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Learn how to think about who community champions really are, how to recognize them for their work, and why it's important to acknowledge their contributions.


The annual meeting of the Human Resource Center (HRC) always accompanied a catered luncheon, presided over by the organization's director and the chair of its board. HRC was actually the community multi-service center, offering mental health and substance use counseling, parenting classes, programs for children at risk and teen offenders, and community and family mediation. Its director and staff had their fingers on the pulse of the town, and knew all the players among health and human service providers.

As the short, post-luncheon meeting drew to a close, the board chair announced that the last item of business would be the presentation of the Community Hero Award. The award, in its third year, was designated for "the person who, in the past year, has gone far beyond what was or could have been expected in contributing to the quality of life in our community." The previous winners had both been seen as excellent choices, directors of human service agencies who worked many more hours than they were paid for, attended and contributed to numberless committees and task forces, and made their influence felt throughout the region.

This year, the award was to be different, the board chair said, because it was going to a resident who had redefined community service. He was someone with a vision of a better place, a place where people helped one another and anyone else who needed help, where people cared about all their neighbors, not just those who looked or acted like them. More important, this person had acted on his vision, and pulled many others along with him, changing the way they thought and acted.

People started looking around the room, eventually settling their gazes on the minister of the Congregational Church, who was, himself, still clearly trying to figure out who this great leader was. When, in fact, the minister was named as the year's Community Hero, he simply refused to believe it. Although he had worked tirelessly, convincing his congregation to start a food bank, to open its heart and its building to the homeless, and to reach out to low-income families, he didn't see what he had done as either visionary or unusual. True community heroes seldom do.

When people - either in the course of their jobs, or in the course of their lives - enhance the well-being of the community, it's important to acknowledge their contributions in some way. This section will help you think about who community champions really are, and how you can recognize them for their work.

What is a community champion?

A community champion is anyone - a public official, a community leader, a concerned citizen, a health or human service worker, a volunteer - who works hard and well to start and/or support an initiative or intervention, to bring a program or idea to reality, or to otherwise improve the quality of life of a particular group or of the community as a whole. She might be a true community hero - an inspired visionary like the minister described above - or she might be the volunteer who's always there and willing to do whatever has to be done to keep things going.

Some community champions work directly with or for an organization or initiative. Others start movements or organize people or fight city hall on their own. Whatever they do, they think of the community before themselves: they're committed to making things better for everyone. Like the minister in the opening story, they rarely think of what they do as being unusual or praiseworthy. It's just part of their definition of being a good citizen.

Some real-life examples:

  • A group of college students began going into the worst neighborhoods of the nearby large city every evening, getting to know the homeless. They brought blankets and food, offered rides to shelters, and checked on those most at risk to make sure they were all right. They put themselves in difficult and sometimes dangerous situations night after night, making sure that people had something to eat and didn't freeze to death, simply because they thought it was the right thing to do.
  • After a teenager was beaten up by a gang of youths on his way home from school, his mother decided it was time to do something about the violence in the community. With phone calls and posters, she gathered 40 parents and teens at a meeting, and started a parent-teen discussion group about the issue. The original members reached out to others, and the founder - a working class woman who had only recently received her high school equivalency certificate - eventually got a grant that made it possible to continue and expand the organization. She had a lasting effect on the way people in the town viewed and approached violence of all kinds.
  • When a tree farm was in danger of development, a forester gathered together a small group and persuaded them to start a land trust to protect the thousand acres that had served the town for recreation and wildlife habitat for generations. The group was able to buy the land and then to convince the state to buy it back from them and designate it a conservation area. From this small beginning, the organization - with the founder as chair of the board and guiding spirit for over ten years - went on to buy, put into conservation easements, or otherwise protect over 100,000 acres in the region.
  • A woman hired to provide information about and referrals to health and human services in the community took the job to another level entirely. She became a tireless advocate for those who hadn't yet learned to advocate for themselves, never quitting till she could find an agency or program that would meet their needs. Cutting through red tape became her specialty, and she regularly worked until late in the evening, both in her office and at home, to find housing for the homeless, food for the hungry, or a safe and nurturing place for a pregnant teen who'd been thrown out of her parents' house.

Why honor community champions?

Besides the obvious - because they deserve it - and the self-serving - if we give them something, they'll keep doing what they're doing - there are many reasons to honor community champions.

  • Honoring a community champion creates an example for the rest of the community to follow. It emphasizes that community service is important, and, through the choice of whom to honor, makes it clear what community service means. It may inspire others to take on community service, and even become community champions themselves.
  • Honoring a community champion provides an occasion to highlight and explain community issues.
  • Honoring a community champion demonstrates that even one person can be an effective agent for change, and encourages democratic action.
  • Honoring a community champion makes not only that person, but others engaged in community service feel that they and their work are valued and appreciated. It helps, in that way, to stave off burnout, and to keep people going.
  • Honoring a community champion shows the community who the real heroes are. If a hero is someone who strives mightily and selflessly toward a goal that benefits many, rather than himself, the community champion certainly fits the description better than the sports figures, entertainers, and tycoons who so often are seen as heroes.
  • Honoring a community champion can help to prepare the community for future initiatives. It accentuates the need for ongoing work, and for more community champions.

If you make honoring a community champion a practice on a regular basis - annually, or even monthly - it keeps people thinking about community service all the time. It leads them to consider what is going on in the community, and who is doing work that deserves the award. It may plant the notion that they themselves should be more involved in the community as well.

The Orange Revitalization Association in the town of Orange, Massachusetts, instituted a Citizen of the Month award. Those chosen received only a certificate and a picture in the local paper, but the award served to draw attention to the work of the honorees. They ranged from active community volunteers to people who seemed to spend their every waking minute working for the betterment of residents' lives.

More to the point, because of the size of the town - 6,000 people - award recipients were known to everyone else. Each month, area citizens were presented with an example of what one of their neighbors was doing to benefit the community.

Who should honor community champions?

Who is in the position to designate someone a community champion? The answer is almost anyone in the community with some sort of following. Who makes the choice, however, will have a large effect on who is chosen. The Chamber of Commerce, for instance, is far less likely to honor someone who takes on the establishment to protect the rights or health of low-income or minority citizens than is a community human service coalition.

The Chamber of Commerce and other business and social organizations, as well as community institutions, honor their own champions all the time. Sometimes they're people who perform true community service, and sometimes they're just good business people, or people with a lot of power in the community, or people who've helped the presenting organization. The only way to make sure that your real heroes are recognized is to do it yourself.

Another possibility is to persuade others to do the formal recognition - issue the press release, present an award, etc. You might want to consider this possibility if your organization is seen as extreme by some in the community, or if you're definitely on one side of a major political or social split. If a party seen as neutral - perhaps the newspaper, or the YMCA - confers the honor, it might seem less biased than if you conferred it yourself.

There is, of course, a flip side to this scenario. If you want to make absolutely clear that the person being honored is someone whose work you support - and perhaps vice versa - then your group should make the appropriate announcement or presentation itself.

Some typical groups that honor community champions:

  • Health and human service agencies
  • Local coalitions or initiatives
  • Local, or local branches of state and national, advocacy organizations that focus on the disadvantaged, the environment, health and social issues, or other community concerns
  • United Way and other charitable organizations
  • Schools
  • Self-constituted citizen oversight or advocacy groups
  • Neighborhood associations

When should you honor community champions?

Although it's fine to honor a community champion at any time, the gesture will be more noticeable if it seems relevant to an event or announcement or accomplishment, or if it's expected. Given that, there are three types of situations when recognition of community champions is particularly fitting.

  • The achievement of a goal in which the champion has been deeply involved. The goal may be an endpoint, or just one of several on a long path to social change.
    • The reaching of a particular benchmark
    • The announcement of a new official policy, or of new funding
    • A clear change in attitude on the part of officials or the public
    • The successful completion of a project or initiative
  • Community champions are honored on a regular basis. As described above, this might be an annual, or even a monthly, award. It might also be part of an annual meeting or celebration. One coalition, at its annual luncheons, presented awards to several people who had made exceptional contributions to the community in the past year.
  • Special occasions. These often provide the perfect vehicle for showcasing the hard work and dedication of community champions. Some are ready-made, while others are natural occasions of celebration.
    • National issue days. Earth Day, National Literacy Day, Martin Luther King Day - these and many others present opportunities to praise those who work on the issues they represent.
    • The beginning or end of a fundraising or other community campaign. Local chapters of the United Way often hold kickoff dinners or receptions and celebrations when they reach their goals. These events generally feature people who have been particularly effective at doing community service work, or who have been exceptionally good at raising the money to support that work.
    • A public ceremony marking the beginning of something new, or the achievement of a goal. The opening of a new program or service, the groundbreaking for or opening of a new facility, or the formal dedication of a piece of forest or historic building that's been protected from destruction all afford chances to honor the community champion(s) who helped make the accomplishment possible.

How do you honor community champions?

Once you've decided to honor a community champion, what are you actually going to do? "Honoring" covers a lot of ground, from a simple public thank-you to a major gift and/or a public ceremony attended by hundreds of people. Below are some general guidelines for honoring a community champion, and some specific ways in which to do so.

General guidelines

Consider your resources

This is always an important step in planning anything. You'll need some or all of the following: space, money, time, people, food, materials and equipment, and skills (someone who can decorate a cake, for instance). What and how much you have access to will determine what you can actually do.

Determine your process for selecting and notifying honorees

Some groups call for nominations from their membership and establish formal selection procedures, including written applications. Others may leave the choice to a committee, or conduct informal polling of members, or simply find the decision makes itself. Another step you should consider: whether or not to notify the honoree before the celebration. Some organizations even give nominees a chance to accept or decline the nomination; the tone and character of your group will probably clarify your direction here. Whether or not your champion knows what's coming, you'll want to make sure he'll be present to receive the honor if there's a ceremony associated with it.

Involve the media

Whatever you choose to do, make sure the media are either notified - through a press release, usually - or that representatives of the media are there. The latter is always better, because then they can interview the honoree, talk or write about the issue, and generally convey more information.

The presence of the media serves a dual purpose: It lets the honoree know that her community service is important enough that the public should know about it, and can make her feel doubly appreciated (and perhaps doubly embarrassed as well). It also provides publicity for the work she's doing and for your organization.


Try to make the recognition as personal as possible. If you have some sort of ceremony, tell anecdotes about the person himself, or stories that illustrate his dedication to his work. Include those he cares about - family, close friends, colleagues - as an integral part of the recognition. Do everything you can to make it clear that it is the person you are honoring, not just the work.

Give them something

What you give doesn't have to be big or expensive, but it should be something that will allow the honoree to remember the recognition, and know that she and what she did were appreciated.

Record the occasion

Make a record of the proceedings in some way - photographs, video or audio recording, a guest book or journal - and make sure that the honoree gets a copy or the original.

Specific ideas

Here are some actions you can take or sponsor to honor your champion:

  • Issue a press release, detailing the person's contribution
  • Hold a press conference
  • Voice a public thank-you, at an organizational event, a community meeting or presentation, in a radio interview, etc. This should either be covered by the media or accompanied by a press release.
  • Publicize community champions and/or community champion awards on your website, Facebook, Twitter, etc.
  • Write or get published a newspaper article, an editorial focusing on the person 's contribution to the community, or a letter to the editor.
  • Present a small gift or award at a public event, such as an annual meeting. Gifts on such occasions are often symbolic of the person's work - an appropriately printed T-shirt, a miniature gavel, an item signed by people involved in the project - but could also be a book or other small item. A small award might be a framed, computer-generated certificate. In situations like this, several people might be honored at the same presentation.
  • Present a major, unique award or gift, where the presentation is either the reason for the event, or an important element of it. In this situation, an appropriate award would be an engraved plaque or an elaborate, nicely-framed, hand-lettered certificate. Gifts could be such things as an art-quality framed photograph or a weekend at a resort. Whatever the actual presentation consists of, the community champion and her contribution are the focus of and reason for the event, and the award is not one of a series, but one given specifically to honor its recipient and her work.

Other types of gifts a community champion might be offered, especially if the presenting organization doesn't have much money:

A day named in his honor by the city or state government. Local legislators often do this sort of thing for constituents. The city council or Legislature will issue a proclamation that "in recognition of his outstanding contributions to the town of Pennywell, June 12, 2002 be proclaimed Melvin Smith Day."

A room, program, building, or street named for the honoree.

  • Have a party.
  • Hold a roast. Gathering all of a community champion's colleagues, friends, and family in one place to make fun of him may seem an odd way to show respect and affection, but it is a time-honored method. In fact, such an event usually serves to showcase the best in the honoree's character, and gives everyone the chance to tell their treasured stories about him and his work.
  • Regularly schedule community champion awards - the annual "Community Hero " award described at the beginning of this section, for instance, or the Orange, Mass. "Citizen of the Month" award. Institutionalizing this type of award in community life both makes a statement about what's important in the community, and keeps the idea of public service in people's minds all the time.

If the award is annual, there might be several, rather than just one. There could be a few service awards and one "Citizen of the Year", or simply a number of awards for exemplary contributions.

  • Continue to honor community champions forever. You can introduce past award recipients at award ceremonies, continue to consult and enlist community champions in community work, and list past award recipients or important contributors to community efforts in press releases and stories, or on awards themselves. Give community champions a ring, a pin, or something else that they can wear or carry to identify them, so that "community champion" (or whatever you call it in your community) becomes like "Phi Beta Kappa" in identifying people as exceptional in a particular way.

The ideal is that the community champion designation is something that people can be rightly proud of. They can put it on their resumes, and have potential employers be impressed. If being a community champion is something everyone in the community aspires to, then you're on your way to becoming a truly healthy community, one where everyone is a community champion.

In Summary

Community champions are those who selflessly initiate and maintain the often difficult and frustrating work that sustains the psychological, physical, and social health of a community. Honoring them highlights not only their character and achievements, but the work they do and the issues they grapple with. It serves as inspiration and motivation to others to support their work, or to become community champions themselves.

Community champions might be honored by private or public organizations, by local, state, or federal officials or agencies, by churches and other institutions, by advocacy groups, by professional associations - in other words, by practically anyone who has an interest in calling attention to particular efforts. The best way to make sure your champions are honored is to do it yourself.

In general, honoring community champions is most appropriate either at the time that their efforts are realized - the opening of a new facility or service, the ceremony preserving a tract of land or a historic building, the signing of a bill into law - on a regular basis - annually, at an annual meeting of a coalition, for instance - or on special occasions related to the honoree's work - national commemorative days, for example. How you honor a community champion really depends upon your resources, your imagination, the honoree's work and personality, and your, or your organization's, relationship with her.

There are myriad ways to recognize a community champion's efforts - awards, gifts, public and private ceremonies, parties, roasts, annual or otherwise regular presentations - but the general guidelines are similar for all of them:

  • Consider (and stay within) your resources
  • Develop a process for selecting and notifying honorees
  • Involve the media
  • Personalize the event
  • Give the honoree something
  • Make a record of the occasion

If you make honoring (a) community champion(s) a regular event, you can keep the attention of the community on both the concept of community service and the specific issues that community champions wrestle with. If being a community champion becomes a goal for many in the community, resolving those community issues will be much easier in the long run.

Online Resources

Champions in Action is an innovative program launched in 2002 by Citizens Bank: Personal Finance and Online Banking and WMUR-TV to recognize and support nonprofit organizations that are making a difference in the community.

The Public Health Champion Award is presented by The California Wellness Foundation to community leaders around the state who were selected by their peers.

The insurance company Prudential engages in community outreach and involvement in several ways, under the umbrella term of Corporate Citizenship. This includes programs such as the Prudential Spirit of Community Awards, a global youth recognition program honoring secondary students for outstanding volunteer service; the Prudential CARES Volunteer Grants Program, which recognizes Prudential Financial active and retired associates and agents/affiliates who volunteer in their community and provides award moniesto organizations for which the winners serve as volunteers; the Prudential Foundation, which is an independent nonprofit grant-making organization funded by Prudential; Social Investments, which originates and manages investments designed to revitalize neighborhoods, and invests in projects that benefit communities around the country; and Local Initiatives, which coordinates volunteer efforts by Prudential associates and works to address needs in specific communities.