Meetings often provide the best opportunity for companies to demonstrate their dedication to corporate social responsibility, whether through group community service programs, sustainability initiatives or both. And among attendees, the popularity of participating in “giving back” programs is growing as socially conscious millennials begin to dominate the workforce.
“CSR is an important component for meeting planners to address as they plan their own meetings and events,” says Matthew Marcial, CAE, CMP, vice president, education and events for Meeting Professionals International. “Corporations and other organizations face increased scrutiny for their impact to the environment and local communities. Having a thoughtful CSR strategy is one way for a company to address these concerns.”
He notes that CSR encompasses several factors including environmental sustainability, community giving, food waste and more. The range of possibilities offers planners a variety of ways make an impact with a CSR strategy, even if that means beginning with small steps.
At MPI’s annual World Education Congress, the host committee has a dedicated subcommittee that assists staff in identifying a CSR project for the event, as well as any other opportunities to engage and educate attendees about how they can incorporate CSR initiatives within their own events. Past projects have included hands-on opportunities to give back to the local community, as well as offsite community volunteer activities.
“Corporate social responsibility ranges from giving back to your community to protecting the environment,” says Raven Catlin, CEO and lead trainer for Raven Global Training in the Washington, DC, metro area. “Failure to demonstrate this responsibility may be detrimental to the enterprise’s reputation, particularly in today’s social media-driven society.”
“It’s important to me to work for a company that supports CSR activities,” says Lauren E. Richardson, CMP, meeting manager for Medtronic, a medical technology and services provider with offices in Santa Rosa, California. “I also want to work with other companies and vendors that support CSR activities and foster a giving culture.” She notes that at a recent convention in Paris, her company raised more than $10,000 for SAMS (Syrian American Medical Society). She is now starting a project to collect needed amenities at programs for Syrian refugee camps.
“I also partner with vendors who have food donation programs or green practices like a linen reuse program,” she says.
Such efforts are not unusual. In fact, social responsibility seems to be generating ever-increasing interest on the part of both meeting planners and event attendees.
“There has been an upsurge in popularity regarding CSR events,” says Ryan Shortill, founder of Positive Adventures, a San Diego firm specializing in teambuilding, company retreats and organization development. “Many employees, especially the younger ones, want to know how the company they work for is making a difference.” He notes that altruism is strong within the millennial population, and if companies are not considering this, they are missing a chance to keep staff long-term and avoid costly turnover.
“Meeting planners have to consider this as an integral component of the time spent together,” he says. “Planning a golf offsite is no longer going to cut it.” He notes that today’s employees want hands-on experiences and to know they work for someone who cares for the community.
Certainly, meeting such expectations can bring challenges.
“There are many legs to a corporate social responsibility program,” says Jody Hall, CMP, manager, corporate events and volunteerism for WellCare Health Plans in Tampa, Florida. “CSR is important but how to integrate the level and focus depends on the objectives of the meeting, the audience, the company and its culture. There are many ways to incorporate facets of a CSR program into a corporate meeting or event, and we have done so many times.”
Hall’s company makes it a practice to incorporate a community give-back element as part of its annual conference.
“With a packed agenda and limited space, we often have to get creative,” she says. At one conference, a local non-profit had its troupe with developmental disabilities perform a musical revue during dinner. At another, a professional artist auctioned artwork painted at the event as a fundraiser for an upcoming awareness walk. Other activities have included splitting attendees into teams to build bikes for autistic children and wheelchairs for those in need.
“It takes additional coordination, budget and often space, but is worth it for the experience of the attendees, the performers, the recipients of the items and the non-profit organization that benefits from additional awareness,” Hall says.
Although on the surface everyone may seem to be supportive of CSR, choosing topics and activities can be problematic. But while some topics can be controversial, others may represent beliefs embraced by virtually everyone.
“Reducing waste and incorporating green practices into meetings is pretty standard in today’s world as it is not only good for the environment, but also offers proven cost savings,” Richardson says.
In incorporating CSR into meetings, Hall advises pausing to identify the most critical elements. The focus could be on using sustainable products or ensuring that leftover, unserved food can be donated locally. Or it might mean engaging the attendees in a meaningful volunteer opportunity, such as a simple collection drive for a non-profit in need.
“If this is a new element to your meeting, maybe pick one thing to focus on,” she says. “If you are partnering with a non-profit, be sure you have vetted them and ensure their cause aligns with your company’s mission and values.”
She says it’s also important to understand just what partners really need.
“There is no point in building 50 bikes for children if the non-profit has no place to store them,” she says. “You want to create a memorable and meaningful experience for the attendee as well as bring awareness and provide benefit to the non-profit.”
A major point to consider is whether the subject of a CSR program aligns with the meeting or hosting company’s mission, according to Brian Doyle, vice president, client solutions for Pacific Consulting Group, a customer research and consulting firm in Redwood City, California. If a food company is hosting the meeting, a likely topic might revolve around feeding hungry people. If the meeting subject is about housing, then a fitting activity might be partnering with Habitat for Humanity.
“When the CSR subject is different from the host, like if the host builds computers and everyone is asked to volunteer at an animal shelter, it can feel disingenuous,” he says. “Instead, that computer company should be refurbishing computers for local schools.”
Another reality is the effort required for a CSR event and whether it is the best use of time that may be limited. That was the discussion when Doyle, at that time with a different employer, was planning a national meeting for sales personnel.
“Our conversation was around whether we should use two or three hours building meals for the hungry or using the time to better teach our sales people techniques to sell our product, more product knowledge or provide them greater context from our leadership team,” he says. Ultimately, the decision was that CSR event’s resulting energy and motivation was a better use of time and more important, that 20,000 meals for hungry people would be created.
“It worked out to be the right decision and we did it the following year as well,” Doyle says.
Hall notes that incorporating some elements may cost more than expected. “Do your research, and find partner organizations if the undertaking is huge,” she says. “Don’t force it — it will be disingenuous.”
Participants’ physical abilities also need to be considered when planning a CSR event, Doyle says. “For instance, Habitat for Humanity is very physical and requires strength and an able body,” he says. “If your audience is older or disabled, it’s not a very good choice. Since events often bring people from all walks of life, it’s important to have CSR activities where people can sit down, the temperature is controlled and so forth.”
Rochelle Karr, director of corporate social responsibility and alumni relations at international law firm O’Melveny & Myers LLP, says that CSR efforts need not be elaborate.
“Think local,” she says. “Incorporating CSR into your meeting or convention doesn’t need to be something grand. Impactful can be small.”
At one of her firm’s partner retreats, attendees planted a community garden in New Orleans. At an event in Las Vegas, they paired with band students from a local high school in a karaoke contest before surprising the young musicians with new instruments.
Amanda Ponzar, chief marketing officer for Community Health Charities in Alexandria, Virginia, says that corporate meeting planners always can reach out to local nonprofits and CSR leaders in the city where an event is being hosted.
“It’s a great way to identify community needs and partner together to create a positive social impact wherever you are hosting your event,” she says. “These local contacts could help you find socially friendly or women-owned businesses to hire for needs such as catering, plus help you with volunteer opportunities either onsite or off.”
Karr says staying relevant is a key. “Look for where there is a real need in your community or in the world,” she says, “whether that’s making peanut butter and jelly sandwiches for the homeless in your own neighborhood, or donating backpacks full of school supplies for Afghan children in Kabul.”
She notes that even simple efforts can allow people to have a hands-on role in making a difference in someone else’s life. She also advises asking for help.
“Corporate meeting planners should contact local community service organizations or clients in the area to see what opportunities for a one-day service exist,” she says. Karr notes that websites such as volunteermatch.org can be useful tools in identifying time-specific opportunities.
“Make sure that you have the support of your upper management and your compliance office before you start your project,” Richardson advises. “And do your research about any charity you may be partnering with or helping.”
Catlin advocates specific planning combined with a high level of awareness. “Create a list of elements of CSR important to you and develop a scoring model to evaluate venues,” she says. “While onsite, meeting planners should observe good and poor CSR practices, and promptly communicate them to the venue for recognition or correction, if needed.”
Shortill recalls an occasion where a CSR program had been scheduled for a time slot that conflicted with several concurrent sessions, and some potential participants were unable to attend.
“The following year they went with an all-day, come-as-you please version where they built dollhouses for children as well as care packages for homeless vets, among many other activities,” he says. “This open-flow version allowed several thousand people to help out in the ways they had time for.
“We did a bike build for a company that helped children with skin conditions,” he says. “We were then able to partner with the doctors and gave the bikes to kids who used that medication.”
As for scheduling, he notes that a two-hour ballroom event can be easy to set up and fit into a tight timeline.
“Offsites can be more complex with buses and travel time as well as taking more time, but you can get folks out into the fresh air and into the local community,” he says.
“When planning a CSR event, if you want a charity and donation recipients to be present at your event, take their schedules into consideration,” says Lisa Jennings, chief experience officer for Wildly Different, a corporate teambuilding and networking firm based in Orlando.
“For instance, if you’re building bikes for kids in need and you want them to be at your event to receive them, do not schedule the activity during school hours.”
She recalls working with one client who was adamant about having children attend a CSR event at 9:00 a.m. on a Friday. But all the charities her firm reached out to said the same thing — that they promote school as the one way these disadvantaged kids can get ahead in the world, so they can’t pull them out of school just to get a bike.
“In the end, we were able to get preschoolers to come to the event so it turned out alright, but it was a struggle there for a while,” she says.
She adds that any activity related to social responsibility should be reflective of your company and its culture. “Weave CSR into various touchpoints of your meeting or event,” Hall says. “Make it meaningful.”
Collaboration is a key, according to Marcial. “Work closely with your venue and destination partners to understand what CSR initiatives they currently have in place,” he says. “There may be natural tie-ins for how your group can get involved.”
He also says starting small can be a good strategy. “If this your first time considering a CSR strategy for your events, don’t feel overwhelmed by all the various components,” he says. “Start small and utilize some of the industry resources that are available, including education from industry associations such as MPI.”
Jennings says the creative touch will always be appreciated. “Get creative when it comes to planning a CSR activity,” she says. Instead of a build-a-bike program in a community where that has already been done, for example, consider an activity in which teams play games with sporting equipment that’s donated to kids.
She says that tying a CSR activity into a meeting theme can be an effective way to complement a meeting. For a theme such as “breakthrough performance,” an option would be hosting a movie-making activity in which teams make a mini-movie for their company, complete with costumes and props that could be donated to a youth theater program following the meeting.
Richardson affirms that planners can play an important role in creating a successful CSR culture. “If we can advertise and communicate our goal effectively,” she says, “we can create a successful CSR project that really can make a positive impact.” C&IT