Corporate Social ResponsibilityMay 1, 2014

Rich and Meaningful Experiences Make Your CSR Event a Memorable Source of Inspiration By
May 1, 2014

Corporate Social Responsibility

Rich and Meaningful Experiences Make Your CSR Event a Memorable Source of Inspiration

A volunteer prepares a heart-healthy low sodium soup, which the charity organization Manna makes from scratch for their clients battling life-threatening illnesses. Credit: Manna

Meeting planners face the constant challenge of creating unique and fun teambuilding activities that generate a buzz among attendees. That’s why nowadays more and more meetings and incentives include Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) programs that are designed to inspire attendees, create memorable experiences and help the community at large.

Companies also find that CSR programs stretch budgets because they are typically less expensive than traditional activities and entertainment. “You don’t have to spend a lot of money on a CSR event,” says CSR manager Kate Wetzel, who plans CSR programs for Queens, New York-based JetBlue Airways. “You can spend $3,000 or $30,000. You can create something for any amount of dollars you want to set aside. Money doesn’t have to be the driver of the experience.”

The definition of CSR programs is broad and includes community service projects that benefit charities, people and the environment. Programs can range from volunteering at food banks and making toys for hospitalized children to rebuilding homes lost in disasters and helping military families. Most CSR programs take place away from the meeting site but also can occur onsite. The best CSR programs are truly meaningful.

For example, last fall JetBlue employees visited a local Boys & Girls Club of America during a two-day meeting on best practices in Fort Lauderdale. About 80 flight attendants and airport and ground operations workers headed for the Boys & Girls Club shortly after arriving at the B Ocean Hotel Fort Lauderdale. “We had boxed lunches in the lobby for them to pick up and board a bus to the club,” says Wetzel. “They split into teams and did activities like cooking, soccer, after-school reading and garden beautification projects. One of our more entrepreneurial participants organized a foosball tournament.”

During the three hours of volunteering, JetBlue employees also helped prepare and serve dinner. “That was one of the most meaningful pieces of the activity, because we were all doing it together as opposed to separate team activities,” says Wetzel. “It was meaningful because it propelled them to establish stronger relationships with each other.”

The connection was evident as the group returned to the hotel on a bus. “People who volunteered together shared stories from the day that meant something to them,” says Wetzel. “One person from Newark, New Jersey, who helped kids with arts and crafts walked around showing photos to people she didn’t necessarily know. It brought cheer and good will to other people.”

Wetzel purposely planned the CSR activity to take place right after the group’s arrival at the hotel to help set the tone for the meeting. “It was a good way for them to get to know each other and gain common ground,” she says. “It provides participants with a common experience that creates a connection so that nobody goes into the day of learning feeling that they don’t have familiar faces to connect with.”

“It provides participants with a common experience that creates a connection so that nobody goes into the day of learning feeling that they don’t have familiar faces to connect with.” — Kate Wetzel

Following the meeting, Wetzel posted a story about the activity along with quotes from participants on what it meant to them. Post-meeting feedback shows that JetBlue’s CSR activities are popular with attendees. “The community service component is always considered the highest return on value,” Wetzel says. “When we ask what they get the most out of, it’s usually the volunteer event.”

Timing is Everything

Matching a corporate meeting with the right nonprofit organization can be more difficult than it seems. It is often easier to schedule a CSR event between companies and nonprofits that already have an ongoing relationship. Still, many organizations are in high demand and book assistance from groups several weeks in advance. In addition, it’s sometimes tough to match a meeting’s date and itinerary with the schedule, needs and requirements of nonprofit groups.

Even basic communications can be a challenge. “They run such bare-bone organizations, and their staffing is so minimal that it can take weeks to get a response,” says Lucy Eisele, CITE, principal of Integrity Incentives, a Big Lake, Minnesota-based meeting and incentive planning firm that specializes in arranging CSR activities. “The natural thought is, ‘Wait a minute. We are trying to help them, and they aren’t even getting back to us.’ It can be frustrating. It can take several emails and phone calls. It depends on whether there is someone dedicated to replying to people who want to help.”

It can be even more frustrating to plan a CSR event on a short turnaround. One planner learned that lesson while planning a CRS activity for a meeting in the Philadelphia area last fall for 23 managers of a pharmaceutical company. About one month before the meeting date, the company’s planner asked Jeffrey Cesari, president, Shimmer Events, a Philadelphia-based meeting and event planning firm, to plan the entire four-day meeting including a teambuilding activity. At that point, after considering several options, the pharmaceutical company planner decided upon bowling at a high-end facility as a teambuilding activity.

Cesari started scouting bowling alleys. “We had a contract but I decided to wait until the last possible minute to sign it,” he says. “Thank goodness I did because they came back a week later and said they wanted something completely different — something to give back to the community. This was three weeks before the meeting.”

Finding the right charity under a tight deadline proved to be challenging. “We were limited geographically to the Philadelphia area,” says Cesari. “We were also limited in time. We already had the meeting agenda published and flights already set. We were in a tight time frame about who could do what, when and how to make it work”

Cesari talked to several nonprofit organizations. “We talked to about six before we found one,” says Cesari. “One organization had certain slots of hours open that didn’t match the meeting agenda. The other organization was booked with volunteer help more than a month in advance. Another could hold only 12 volunteers at one time. I was a little nervous because there were so many things up in the air. As a planner, you like to have details set in stone with a backup plan in place.”

About 10 days before the meeting Cesari finally found a charity — Cradles to Crayons, a children’s charity with an office in W. Conshohocken, Pennsylvania. The nonprofit had an opening because another corporation had canceled a day or two earlier. Attendees volunteered at Cradles to Crayons for three hours, splitting into groups. One group inspected children’s donated clothing and repacked them into boys and girls apparel according to sizes. Another group cleaned and repackaged toys.

“There was a closeness that’s more than that from a non-CSR program. People talked about it throughout the rest of the day. They said it feels good to give back. There was a sense of giving themselves to something greater.” — Jeffrey Cesari

The experience inspired attendees. “After they finished and boarded the bus, the laughter was joyous,” says Cesari. “There was a closeness that’s more than that from a non-CSR program. People talked about it throughout the rest of the day. They said it feels good to give back. There was a sense of giving themselves to something greater.”

Another organization Cesari recommends is Manna, which offers corporate partners a variety of opportunities such as event sponsorship, traditional marketing support, cause marketing, interactive social media connections and employee teambuilding possibilities. Manna, based in Philadephia, develops custom-made partnerships based on a company’s goals.

The most memorable CSR experiences result in an intimate person-to-person experience. For example, earlier this year 15 female salespeople for a woman-owned direct sales company volunteered at an orphanage in Montego Bay, Jamaica, during a five-day incentive trip. The group spent five hours at the orphanage, which usually had only one local volunteer for every 15 children. Volunteers fed, held and rocked babies, folded many bins of laundry, built bookcases and donated books.

Volunteering at the orphanage was the talk of the meeting. “We had a reception and dinner that evening where they shared stories about the children and work,” says Eisele, who planned the entire meeting and CSR event. “It may be hard to believe that something that simple could have a profound impact, but some people went as far as saying it was life changing. They were nurturing children. They learned a lot about Jamaican families.”

Eisele found the orphanage during a site visit to Montego Bay. “I was driving back from a horseback riding activity and mentioned to my guide that I needed to find a ‘give-back’ activity for the group,” says Eisele. “The guide said her mom has worked for an orphanage for 30 years. I asked if she could bring me there now, and she did. I met the director and asked her to let me know how we could be helpful. I wanted to start a relationship, find out what they needed and then look at our budget.”

Following the orphanage experience, the volunteers returned to their hotel for a reception and dinner at a local restaurant before heading home the next day. Scheduling the dinner after the event was purposeful. Providing post-CRS networking time reinforces the value of the event and attendee relationships, says Eisele. “You cannot end a give-back on your last day and then put them all on a plane to go home or say tonight you are on your own, see you tomorrow. It’s crucial that everyone be brought together after the event to debrief each other. People really want to talk to each other about what they just did. I’ve seen it every single time.”

Solid Advice

CRS programs run the gamut from helping large organizations to smaller projects, such as aiding a military family with a parent serving overseas. Large or small, these programs can be equally impactful for the attendees involved and the recipients.

The following advice will help planners set up meaningful CSR event and programs.

  • Find out what the company’s CSR philosophy is and recommend projects that match the goals of the organization. Match the nonprofit organization with the meeting’s theme, company products and services, and attendee demographics and interests. Determine whether the client seeks meaningful CSR teambuilding or simply wants to meet a company philanthropic goal for the year, Eisele advises.
  • Contact at least two or three nonprofit organizations. Be considerate of what the organization needs and when they need it. Don’t impose the group’s needs on those of the nonprofit. Organizations don’t want to be told what they need and can afford. “The volunteer experience needs to be beneficial for the company and the nonprofit,” says Wetzel. “It can be disruptive to ask for a certain time on a certain day. That doesn’t always work for organizations, especially small ones. It’s important to listen, figure out what the needs are and support them.”
  • Wetzel advises planners to remember that volunteering isn’t free. “There is a cost for the non-profit to organize the event for you and figure out what you can do. Most nonprofits track their cost per volunteer. That’s why it’s important to also make a donation along with volunteering,” she says.
  • Nonprofits typically don’t allow planners and volunteers to take pictures that include their staffers and people who receive help. But pictures and videos (especially group shots) of volunteers are usually allowed. “You almost never can take pictures, especially of children, so you have to take what you can get,” says Eisele. “You can sometimes take video and pictures of your group inside the venue but it’s hard to get people there into the picture. That’s usually a no-no. You have to sign waivers saying what you plan to do and when you will arrive and leave.”
  • Use any photos, videos and other information gathered during a CSR activity to publicize it to participants and the company’s employees. “People who didn’t earn the incentive trip this time will hear about it from coworkers so you need something to promote it,” says Eisele. “Usually a good way to do it is to have a top executive put out an email or letter describing what was done and take testimonials from the group to add to that. That is powerful.”

How Hotel Brands Give Back

Many hotels have their own in-house CRS programs that planners can use. For example, Fairmont Hotels & Resorts offers its Meetings that Matter program. Here’s how it works: Planners booking a 2014 meeting prior to December 31, 2014, with at least 50 room nights can donate 10 percent of the hotel’s room revenue to a charity of their choice. Participating companies have donated room revenue funds to a range of organizations including those involved with HIV/AIDS and disabled children, according to Fairmont’s website.

Kimpton Hotels are affiliated with local non-profit organizations, including those that benefit the arts, education and neighborhood beautification. In addition, Kimpton Restaurants are involved in their local communities by hosting and teaching cooking classes along with other charitable events and promotions throughout the year. On a national scale, many of Kimpton’s chefs and restaurants are involved in Taste of the Nation, a program for Share Our Strength.

At the national level, Kimpton is a strong supporter of numerous charities, including Dress for Success by providing financial and volunteer aid. During March and April, Kimpton highlights its partnership with Dress for Success with a special campaign called “Suited for Success.”

In addition, Kimpton’s Red Ribbon Campaign — an HIV awareness and fundraising program in November and December — involves all hotels throughout the United States.

Some hotels are giving back in other ways. For example, Las Vegas Sands Corp. announced that it will contribute $7 million to the University of Nevada Las Vegas William F. Harrah College of Hotel Administration over five years.

The resort company also will donate $1 million to nonprofit Clean the World, which recycles hygiene products from hotels and distributes them worldwide.

Marriott is committed to investing in the communities where they do business through their “Spirit To Serve Our Communities” social responsibility and community engagement initiatives. All over the globe, their properties are involved in five areas of giving: shelter and food, environment, ready for jobs, vitality of children and empowering diversity.

For example, Marriott associates have helped build thousands of homes in 15 countries for Habitat for Humanity. Also, Marriott is a partner with Back on My Feet, a program to help the homeless prepare to return to work.

Furthermore, The Ritz-Carlton brand, a proponent of Succeed Through Service, encourages their employees to mentor students in disadvantaged communities. This program brings students to the hotels and Ritz-Carlton employees go into the classrooms to share the importance of social skills (eye-contact, a great smile and a firm handshake); healthy eating habits and how to safely handle food; group presentation skills; and the value of teamwork and collaboration.

The company shares their Succeed Through Service toolkit on an open source, non-proprietary basis to inspire others to get involved in helping young students.

There was a time when today’s CRS programs were uncommon and corporations helped others largely through philanthropy in return for positive publicity and tax breaks. That window-dressing approach has evolved so that more and companies are pursuing truly meaningful ways for employees to give to others. C&IT

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