The National Gold Medal Award Program for Excellence

January 1, 2016, Department, by Mike Abbaté, Mary Beth Thaman

The Gold Medal Award honors communities of all sizes throughout the country that demonstrate excellence in long-range planning, resource management and innovative and creative approaches to designing and delivering superb park and recreation services through fiscally sound business practices.  The Gold Medal Award includes seven classes: five by population, one class for Armed Forces Recreation and one for State Parks Systems (in odd-numbered years). The Gold Medal Award is a program of the American Academy for Park and Recreation Administration (Academy) in partnership with NRPA and sponsored by MUSCO Lighting.

There are four strong benefits for an agency to embark on the Gold Medal journey. First is the opportunity for an agency to chronicle successes through a very thoughtful and thorough process. Second, it encourages an agency to review, assess and identify the strengths of its organization in various program, management, fiscal and service categories. Third, it inspires an agency to frame its innovative and creative approaches in solving day-to-day challenges in the community while creating amazing experiences for customers. Finally, the process boosts an agency’s networking capabilities through the exchange of valuable management resource information with other applicants and creates an avenue to share best practices. 

If an applying agency is selected as a Gold Medal finalist, it signifies that the agency is one of the four best in the country, providing “bragging rights” for citizens, staff members and elected officials while acknowledging the phenomenal services the agency provides to the public. Receiving the Gold Medal Grand Plaque Award is the pinnacle for any agency to attain, regardless of size, state, agency budget or government status.

How Much Competition Exists?

To ensure fairness and a level playing field in the assessment of parks system applications, the Gold Medal process evaluates systems of comparable size with one another.  The five classes for municipal, county or special district parks providers are based on population as follows:


  • Class V30,000 or less
  • Class IV30,001 to 75,000
  • Class III 75,001 to 150,000
  • Class II150,001 to 400,000
  • Class I400,001 and over


During the past three years, an average of 60 total completed applications have been received. The goal is to increase the number of applications as the prestige and notoriety of the award grows. There are far more than 60 agencies around the country that are doing exceptional work! Increased participation in the Gold Medal program can help publicize both the importance and extent of excellent park and recreation systems.

The amount of competition varies each year within each class. In 2015, nine applications in Class I, eight in Class II, and 11 in Classes III, IV, and V were received. No two years are alike, so both the number and quality of applications are impossible to predict.

Judging Process

A panel of five park and recreation professionals review and judge all application materials. Judges are chosen for their considerable experience and knowledge in parks and recreation on both local and national levels. The judging panel is geographically and ethnically diverse, and represents the spectrum of small, medium and large park and recreation systems.

The judging and selection process is straightforward and consists of six basic steps:


  • Applications are submitted and compiled for judges.
  • Round 1 scoring: Judges individually review and score all applications, ranking them within each class. Scores are submitted individually by each judge to NRPA. 
  • NRPA consolidates and tabulates scores from all judges.
  • NRPA announces the top four scorers in each class as Gold Medal finalists.
  • Round 2 scoring: Five judges and staff gather to deliberate at a two-day meeting to review finalists and individual scores, short videos and required supplemental materials, determining the final score and ranking for each finalist. Results are kept strictly confidential.
  • Gala reception for Gold Medal finalists is held prior to the NRPA Annual Conference Opening General Session when winners in each class are announced.


Look for the February issue of Parks & Recreation magazine, which will include an article about Gold Medal “myths.” Also, save the date for 2-3 p.m. EST, February 3, 2016, and join the annual Academy/NRPA Web Chat for the Gold Medal Award program. Finally, and most importantly, be an applicant in 2016! Deadline for submission of applications is midnight March 13, 2016.

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.  


2016 Schedule and Enhancements

January 4: Application available onlilne

February 3: NRPA Gold Medal web chat from 2 p.m. to 3 p.m. EST

March 13: Application and required materials deadline at midnight

April 29: Notification to finalists and all applicants

June 5: New for 2016: Finalists post short video on agency website homepage

Finalists will be asked to prepare a short video that highlights their agency. The video will be no longer than five minutes in length and will be required to be posted on the first landing page of participating agencies’ websites by June 5. This short video should support the information provided in the application and should help the judges understand how the agency is unique and outstanding. Any video approach may be used, but as video continues to grow in use as a communication medium, the intent is not to require elaborate or expensive productions.



Mike Abbaté’s Top 10 Tips for Gold Medal Success

In 2013, the Gold Medal application and review process was revised and updated to be more consistent, clear and simple, and population ranges were adjusted. Questions were revised and restated, and narrative responses had established word limits. In addition, PRORAGIS data was incorporated and serves as the primary numerical data to help evaluate park systems. 

Below are top tips for drafting a winning application from Abbaté, a Gold Medal winner (Portland, Oregon, 2011 — Class I) and Gold Medal judge for the past four years:

10) Do your homework! Talk to previous winners and ask if they will share their successful application.

9) Brainstorm with your team — list accomplishments that are most unique, innovative, groundbreaking or significant to your community.

8) Look at the online collection of “Success Stories” to help gauge how compelling your successes might be to a national audience.

7) Assign your best writer! Word count limitations mean keeping your narratives intriguing and succinct. 

6) Examples should be recent — within the past three years.

5) Examples and narratives need to be accurate, both factually and in their significance to your community.

4) Tune up your website. Judges routinely look at websites to confirm information shared in the application. 

3) Tell a compelling story! Everyone faces budget problems, political challenges and distrust of government. What is unique about your community and what is innovative in the ways your agency has served them?

2) Read the question and follow instructions! If the question asks for five examples, don’t leave 20 percent of the possible points on the table by providing only four.

1) Take the leap! Regardless of the outcome, simply preparing and submitting an application will help build morale, grant recognition to your top performers and make you a better agency. And if you become a finalist, imagine the notoriety!