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Preparation is essential to be in with a chance of winning

Originally published: October 2017

Do you tend to leave award entries to the last minute, leaving you with little time to prepare or put pen to paper? For staff at small charities in particular, it’s easy to get caught up in everyday tasks with award entries cast to one side.

Aside from the potential glory, there are some real benefits to allocating time and resources to award entries. "Winning an award is a credible third-party endorsement of your hard work. It raises your profile and helps you reach new audiences through PR and marketing opportunities," explains Suzy Pettican, managing director of U.K.-based PR and awards consultancy Reflection PR. Plus it’s a great morale boost for employees, she adds.

Andrew Tapscott, director of The Awards Agency in the U.K., says that winning an award is a concrete seal of approval that demonstrates quality when pitching for new funding. "Awards success can give your organization an edge over the competition. But it’s not just winning that matters — even being shortlisted can give you a competitive advantage."

With this in mind, how should you prepare for and write a successful award entry?

1. Plan ahead - well before awards season

Gather your evidence for award entries, including statistics and testimonials, ahead of time. Get yourself into an awards mindset when planning your projects, advises Tapscott. "By following the basic structure of an awards submission (context, objectives, implementation, innovation and results) for all your campaigns, this will help you to complete a task effectively and then enter it for an award later on."

2. Be strategic and choose the right awards to enter

It's impossible to enter every award scheme out there, so how do you know which ones to focus on?

Kirsty Marrins, a judge for the U.K.-based Third Sector Awards in 2016 and 2017, says that charities should be strategic. "Entering and winning an award for a corporate partnership, for instance, will put you in a strong position when looking for future partners."

She also recommends looking objectively at previous winning entries to determine your best chance of beating the competition. "What some people think is a real achievement isn’t always an achievement. Be honest with yourself."

And choose a category that plays to your strengths, adds Pettican. "Consider your company values, successful projects you’ve worked on and what makes your charity unique before researching the most relevant awards to enter."

3. Collect some insight

Once you've identified the awards you'd like to enter, Tapscott recommends approaching the organizers, if possible, to find out what they’re looking for in a winning entry. "Also, look at the judge's comments from last year to find out why other organizations won an award and how you can do the same."

4. Give yourself enough time to prepare

It’s important to start well before the entry deadline: Melinda Leyshon, who writes award entries for nonprofit clients of the Australian-based Awards Agency, says leaving your submission to the last minute "adds pressure and limits the quality of the submission." Instead, she advises "breaking it down into bite-sized chunks" that you can work through bit by bit.

5. Map out your narrative

Before you commit pen to paper, Leyshon recommends creating a step-by-step writing plan for your entry. “Look at how you weave a consistent story through the submission while using the right evidence to answer the questions. This will help you to develop a submission structure."

Charities need a narrative that resonates, adds Leyshon. "You’re changing lives and effectively changing the world little by little. Tell your story: what are your struggles in doing this? Are they emotional, financial or resource-driven? What are your successes?"

6. Show impact

Tapscott says that charities need to show the benefits of a project to their stakeholders. "You can do this by backing up your claims with hard evidence, especially statistics and testimonials. Provide compelling before and after data, and quotes."

Marrins agrees, saying you need to demonstrate what you have achieved by including results of your work. "For example, if your project or campaign has an online element, explain how it has increased traffic to your website and impressions on social media."

FareShare (a U.K. charity which redistributes surplus food to charities and community groups) won Charity of the Year at the Third Sector Awards 2017. The organization always includes key statistics in its award entries, says partnerships officer Stephanie Clement, and backs these up with anecdotal evidence of impact, as well as video and photography where possible.

7. Provide the right information

You need to meet the judging criteria when putting together an entry, says Marrins. "Give the judges what they're looking for otherwise you won't be shortlisted."

And it may seem obvious but always answer the questions, adds On Road Media — joint winner of the Small Charity, Big Achiever category at the 2017 Third Sector Awards — which tackles social problems by improving media coverage of misrepresented groups.

8. Be collaborative

Show the judges how you’ve collaborated and worked with the rest of the charity sector, says FareShare’s Clement. She explains: "In award entries, we always mention how we've aimed to share our learning and bring others with us, as the judges want to see the added value the organization offers."

9. Capture the judges' attention with your writing style

Judges look through a lot of entries so you need to keep them interested, says Marrins. "Inject a bit of life into your writing; otherwise, award entries can all start to look the same," she explains. Pettican also suggests using snappy headlines throughout your entry and bullet points to keep copy concise.

Avoid using formal language, advises Leyshon. "A lot of people think they need to write an award entry in the same way you would a job application. Nothing could be further from the truth”, she explains. “Let your personality shine through. Be conversational and talk to the judges."

If your charity’s work is quite technical think carefully about the language you use in your entry. Steer clear of jargon and acronyms as not everyone will understand them. Clement says when entering FareShare for awards they "keep the language as simple and straightforward as possible" to "make for an easier read." Tapscott adds that charities should use plain English: "Make sure your entry is succinct and easy to understand."

10. Get a second pair of eyes

Check your entry before submitting it, as typos and grammatical errors can spoil a strong application. "Allow enough time to forward the entry to colleagues or a third party for proofreading," recommends Tapscott.

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