Corporate social responsibility, or CSR, is on the “to-do list” of many associations as part of their meetings and events strategy. And as more associations focus on “giving back to others,” being inclusive and implementing sustainable initiatives, planners are embracing CSR ideas and leading by example.
Pre-pandemic, Emily Parsons, meeting planner at the National Association of Attorneys General, was working on many sustainability elements within CSR for the meetings and events she planned. “With COVID-19, I know corporate social responsibility components for many planners were pushed to the back burner while we were working to return to in-person meetings safely,” Parsons says. “Now, sustainability seems to be back on the forefront of a lot of people’s minds, but in many different ways.” One of the items Parsons has been focusing on recently has been on food waste and finding different ways to repurpose the food not used at conferences — either through composting efforts or to help feed the less fortunate.
Another important item Parsons implements in the meetings she orchestrates is an attempt to support local businesses no matter where they are hosting their conferences, rather than supporting national companies. “I like to do this through little touches when possible, by using local bakeries or event rental companies. It is important to me to make an impact on the community that we are visiting and bringing our money to,” Parsons says.
Lisa Jennings, chief experience officer and meeting planner at Wildly Different, works with many associations that have embraced CSR initiatives. “The popularity of hosting CSR team-building events has increased dramatically in recent years. Ten years ago, CSR events made up about 25% of the events we hosted. Now, it’s easily grown to more than 50% of what we offer,” Jennings says. “The pandemic also increased demand. People definitely crave human interaction now, but it’s made even more meaningful if what they do together results in helping others at the same time.”
As Jennings further explains, the statistics are overwhelming, with polls showing that more than 90% of workers place a huge importance on giving back and wanting to be a part of an organization that cares deeply about issues and stands for a cause. “Most associations seek to help a charity that is in the locale where their meeting is held. However, more and more organizations are asking their attendees to vote on what CSR initiatives matter to them prior to the meeting,” Jennings says. They are also looking at what makes sense to align themselves with — causes that go hand-in-hand in the betterment of their industry. For instance, an engineering association may back an organization trying to entice more women to pursue career opportunities in engineering, and associations in the energy sector understand that hosting a sustainability initiative is important.
Wildly Different creates, organizes and leads team-building activities for association meetings, so Jennings and her team have organized countless numbers of charitable team-building events. “Associations have utilized our services in a number of ways. We have organized one- to two-hour team-building activities that allow attendees to get to know one another better while doing good for those in need,” Jennings says.
The most popular offerings are currently Red Wagon Brigade, where teams assemble and decorate red wagons and play games to earn toys to fill up the wagons. All proceeds are donated to a local children’s hospital, foster care home or Boys & Girls Club. The Canned Goods Carnival involves teams creating carnival games using canned and boxed food items. After building their creation, they all get to play one another’s games, vote for their favorite and all food items are donated to fill the shelves of a local food bank. And, Donation Quest is a CSR activity where people race to solve clues in a tabletop escape room experience that will unlock a box containing a donation for a charity.
“We also create an activity where guests open challenges that educate them about the cause the association is helping out, while entertaining them as they answer trivia questions about the cause, complete photo and video tasks, and solve clues to reveal information about the charity,” Jennings says. The more attendees play, the more points they earn — and points earned translate into a cash donation at the end of the meeting.
For Nicole Hallada, senior vice president, exhibitions and marketing at the Association of Equipment Manufacturers, corporate social responsibility has become a greater topic of focus for her organization. “I can recollect when it was not a headline topic in conversations and now it dominates the conversations,” Hallada says. For certain meetings Hallada has planned, she made concerted effort to look at the association’s diversity, equity and inclusion initiatives.
“Recently, we have dedicated time from a current employee to sustainability. Our goal is to educate our association on where we are today, where we want to be in the short, mid and long term,” Hallada says. “It is a strategic decision to incorporate CSR. People want to go places they feel welcome.”
For example, the Association of Equipment Manufacturers had a panelist who was speaking at an upcoming meeting, and the individual asked about the association’s diversity practices because the speaker said they are not always taken seriously at other events. “We shared our event community guidelines with the speaker, which outlines expectations for everyone regarding interactions and respect to help create a safe environment,” Hallada says. “Ten years ago, we did not have this. We’re really looking at how to form a more inclusive community at our trade shows and meetings that we host.”
The Association of Proposal Management Professionals (APMP) has turned to its association data and member feedback to show their leadership, which includes Rick Harris, CEO, the way to “what’s next” within the CSR realm of meetings and events. For example, nearly 70% of all APMP members are women. “We’ve already made sure that our Board of Directors slate appropriately reflects and is represented,” Harris says. To match that staggering stat, the association created the Women’s Virtual Summit — an international online conference produced by APMP’s women members for women attendees.
According to Julia Duke, director of events and member engagement at APMP, it has been among the most well-received in the association’s 35-year history. Attendance is already double what the team thought it could be, APMP had nearly triple the number of speakers apply than they needed and attendees are already talking about a second event, even though the first was still a week away from launch. “For the first time in our association’s history, women will have the stage to themselves to talk about things in our industry that matter most to them,” Duke says.
APMP recognizes that attendees and exhibitors also are much more aware of various external factors that impact meetings than they were 10 years ago, and that’s a good thing. “We believe this evolution has happened because there are few industries where you must change, evolve, innovate in the meetings industry to answer and address member concerns,” Harris says. “CSR has allowed us all to rethink the purpose of our meetings and address social issues locally, regionally, nationally and internationally. The association executives that embrace CSR, that respond to their members through CSR activities and sustain the CSR approach, are the ones who demonstrate they understand, define, listen and execute. All that makes you an innovative association leader.”
As part of their CSR meeting and event initiatives, APMP also launched a diversity, equity and inclusion (DE&I) plan — a five-year plan with measurable results. As Duke says, “It’s not enough to talk about what you want to do. If you don’t execute, it is just an empty plan. CSR helps us to be responsive to what our members are telling us they want and it’s up to the association to respond,” she says. “As a result, from member feedback, we’ve also created a series of Affinity Groups that have member workshops at our live events. The Affinity Groups are for professionals of color, LGBTQIA+, military and veterans and young professionals. All these groups were identified by our own data and are thriving parts of our associations and meetings.”
Harris also stresses that the pandemic showed all of us how small the world is and how important it is to think of others. The crushing negativity of the pandemic gave way to the creation of a caring and nurturing spirit in the industry. It showed APMP how important it is to give back. “It also laser focused us on what is important,” Harris says. “Now, not only are we thinking about our attrition numbers, our F&B minimums, and our final meeting revenue targets, but we’re thinking about what good can the meeting have for its attendees or the local community.”
When incorporating CSR elements into association events, it is important to gain buy-in from leadership. Change can be hard for some people, and it may have to happen slowly rather than “ripping the Band-Aid off.” “For example, we have had a meetings app for a while now, but we will print agendas to take to the conference with us,” Parsons says. “Over time, we have been printing less and less, but there will come a time when we will stop printing all together.” Parsons thinks the future is wide open for individual interpretation and ideas when it comes to CSR. “Not everyone sees it the same, but we all see something, and I think that is going to be the biggest thing towards making an impact if everyone helps out a little bit in their own way,” she says.
At APMP, meeting attendees want to help and hear from people locally. When the association plans meetings or events in a new city, its members want the association to partner with causes in those cities. They are turning out in high numbers to hear from the local LGBTQIA+ community. They want to know how they can volunteer locally to help. “Our APMP board is working on ways to incorporate fundraising or volunteer opportunities in the cities we select,” Harris says. “We see this same thing from other associations and their partnering cities. This is going to become a strategic part of our site selection in the future. We will ask ourselves what the community needs and how we can support it.”
Of course, some meeting planners think planning a CSR component is going to be easy. For instance, they may think they can just call up a local charity and tell them they want to bring attendees to volunteer at their location. The reality, however, is quite different. “Charities are struggling, like many of us, with staffing levels and having enough time to complete the myriad tasks they must perform for their organization. Asking them to now manage a bunch of volunteers descending on them can send them into a tailspin,” Jennings says. “For this reason, many charities are not able to accommodate this type of request.”
It’s also expensive to transport attendees out to participate in volunteer activities, and it also puts a dent into your meeting timetable. For all of these reasons, it usually makes sense to organize an on-site activity in your meeting that will result in donations for a charity of your choosing. Also, keep in mind that many charities do not need donation items — their No. 1 need is cash. “While it’s impactful to take pictures of the hundreds of care packages assembled, sometimes charities don’t have the space to store these items,” Jennings says. “For those who need cash, consider having the charity provide you with a video that shows how the cash donations raised will make a difference in the lives of those your meeting has helped by hosting a CSR activity. A good story can tug at the heartstrings just as much — if not more than — seeing a bounty of donation items.”
Speaking from the sustainability angle, Hallada says the CSR components of an association meeting can be overwhelming. “It is a big and weedy topic, and if you try going from 0 to 60, you will be crushed under the weight of it,” she says. “You must be prepared to figure out what you are already doing well, because some of your vendors are probably already doing it. Acknowledge that and then acknowledge what the next step would be.” Hallada advises that there are a couple of paths association meeting planners can take right now, as the industry has not really voted clearly on which one they are going to lean toward. “So, at this point you could lean towards one and it might be outdated, or it might not be the industry standard in the future,” Hallada says. “I think taking a measured approach in how quickly you go about it is important.”
Also, not all association members are altruistic. At APMP, some members politicize the association’s CSR initiatives. “Some members tell us that we are going ‘woke’ in our strategy to lift others up. We politely remind all of our members that the art of helping someone, a group or a community is always a positive thing, and they are more than welcome to make suggestions on where we focus our efforts,” Harris says. “Once you get past the initial politics and show the importance of CSR through volunteerism, people tend to forget why they weren’t all in from the start.”
Jennings thinks CSR activities will continue to grow in popularity, especially as research shows how important giving back is to the younger generation. They are, quite simply, the future of meetings. “There’s also so much strife in the news these days,” Jennings says. “When you can involve your attendees in something that makes them feel like they are making a difference for good in the world when it is so needed, it is priceless.”
Hallada agrees that CSR within the association meeting environment will continue long into the future. “We have all been made aware of how we can do better and that will continue,” Hallada says. “Especially in the meetings and trade-show business, we want to be a community. It is just natural for us to want to be inclusive of the things that people want to experience. I do not see that ever going away.”
Duke agrees that CSR is here to stay. “It allows us to create, innovate and help in ways we seldom thought about years ago. Our world has always been open to neighbor helping neighbor,” she says. “CSR is creating that opportunity to recognize, help and lift through our businesses.”| AC&F |