As companies strive to earn a bigger return on investment from their meetings and events, more and more are discovering the power of a simple formula: the combination of Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) or community service-related activities with teambuilding. And insurance and financial services companies are leading the way when it comes to innovation and creativity.
“Of all the industries we work with, financial and insurance conference planners have really been drawn to these types of activities,” says Alan Ranzer, co-founder and managing partner of Florham Park, NJ-based Impact 4 Good, an eight-year-old company that specializes in tying CSR projects into meetings and events. “And that just makes sense when you think of insurance companies, for example, because of their traditional ties to the community. But it’s also very true of financial services companies today. And when you think about it, both industries are largely based on trust, so there’s nothing surprising about the fact they’re increasingly drawn to these kinds of activities.”
For Sherri Lindenberg, senior vice president of marketing at Crump Life Insurance Services in Roseland, NJ, such initiatives are nothing new. “It’s something that I’ve always felt very strongly about,” she says. “And one of the things I’ve always talked about is that nobody is going to want to do business with us unless they know us, like us and trust us. And you’re not going to get people to trust you if they don’t know you and like you. And the best way to accomplish those things is to get out into your community and do good things. And when you do that, business opportunities just seem to follow. So I’ve brought that philosophy to every organization I’ve ever worked for.”
Lindenberg and her fellow executives have a clear understanding of the business benefits they get from such activity. “It strengthens the bonds our people feel for each other, because it helps them get to know, like and trust each other,” she says. “It also helps them feel good about one another as human beings, in addition to just feeling good about one another as professionals. The second thing is it strengthens the bonds between the company and our people, and by doing that it strengthens the commitments of our people to the company. And it also enhances our ability to recruit and retain employees.”
Over the last few years, Lindenberg has observed an ongoing change that will lead to even more CSR activity as a key element of many meetings. “It’s becoming an easier sell to management executives,” she says, “because it’s more common and also more expected now that you take time out from a business agenda that is budgeted and paid for with company dollars to do a CSR activity. It is more acceptable, whereas before the thought was sort of, ‘We should be doing this before or after normal business hours.’ Now we realize that by adding value to the community, we’re also adding value to the company.”
Hillary Smith, CMP, CSEP, a partner at independent meeting and event planning company Koncept Events in Fort Lauderdale, FL, is another long-time champion and practitioner of CSR-related teambuilding. “For really progressive companies, these kinds of activities have been around for years,” Smith says. “But their use has also accelerated over the last three years or so. It’s been particularly true since the recession. More and more companies have felt the need to give back to their communities. And they’ve also found that such activity adds a different kind of value to their meetings and events.”
And an increasing number of insurance and financial companies are embracing that unique value proposition because it can improve the connection between the company and third-party agents and brokers.
Ranzer agrees that there has been a marked increase in such activity over the last few years. “And a lot of that has to do with all the talk about perception in the meetings industry since 2008,” he says. “So more and more companies are now saying, ‘We’re going to have this meeting in such and such a location. But we’re also going to make a difference while we’re there.’ And these activities don’t just make a difference in the local community. They also make a difference in the lives of the attendees at the meeting.”
At the same time, many planners are realizing that it’s possible to extend the impact of teambuilding activities by giving them more social significance.
“The other important thing that’s happening now is that more and more companies are learning that just going out and having the same old kind of traditional teambuilding activity that everyone has been doing forever does not deliver the same ROI from the meeting as doing a CSR-type activity,” Smith says. “You can host an event at a local restaurant and have everyone go around and play a ‘Minute to Win It’ game as a way of getting to know one another and interact. But that doesn’t really deliver any kind of real personal satisfaction. It’s an entirely different thing to be part of building prosthetic limbs for people in Cambodia who are still stepping on land mines. That gives you a chance to really change people’s lives.”
A current exemplar of a company that has mastered the practice of integrating CSR into its brand image and some of its most important meetings and events is Farmers Insurance.
“As a company, we feel that it’s important to give back to the communities where we do business and where our people live and work,” says John Chisholm, the company’s Westlake Village, CA-based director of operations. “And that’s because we want to feel very connected to our communities and have that be something that differentiates us as a company.”
Farmers has a formal CSR outreach program that is based on three carefully built pillars: education, public safety and civics. Company-wide activities that stretch from headquarters to regional and local offices are geared around those three foundational elements, which in turn often drive meeting- and event-related programs.
“For example,” Chisholm says, “we are the No. 2 national contributor to March of Dimes. And as part of that, we stage our own fund-raising ‘telethon’ event. In turn, that trickles down to our regional and local offices, and to some of our meetings and events, because we take a very integrated approach to doing what we do. And district managers, agents and other employees have been very creative about the ways in which they integrate these activities into their operations.”
A perfect example of how Farmers creates a high-profile CSR program and then integrates it into the culture of the company is the annual Farmers Insurance Open golf tournament, a nationally televised event held each year at fabled Torrey Pines Golf Course in San Diego. Tiger Woods won the 2013 event in January.
“It’s an event that builds a lot of awareness for the company, but also a lot of enthusiasm and pride among our employees,” Chisholm says.
That’s because the well-planned and expertly executed event is far more than just a golf tournament. It’s a company-wide and very public CSR juggernaut.
For example, the tournament is designed to raise $2.5 million that is donated to 200 charities in the San Diego area.
Farmers also hosts a special incentive program that brings the top 100 performers from its 15,000 nationwide agents to the event, where they participate in a meeting that highlights the company’s CSR program for the year and individual activities.
“The agents that earn that trip are the best of the best, and they’re being recognized for their performance,” Chisholm says. “But they’re also being given the opportunity to participate in a special weekend that really celebrates the CSR activities of the company.”
The highlight of the weekend is a Saturday morning meeting attended by company executives, district managers from across the U.S. and the 100 incentive-recognition winners. It was held this year at the Hilton La Jolla Torrey Pines. “And that helps strengthen the relationships we have with our top producers,” Chisholm says.
In turn, that benefit is extended when the winners return to their local offices and talk about the experience they have just had. “As a result of that, they also get very involved in the activities in their local communities that are related to the national charities that we support, such as the (American) Red Cross, Food Share and The First Tee, a school-related program for young golfers,” Chisholm says. “In essence, they become brand ambassadors for us by talking about how we give back to the community. And the typical feedback we get is that they’ve never been to anything like this before. Everyone feels energized and motivated to go back to their offices and do an even better job than they have before. And it enhances their pride in being part of the Farmers brand.”
As a result, the company recently launched a new recruitment website, BeAFarmersAgent.com, which prominently highlights its CSR activities.
Although not all companies aspire to the heights achieved by Farmers, or have the resource to get there even if they want to, every organization can learn a fundamental lesson from the way the company does what it does. And that is to take a long view of how CSR activities can be leveraged, as opposed to treating them as an isolated incident related only to a particular meeting or event.
“For example,” Smith says, “a lot of companies now focus on this kind of activity throughout the course of the year so that it has longevity and lasting impact. It’s no longer about saying you have 2½ hours to do something and make a difference.”
Lindenberg agrees that an enduring focus is a key to success. “We encourage our local offices to do CSR activities, and we do recognize them each quarter,” she says. “Our president does a quarterly business update webinar and includes that kind of recognition for our local offices in them. We also highlight the activities in our corporate newsletter.”
Smith cautions, however, that too many companies new to the practice still make the mistake of perceiving a meeting-related CSR activity as “a four-hour slot in the meeting agenda,” as opposed to something designed to have enduring resonance.
“Too many planners get stuck thinking only in terms of blocks of time, because that’s how their brains work when they’re doing their job,” she says. “But when they really understand the value they can get out of these kinds of activities, it’s like they have a ‘eureka!’ moment. Then they start to think differently about how to do it and have the impact last over time. And that’s when they really start to get the ROI from doing it.”
Once a company understand that, Ranzer says, they start to develop ways to extend the activity beyond a particular meeting and keep it alive at a local level year-round. For example, he says, a CSR project staged at an annual meeting to benefit a major charity can easily be extended into a year-long campaign that, in turn, recognizes the most productive participants with a special event at next year’s meeting. “And I’m even seeing vendors begin to get involved in these kinds of activities,” he says, “as a result of going to a meeting where it’s being done. So that is another way the impact and benefit to the company can be extended.”
And, says Smith, “in instances where regional or local offices, or individual business units, compete against one another to see who can produce the biggest results, that makes it even more of a teambuilding activity. And it keeps the momentum going.”
For example, Koncept Events used a philanthropic teambuilding program for a client, developed by Odyssey Teams Inc., in which participants assembled artificial limbs for victims of land mines in Cambodia. Event organizers make sure that participants later see a video in which people are actually receiving their new limbs. “It’s a way of reminding people of what they’ve done and the difference they’ve made,” Smith says. “In that example, they have literally changed someone’s life for the better. And seeing that play out is a very powerful experience that you don’t forget.”
Despite her three decades of experience incorporating CSR activities into her meetings and events, Lindenberg has recently learned that such practices can always be improved upon.
“One thing I’ve learned lately is that there are some great third-party vendors out there that can help you do this,” she says. “We used Impact 4 Good to help us create the CSR activity we did on behalf of a local children’s hospital at our annual sales meeting in Atlanta earlier this year, and that was a really positive experience,” she says. “Impact 4 Good handled everything for us, and that made it easier on me and my team to do this kind of thing, because…we didn’t know much about a local community and had to do a lot of homework to find out about the kinds of things we could do. Impact 4 Good has that information at their fingertips.”
The other key thing Lindenberg has learned, she says, is to listen to your employees. “You have to know the kinds of things they are involved with and the things they feel passionately about,” she says. “And if you do, that makes it much easier to do things they will really get excited about.”
The overarching consideration, however, is that CSR-related activities and projects can deliver a tangible, powerful benefit not generated by traditional teambuilding activities.
“It’s something that fuels people internally, so in that sense, you can’t do anything that delivers more ROI,” Smith says. “These kinds of activities are things that people don’t forget about. It’s something they’re proud of. So that means the activity continues to have impact within the organization. And for a lot of companies today, that impact continues year after year.”
Given that, Ranzer says, the practice has gone far beyond a trend, to become a next-generation best practice.
“If this kind of activity was just a trend,” he says, “it would have gone away by now. But it’s something that planners now really know can bring a lot of value to their events. It’s really something that can set the tone for a meeting and help make it more successful.” I&FMM