About the Gardner Leadership Award

The John W. Gardner Leadership Award was established in 1985 to honor outstanding Americans who exemplify the leadership and the ideals of John W. Gardner (1912-2002), American statesman and founding chair of Independent Sector. Independent Sector presents the award each year to an individual whose leadership in or with the nonprofit community has been transformative and who has mobilized and unified people, institutions, or causes that improve the community of life on our planet.

John W. Gardner was the ultimate builder of ideas, people, and causes. He was an active and distinguished participant in America's educational, philanthropic, and political life. His many achievements stand as a tribute to the ideals this award celebrates. He was the president of the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching and the Carnegie Corporation of New York; Secretary of Health, Education, and Welfare; Chairperson of the National Urban Coalition; and founding chairperson of Common Cause. He received the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the nation's highest civil honor, in 1964. From 1978 to 1979, he chaired the Organizing Committee that established Independent Sector, served as the group's founding chairperson from 1980 to 1983. Prior to his death, John W. Gardner served as a consulting professor at the School of Education at Stanford University.

Each year, Independent Sector works with people across America’s charitable sector to identify a recipient who is a beacon of achievement. Winners of the Gardner Award provide models for future members of our sector, and recognizing them strengthens and uplifts our entire community.

Learn more about the life of The Life of John W. Gardner.

Award Criteria Preamble

The John W. Gardner Leadership Award was established by Independent Sector to honor John Gardner for his service as Chairman of the Organizing Committee and first Chairperson of Independent Sector, and for his fuller record of leadership in the sector and for the country. It is presented to individuals who, in their own way, exemplify Mr. Gardner’s ideas and example of leadership. The award and the awardees reflect a high standard of leadership behavior.

The nonprofit and philanthropic sector enables individuals to work on the concerns they hold, without regard to the undue influence of political or market forces. While all societies have problems, and the solutions to those problems may be generated by a particular sector – charitable, business, or government – or combination of sectors, it is the charitable – or independent – sector that can effectively drive issues that may be too sensitive for business or government to tackle. These issues and solutions derive from passion and vision, but may as yet be unproven and therefore incapable of attracting other kinds of investments. They may, moreover, involve power redistributions that are not always welcome. The charitable sector enables social pioneers to test, to complain, to hold a microphone to voices we do not yet hear or accept, and to build altruistic campaigns based on empathy and unfulfilled humane values.

Leaders working in or with the charitable sector, and who have been nominated for the Gardner Award, share this vision of a sector that helps to strengthen society through the active and impassioned engagement of its people.  Recognizing the special role of the charitable sector in our society, Gardner Award nominees, while active in their own field of endeavor, are also committed to the advancement of the broader sector. They are builders of social capital who engage and collaborate as they seek to promote change. They exhibit vision and encourage as they take on complex and challenging issues. They raise public consciousness, and inspire others to raise their voices and take on similar challenges. Through their efforts, they help to change circumstances and improve the quality of life for others. Gardner nominees are transformational leaders who transcend established boundaries in the quest to motivate and mobilize those they lead, and to magnify the impact of the broader sector.

We seek each year a pool of nominees that reflects the scope and value of our sector and its indispensable contributions to society. Worthy nominees, therefore, may be individuals (or more than one) whose impact is widely felt. Such leaders will have demonstrated transformational impact not only in their own field, but beyond, as well.

Award winners receive a statuette, which is a replica of an original relief bust of John Gardner by prominent Washington, D.C. sculptor Frederick Hart.

Award Criteria

The John W. Gardner Leadership Award recognizes:

  • Living Americans;

  • Who, through their body of work, have made significant contributions to the nonprofit and philanthropic community;

  • Whose leadership has been transformative;

  • Who have mobilized and unified people, institutions, or causes; and

  • Whose efforts have improved the community of life on our planet.

  • They are visionaries who have empowered constituencies, strengthened participation, and inspired movements;

  • They are builders – people who, quite apart from personal achievements, have raised the capacity of others to advance the common good;

  • Their leadership has either had national or international impact or, if at the regional level, has attracted wider recognition and imitation; and

  • They may be the creators of needed institutions or may concentrate on education and advocacy that changes public opinion.

  • Whatever means they use, their work has transformed their chosen field, has served as a role model to other fields, and has had a significant impact on advancing not only their own institutional interests, but also the broader interests of the charitable community.

  • Two or more individuals, whose combined leadership demonstrates a strong and successful collaboration resulting in the breadth of impact and advancement of the common good contemplated by the Award, are eligible to be nominated and honored jointly.

  • Award recipients may be of any age.

The winner must be present at the award ceremony, which will be held at the 2016 Independent Sector National Conference in Washington, DC, November 2016

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