Christine Shimasaki, CDME, CMP, is the managing director of empowerMINT.com and the Event Impact Calculator for Destination Marketing Association International. She previously served as executive vice president and chief strategy officer for the San Diego Convention & Visitors Bureau, as well as a distinguished career in sales with Marriott.
Has your organization incorporated a community service project into your annual meeting agenda? Associations and corporations have been sponsoring fundraising activities for many years, but Hurricane Katrina and its devastation to New Orleans in 2005 ignited the massive Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) movement that is sure to remain part of our business and non-profit culture. But meetings move from destination to destination and your organization’s culture evolves, so how do you choose the right charity to be the recipient of your attendees’ goodwill each year? And how do you make the case for CSR to your stakeholders in the first place?
In addition to being the “right thing to do,” there are many internal benefits of supporting charitable projects:
There are many kinds of community service projects that can be incorporated into your meeting — hands-on physical projects such as helping clean up neighborhoods hit hard by a natural disaster, product drives such as collecting winter coats for school children in poor neighborhoods or books for underfunded libraries, or simple fundraising and food donation. Which charity you choose depends on your organization’s mission, the scope of resources you can tap into, and the emotional fit between your meeting attendees and the selected cause.
To find the perfect project, ask yourself these questions:
The project you choose for your annual meeting may be an extension of your organization’s Social Responsibility guidelines or chosen charity. Or, perhaps your organization focuses its humanitarian efforts on one annual event positioned at the annual meeting. In that case, choosing a charity that complements the purpose of the organization and touches a segment of its attendee base is important.
Cheryl Russell, CAE, principal of C. Russell & Associates, spent many years as director, conventions and meetings for the American Speech-Language-Hearing Association (ASHA). “We did a program called Because We Care, which was an opportunity for ASHA members to reach out to the community where our convention was held each November,” Russell explained. “We would work with the CVB to find out what opportunities were available, then decide which ones might match our mission/vision and what our members would identify with the most. Since the majority of our members worked in schools, anything that had to do with literacy, communication or reading, would be ranked high. However, depending on where we were and what the need may be, the rankings changed. For instance, in New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina we worked with Habitat for Humanity on doing a build day in the 9th ward — it was one of the most popular programs we had.”
”I truly believe that the most important factor in choosing a Corporate Social Responsibility activity to support is looking for the emotional connection for the participants,” says Tammi Runzler, senior vice president of convention sales and services at Visit Orlando. Tammi should know. Not only does she connect meeting planners with community services organizations, she has a personal passion for helping combat hunger, homelessness and unsanitary conditions in Haiti; she is also founder of My Neighbor’s Children, a group dedicated to helping the world’s impoverished children. “Most groups have their own culture and personality, and if you look closely, you can see where and what they might emotionally connect to…and that just makes a world of difference as to the experience.”
As an example, Russell notes that “since the majority of members are women at American Speech-Language-Hearing Association, we knew that anything that would help empower women would be popular, so we donated supplies to a woman’s shelter. At the 2012 convention, ASHA held a donation drive to collect new, unused children’s socks, underwear and sneakers to benefit the Atlanta Children’s Shelter and Partnership Against Domestic Violence, organizations that address issues of great concern to women.”
Although your organization’s heart may be in the right place, and at your upcoming meeting in New York you would love to be involved in the ongoing cleanup effort following Hurricane Sandy, you may not have the number of able-bodied volunteers or time in the meeting schedule to take on a large-scope project. “You do need to consider your group’s limitations, what they are able to physically engage in,” advises Runzler. “CSR is not one size fits all. It’s OK that not all groups can build a house or plant a garden; there is other work that can be accomplished inside, or by taking a more gentle or artistic approach.” Don’t try to squeeze what should be a day-long project into the four hours that are available before your opening general session — the goals of your project should be attainable to keep enthusiasm and interest high.
If human capital and time limitations are restrictive, your organization can give back by arranging to have leftover food delivered to local shelters, collecting exhibitors’ products at the end of a trade show, and/or donating leftover convention supplies such as tote bags or notepads to local charities.
“CVBs are most helpful in identifying charities and learning what opportunities are available,” states Cheryl Russell, “and I would always recommend that a planner start with their CVB rep.” Some CVBs, such as the Providence Warwick CVB, The Virginia Beach CVB, and the Philadelphia CVB, have partnered with outside firms or non-profits to help set up community service projects, often referred to as “voluntourism.”
Tammi Runzler takes CVB involvement one step further, recommending that you work with the CVB to include community service venues in the site inspection process. “Once a planner has narrowed down the potential projects, we do recommend they site the venues, if at all possible. That way the planner can see, in advance, what the experience will look and feel like. Most organizations welcome this site. Also ask your CVB partner for references from other groups that have done similar projects at a particular organization. It is wonderful to tap into someone else’s experiences, both positive and negative.”
Visit empowerMINT.com, the virtual CVB sales office, for contact and services information at more than 140 destinations. Then reap the humanitarian rewards of including just the right community service project in your meeting. AC&F