofit. By December 2002, Beauty Night had debuted in Toronto.

"Because of the award, it was easier for me to start Beauty Night [in Toronto] than it was at the beginning," she says. "Having the recognition through the award made it a lot simpler to expand, which was really great."

Not to mention the national deluge of media attention, offers of help from volunteers and donation inquiries that propelled the small nonprofit (which didn't have charitable status at the time) to step up its game.

"After winning the award, it was like an avalanche in some ways," she says. "People wanted to get involved, they wanted to help. It was almost overwhelming. People just wanted to be part of it and we weren't quite ready for it yet. We had to get ready fast."

As the 2011 awards season begins, nonprofits are starting to apply for a multitude of prizes to receive recognition, raise awareness, leverage funding opportunities or network with their peers. While there are many meaningful local, provincial and online awards available, CharityVillage® spoke with award recipients and awarding organizations specifically about the value of national awards in Canada.

The honour of recognition

We all like being appreciated, and nonprofits are no different. One of the joys of receiving a national award is the honour of being recognized as a top organization in Canada.

In 2009, Heritage Canada Foundation granted the Vancouver Heritage Foundation with a national achievement award. For Diane Switzer, the organization's executive director, it was an extremely meaningful and proud moment.

"It was a terrific affirmation of the work we've done over the past decade," she says. "It was the first realization we had made an impact and we had succeeded in our early goals. To get that national recognition, it just gave us the confidence that we had made it."

The pride of recognition isn't simply a pleasure for those who receive awards — it's also a key reason why awarding organizations give them in the first place.

The Donner Awards, Canada's largest nonprofit recognition program, has rewarded organizations for more than a dozen years and believes it's critical to recognize them nationally for their accomplishments.

Niels Veldhuis, vice president of Canadian policy research at the Fraser Institute (which administers the Donner Awards), says that attending the awards ceremony is a remarkable experience.

"The first time I went I was completely blown away," he says. "All of these people are there in part because of the passion that they hold for what they're doing. When they're nationally recognized, I've seen people cry, I've seen people high five, I've seen people jump up and down. It's just an extremely emotional event when these organizations win."

Putting yourself on the map

Whether an organization is large or small, a national award can draw attention throughout Canada to the needs of its community.

Every year, YWCAs across the country honour inspiring women in a variety of sectors through their Women of Distinction Awards program. At YWCA Vancouver, Events Manager Anne Sashikata has seen a spike in nominations in the Non-Profit and Public Service category, doubling from seven nominations in 2007 to 14 in 2010.

"Some nonprofits like to use the award to raise awareness about their organization and bring attention to the cause or the issue that they support," she says.

MacGillivray, whose nonprofit was unheard of beyond BC before she received recognition from Flare, says awards tell people about an organization's work and how they can help.

"Having an award actually shines light on the work that you're doing," she says.

At Vancouver's Broadway Youth Resource Centre, the board room is littered with certificates, medals and awards. The organization has received more than a dozen awards since 2001, but one of the most impactful was a national award from Eva's Initiatives in 2006.

"It's my belief that when you get acknowledgement and recognition from others, people start to pay attention to you," says Robert Wilmot, the nonprofit's manager. "When that happens, you get publicity and hopefully, you also then get support in-kind, donations and funders, who want to be associated with winning organizations."

A chance to leverage funding, grants or partnerships

Receiving a national award confers trust and reliability upon nonprofit organizations, which makes them more attractive to donors and funders.

"It's really a jumping off point for a lot of organizations who want to further other projects," says Daria Locke, communications and new media coordinator of the Heritage Canada Foundation. "So you've got one national award under your belt, and that gives you more credibility."

Diane Switzer points out that the Vancouver Heritage Foundation's achievement award allowed them to develop partnerships with levels of government and businesses.

"It gave us a certain level of assurance that we could then kickstart ourselves onto the next level," she says. "It gave us confidence to go to people like the Province of British Columbia and the Real Estate Foundation and seek funding."

Imagine Canada, which administers the Canadian Business & Community Partnership Awards, has seen relationships grow and improve between nonprofits and businesses who have received an award.

"We're seeing a deepening of relationships and engagement," says Mike Meadows, Imagine Canada's senior manager of corporate citizenship.

And Robert Wilmot mentions his national Eva's award on almost every single grant application.

"When I write a proposal to funders, I say that these are the kinds of awards that we have won," he says, "and when you give us money you are contributing to a successful organization that has been recognized by its peers and by others as an organization that does good work."

A chance to receive feedback

Some awards programs provide feedback to every single applicant, such as the Donner Awards. It gives each nonprofit a detailed performance report that assesses how they stack up to other organizations in a variety of metrics, including finances, management, governance, use of staff time and deployment of volunteers.

"If an organization wants to get a measure of where they are relative to their peers, if they want to grow, then this really provides organizations with sort of a leading light in terms of how you should run a nonprofit organization," says Veldhuis.

A great networking opportunity

At many awards ceremonies there's an extremely high caliber of bright, creative and inspiring people, producing the perfect opportunity for organizations to network and learn from one another.

"The winners get to meet, share ideas and talk about issues," says Veldhuis. "It's interesting because a lot of them obviously come from different fields within the nonprofit sector, so they get a lot of benefit out of sharing ideas or sharing problems, whether they're similar or different."

Some awards also have an alumni networking program that extends well beyond the event night itself, such as the Kaiser Foundation, which has a group for recipients of its National Awards for Excellence Program.

"For all the recipients of the awards, the focus is really to engage the alumni and have a forum where they can come together and talk about their own opportunities or challenges in the field," says Deborah Tucker, executive director of the Kaiser Foundation. "They can share these best practices amongst each other and learn from each other."

Toronto-based Eva's Initiatives has a national learning committee on youth homelessness for award recipients that includes a staff exchange. Through this program, Robert Wilmot had the chance to visit housing agencies in Nova Scotia, Newfoundland, Quebec and Ontario and brought what he learned back to his home province.

He used this knowledge to transition his organization from helping youth find housing to operating housing itself, with 100 units now in East Vancouver and more on the way.

"That gave me the opportunity to go from just working with good youth-serving organizations in Vancouver to working with some good organizations nationally," he says.

Even though there are a multitude of benefits that arise from winning awards, the primary motivation for most nonprofits is the pure satisfaction of helping others and making a difference.

"Having an award, obviously it's a huge honour," says Caroline MacGillivray. "But I do this because I enjoy it. It makes me happy and that's why I do what I do."

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Sondi Bruner is a Vancouver-based freelance journalist and holistic nutrition student. Find out more about her writing services at, and explore vegetarian, gluten-free and dairy-free recipes on her food blog, The Copycat Cook.

Please note: While we ensure that all links and e-mail addresses are accurate at their publishing date, the quick-changing nature of the web means that some links to other web sites and e-mail addresses may no longer be accurate.

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