Alex Beall is a freelance writer based in California.
Associations have always used their awards programs to drive engagement, increase member loyalty, and generate nondues revenue. But as member demographics change, associations are discovering the need to adjust and evolve their awards programs as well.
Often, awards programs are deeply ingrained in the tradition of an association—from the format of the ceremony to the awards being presented. And with such a legacy, associations may be slow to overhaul existing programs or to launch completely new ones.
But as associations make moves to evolve with their members’ shifting values, preferences, and demographics, their awards programs often need to change as well.
From revamping or expanding existing programs to introducing new formats or awards, here’s how four associations took steps to boost member engagement, ceremony attendance, and recognition of young professionals.
For more than 20 years, the Association of Proposal Management Professionals (APMP) has run a successful awards program that celebrates both chapters and individuals later in their careers. Staff decided it was time to build on that program.
To do so, the association introduced a 40 Under 40 program to the APMP Awards in 2017 as a way to engage and recognize professionals in earlier stages of their careers.
“For us to create a vehicle by which some of these young professionals can be celebrated for what they do and what they have accomplished thus far, we like to think that not only encourages additional participation in the association, but also encourages them to stick around and make this a full-on career,” APMP Vice President of Business Development and Operations Christina Lewellen says.
In selecting the 40 individuals, APMP kept the criteria loose, instructing judges to “just look for the folks with a really great story to tell,” Lewellen says, “because not only do we celebrate the fact that they stepped outside of the traditional in order to do something different and make their mark on the profession, even relatively young, but also telling their story to other people allows us to spark some ideas.”
In addition to an awards ceremony, a new webpage on APMP’s website highlighted the winners and included three points about why they were selected. “We wanted to make sure they were connected as a group so they could also leverage each other as peers and as a new network for each other,” Lewellen says.
Winners and their organizations also began sharing the page in social media, which helped APMP gain traction around the program and its annual conference—where the ceremony takes place—as well as more deeply engage these younger members.
“There’s no silver bullet to getting the next generation of professional people involved in your association, but I do think that having the awards program is a little bit of the icing on the cake,” Lewellen says. “We all want recognition, and the fact that we do it is encouraging not only to those who won, but to those who are going to go out for it this coming year and the following year.”
Unlike more traditional awards programs, the Experimental Aircraft Association (EAA) has historically run competitions to address particular issues in aviation. Two years ago, it launched a new competition aimed at reducing fatal accidents.
“We recognized EAA and its community of experimental, homebuilt aircraft has a long history and legacy of innovating and coming up with solutions much faster than anything in the certified world because of the freedoms that we enjoy in the experimental side of certification,” says EAA Vice President of Advocacy and Safety Sean Elliot. “So we wanted to bring our community to bear on this problem and challenge them to really look at innovative solutions to help curtail loss-of-control fatal accidents.”
The new Founders Innovation Prize awards cash to the top three finalists: $25,000, $10,000, and $5,000, respectively. A panel of judges selects the three winners from among five finalists—chosen through an application process—who present their ideas during EAA’s Air Venture meeting.
The competition has drawn applications from high school students—who won in 2017—to astronauts and PhDs.
“The biggest benefit is you’ve got a wide breadth of technical expertise from multiple angles that really challenges the status quo and provides the best opportunity for those who are the most innovative,” Elliot says.
EAA decided to use an open judging format, modeled after the TV show Shark Tank, to generate interest in the prize and boost interaction between contestants and judges. In addition, EAA members were invited to attend the presentations and could participate by asking questions and responding to polls through a texting-based system.
“It’s a means of really engaging the rest of our membership who have an interest in a way that I don’t think a standard judging format would allow,” Elliot says.
To continue evolving the event, the fifth annual Founders Innovation Prize will feature past winners and participants who will be judged on the implementation of their ideas.
With one of its award programs, the Entrepreneurs Organization seeks to engage college students.
For 11 years, EO has hosted the Global Student Entrepreneur Awards to recognize university students who have started their own businesses. Unlike other youth entrepreneur contests, GSEA is not a business pitch contest, but instead focuses on the individual.
“This is about the students and about the mentorship opportunities and the connections with our EO members and with the other students that are competing, and so we really want to make sure that we give them that opportunity in person to tell their story,” GSEA Director Chelsea Dennison says.
EO employs an open judging format, requiring students to present their stories and businesses in front of the judges. While it allows the students to more fully share about themselves, it also increases the level of engagement they have with EO.
“Having the ability to create these positive experiences for them during this program will only benefit us later as their businesses grow and they remember EO,” Dennison says. “They’re very far from our membership categories at this point, but it’s our way of being part of that youth entrepreneurship community at this stage.”
In recent years, EO has worked to expand the program to new audiences and new countries through partnerships with similar organizations. It also introduced various panel discussions to its awards dinner to build greater momentum around GSEA.
One panel featured past participants and winners who are now EO members, allowing them to share their entrepreneurship journey, how GSEA helped them grow their businesses and network, and why they became EO members. Another panel featured that year’s finalists, who shared their story again with audience members who may not have attended the presentations.
Dennison says incorporating these panels into the dinner builds a connection between the students and the organization, as well as gives the students an additional platform to share their experience. “It’s not just the Oscars, where we say here’s what everyone won,” Dennison says. “It’s why are they winning, who they are, and we bring it back to remember this is about the students.”
The Textbook and Academic Authors Association holds its awards ceremony in coordination with its annual conference each year, but TAA has adjusted and readjusted its structure and timing to maximize meeting attendance.
The awards have changed from an evening dinner—which was expensive and scantly attended—to a more highly attended but still expensive luncheon, to its current format: an afternoon ceremony and reception.
Director of Publishing and Operations Kim Pawlak says the ceremony takes place 15 minutes after the last conference session. “The benefit of structuring it this way is that you are capturing your audience, and you’re making it so that they’re not going to leave and go up to their room,” she says.
Last year, TAA implemented a new tactic to draw an even larger audience to the ceremony. Once attendees left their sessions and entered the lobby, they were handed a signature cocktail in a champagne glass, which encouraged them to linger and mingle. This then gave staff an opportunity to usher them into the ceremony. As a result, the room filled up with attendees, ensuring that award winners were recognized in front of their peers.
“You can tell people to stay, but they’re not going to listen to you,” Pawlak says. “So having that thing that keeps them is what worked.”
After finding success with this tactic, TAA plans to replicate the refreshments break at future venues to continue driving awards ceremony attendance.