Stained by Sterling: NAACP Misstep Shows Need for Care in Award Selection

The Los Angeles chapter of the NAACP found itself in a sticky situation when it had to revoke an award it planned to give to embattled Los Angeles Clippers owner Donald Sterling. The right criteria and  a thorough selection process can ensure you steer clear of prize pitfalls.

At its annual gala next week, the Los Angeles chapter of the NAACP had planned to honor Los Angeles Clippers owner Donald Sterling with a second lifetime achievement award. But then recordings emerged revealing racist comments by Sterling, and the NAACP had to backpedal on the award. A few days later, the chapter president resigned.

“Please be advised that the legacy, history, and reputation of the NAACP is more important to me than the presidency,” departing president Leon Jenkins said, according to a statement released by the national organization. “In order to separate the Los Angeles NAACP and the NAACP from the negative exposure I have caused the NAACP, I respectfully resign my position as President of the Los Angeles NAACP.”

The national group followed Jenkins’ statement by saying that it was developing guidelines to help its local chapters in their award selection processes.

“I’m a big proponent of having very clear policies and procedures, because those are your roadmap. They really do help guide you through difficult situations that you might encounter,” said Louise Ristau, CAE, executive director of the Awards and Recognition Association.

Developing the criteria for an awards program is one of the first things an organization should do when putting the program together, she said.

“Identify what it is you are looking for in a person that you’re going to present this award to. Is it their achievements? Is it their dedication to the organization? Also, depending on the organization and the type of award that it is, you may want to vet that person and do some research and get some references.”

Award selection should almost look like choosing a candidate for a job, she added. “Ask things like, ‘Is this person a member of the association?’ and ‘Have they been a supporter of some aspect of the organization?’ It’s identifying what qualities the recipient of that award should embody. When you have that in place, I think it would be difficult to make a mistake.”

Transparency is key, said Ristau. “What you don’t want is your membership thinking that it’s some kind of club or just handpicking people,” she said. “A transparent process let’s them know that the person who’s receiving the award really speaks to what that award means.”

Even with solid processes in place, a situation may arise where the award recipient does or says something that violates everything the award stands for, as Sterling did.

“You should have a policy in place for how you would handle something like that,” Ristau said. “Ultimately, I think it comes down to the board of directors making that decision. The awards represent the brand of the organization, and so if you feel that it would damage your brand, you need to make a decision on how to handle that.”

(Associations Now illustration)

Rob Stott

By Rob Stott

Rob Stott is a contributing editor for Associations Now. MORE

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