Inside Politics

FLASHBACK: What's in a name? When it includes "Prime Minister", maybe too much.

NOTE: As Prime Minister Stephen Harper prepares to honour the first recipients of the inaugural Prime Minister's Volunteer Awards, I thought it was worth taking a trip down focus group memory lane. This post was first published on July 26, 2011. 

With the first round of the newly-created Prime Minister's Awards for Volunteerism slated to be handed out later this fall, it's no surprise that the government would want to make sure that the program -- which was announced by the PM in the 2010 Speech from the Throne -- would garner widespread public support.

Given that goal, one can only imagine the awkward silence that greeted this report from Harris Decima, which was brought on board by Human Resources Development Canada last fall to find out how Canadians would respond to the communications materials prepared for the initial call for nominations. 

The firm conducted focus groups in three cities -- Halifax, Montreal and Vancouver -- last November, with 89 participants in total, including both volunteers and non-volunteers, as well as representatives from non-profit and social organizations and "managers or decision-makers in small and medium-sized businesses."

The verdict?

Cautious, if consistent thumbs up for the notion of honouring Canada's volunteers -- but a fairly conclusive thumbs down on the decision to brand the award with the Prime Ministerial moniker:

The majority of participants opposed the reference to "Prime Minister" in the 2011 Prime Minister's Volunteer Awards or the 2011 Prime Minister's Awards for Everyday Heroes. They were uncomfortable with the notion that through the reference to "Prime Minister" there was the possibility that the awards might be perceived to be political in nature. These feelings were mostly expressed in Montreal and Vancouver, and somewhat less in Halifax.

Not-for-profit organizations shared particularly strong feelings about this issue. They were concerned that their chances of being awarded would be related to the importance placed on their area of work by the government of the day.

Only a handful of participants thought that the term "Prime Minister" conveyed a sense of prestige to the award. Among these participants, it was viewed positively.

A few participants in every group suggested replacing the "Prime Minister's Awards" with the "Government of Canada's Awards" or "Canada's Awards". However, participants did not oppose the idea of the Prime Minister presenting the awards.


As for the awards themselves, while the general reaction to the initiative was "very positive," the response to the specifics -- particularly the categories and eligibilities -- was slightly more cautious:

The names of the award categories were perceived as ambiguous, specifically when it comes to who these awards are for. Most participants had difficulty thinking of who would be included in each category (including people they know). Specifically, the award categories were not seen as relevant to the concept of awarding everyday volunteers.

When thinking of Community Leaders, participants typically cited leaders of large not-for-profit organizations, celebrity endorsers or mayors (e.g. Dr. Julien, John Furlong). As for Social Innovators, participants had difficulty either understanding the term or thinking of specific examples. Some mentioned a social innovator could be an individual or organization that has come up with a new and innovative way to help the community.

According to participants, Business Leaders can be involved in their community and make a difference in many ways but there is often some incentive for them (promotion, marketing, sales etc.). They don't tend to view Business Leaders as true volunteers or everyday volunteers.

Participants often recommended removing the award categories and providing detailed information on the website instead to avoid confusion.

The two national awards raised comments about the fact that 35 to 54 year olds were left out of the possibility of winning such an honour. Further, very few knew who Thérèse Casgrain was or why there is an award in her name. For them, it begged more questions than providing information.

Finally, participants wondered whether the entire country would be covered in the five regions represented.


A quick scan of the final eligibility requirements reveals that the anonymous participants' collective advice on the two national awards was eventually heeded by the powers that be at PMO - neither the Lifelong Achievement or Emerging Leader Awards are restricted by age, but simply require that nominees have more than twenty, or fewer than three years volunteer experience. 

Despite the confusion expressed in the focus groups, however, the subcategory designations remain unchanged -- as, of course, does the presence of the prime ministerial title in the name of the program itself. 


Tags: blackberry jungle, if polls are for dogs what are focus groups for?, prime minister's awards for volunteerism, public opinion research depository

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