Golden Myths

February 1, 2016, Department, by Mike Abbaté and MaryBeth Thaman

Dispeling several of the myths that have grown up around the Gold Medal Award.A myth: An idea or story that is believed by many people but that is not true. 

— Merriam Webster Dictionary

The National Gold Medal Award Program distinguishes the best of the best in the park and recreation profession, and the Gold Medal for Park and Recreation Management is the highest award you can achieve for your agency. It is available through a partnership between NRPA and the American Academy for Park and Recreation Administration (Academy). Applying for the Gold Medal provides your agency with opportunities to chronicle your successes in your various program areas, management structure, fiscal responsibility and service, while celebrating the innovative and creative approaches you use to solve day-to-day challenges in your community.  

During the past three years, almost 200 municipal, county or special district agencies have applied to compete in five population categories:


  • Class V — 30,000 or less
  • Class IV — 30,001–75,000
  • Class III — 75,001–150,000
  • Class II —150,001–400,000
  • Class I — 400,001 and over


NRPA and the Academy encourages agencies interested in pursuing this award to visit Gold Medal Award webpage and reach out to other Gold Medal-winning agencies in their state or region (click here for the list of past winners). You can also access an archived recording of the February 3 Live Chat about the Gold Medal.

The Gold Medal Award, established in 1967, has a long and prestigious history. But, like anything that lasts, myths have grown up during the past 49 years of success. Here are a few you may have heard, and the real, straight-up truth. 


Myth 1: You cannot win the Gold Medal on the first try

As the Director of Portland, Oregon Parks and Recreation, Mike Abbaté had heard this myth, and so was content to be named a finalist in 2011. Imagine his surprise when Portland’s small delegation to the NRPA Congress in Atlanta was called to the stage as the Class I Winner! It turns out that Portland’s story is not unique. In the past five years, more than 11 percent of all winners have been first-time applicants. So, don’t let your inexperience or lack of previous awards discourage you — this could be YOUR year!

Myth 2: You have to be a special district to win

Special Parks Districts are often seen as the Gold Standard of park and recreation providers. After all, they have their own elected officials, taxing authority and independence. In truth, there is much to be said about the benefits of being a park district. However, this does not necessarily translate to winning the NRPA Gold Medal. In the past five years, more than 90 percent of all winners have NOT been special districts — they have been municipal departments, bureaus or divisions of a city or county government. So, the Gold Medal is for everyone. If you are not a special district, don’t count yourself out!

Myth 3: You must be from an affluent community to win

With the statistical data required from applicants, judges have at their disposal several important pieces of information. They know the amount of funds allocated per capita in a particular jurisdiction. They also know the median income of the community. They have the total acres of parks, the numbers of facilities and the total employee count for each applying agency. All of this is helpful information when profiling and understanding the agency.  

The judges evaluate each applicant based on a few broad principles: their demonstrated overall management effectiveness, the spectrum of programs offered, consistency of agency operations with an adopted public plan or policy, and engagement of the local community in park and recreation decision making. These considerations and evaluations are made regardless of the median income of the community and/or size. In fact, for less-affluent communities, judges factor in successful demonstration of the agency’s ability to “do more with less.” In other words, the specific evaluation questions have no relation to the wealth of a community.

The reality is that in the past three years, 33 percent of winners have had a Community Median Household Income of less than $60,000, with the average being $71,000. So, whether your community is affluent, poor or in the middle, showing in your application that your team delivers well-managed services to your residents is what’s important.

Myth 4: There is favoritism in the judging — you need to know a judge, have recently retired or be from a certain state

The five sitting judges each year are reflective of the diversity of the profession, communities of various sizes, geographic regions, gender and ethnicity. NRPA and the Academy are committed to ensuring that the judging process is completely objective and fair for all. The table below is a breakdown of the 2016 panel of judges.

Judges volunteer to spend between 50 and 100 hours each year evaluating applications and ensuring that the process is fair and accurate. Each judge is committed to make rankings and recommendations fairly and without prejudice or favoritism. With each applicant, judges disclose any past relationship with the applying agency and its staff, and recuse themselves where the integrity of the Gold Medal program could be jeopardized by their past knowledge.


Beyond the myths, here are a few facts that might help convince you that your agency should apply this year:

1.     The process of preparing an application will bring your team together, regardless the outcome.

2.     The process of applying helps you see where there may be gaps in your agency and cause you to become better in the process.

3.     If you are selected as a finalist, it means you are one of the four best park systems for a community of your size. This type of affirmation from an unbiased panel can unite staff and give them great pride!

4.     If you are selected as a finalist, it helps you better tell the story of your agency’s value to your community, elected officials and partners.

5.     If you are declared the Grand Award Winner, you will be recognized across the country, and more importantly, your efforts will be an immense source of pride for your citizens, elected leaders, media and staff!


Mike Abbaté is Director of the Portland, Oregon, Parks and Recreation Department and 2016 Gold Medal Head Judge. Mary Beth Thaman is Director of the City of Kettering, Ohio, Parks, Recreation and Cultural Arts Department and Gold Medal Committee Chair-Elect.