Doing Great ThingsAugust 22, 2022

Meetings With a CSR Component Help the Community By
August 22, 2022

Doing Great Things

Meetings With a CSR Component Help the Community
Team-building activities are a quick and easy way to build corporate social responsibility into any meeting or event. Courtesy of Lisa Jennings

Team-building activities are a quick and easy way to build corporate social responsibility into any meeting or event. Courtesy of Lisa Jennings

Corporate social responsibility (CSR) is quickly becoming a key component within the meetings and events industry. Thanks in part to a greater focus on issues that affect meetings and events participants — climate change, poverty, health and wellness and other areas of focus — more meeting attendees are looking for events that speak to and reflect the issues they are passionate about. In addition, companies that have integrated CSR into their brands are looking to showcase the work they’re doing in that space and align themselves with meetings and events that reflect their CSR ethos.

According to Lisa Jennings, chief experience officer and meeting planner at Wildly Different in Orlando, Florida, team building has always been an important component of meetings, allowing attendees to get out of their seats and move to enjoy a fun break from content, but more importantly, giving them an opportunity to get to know each other better. “I’ve been conducting team-building events for 34 years, and in the past five years, I’ve seen a huge shift of companies wanting the team-building events they book to do more than just be fun — they also want them to benefit others. CSR programs bring the feel-good factor, allow companies to demonstrate that they care, and while they impact all participants, it is especially appealing to their millennial employees, who are more engaged in community service and philanthropic giving than previous generations.”

Often, there is not enough time in a meeting agenda to transport attendees to an off-site volunteer experience, so, Jennings and her team bring the CSR program to their meeting and event clients wherever they are. “We are full-service and take care of everything related to the event, including reaching out to the type of charity they’d like to benefit, identifying what their needs are, creating a fun program around the charities’ message and needs, purchasing and delivering items to the charity, etc.,” Jennings says. For instance, if someone wants to help local schools, they may conduct a Reading Rocks program where they play games such as having teams guess the name of the famous children’s book by the hint provided, participating in a spelling bee with a unique spin and racing to be the first to find images in books before all other teams to earn books — not points — that are all donated at the end of the program.

Tiffany Cohen, CMP, CITP, senior director, client engagement at MCW Events, says when CSR initiatives first started showing up on agendas, it may have been as simple as a backpack-stuffing activity for a local school, a competitive “build-a-bike” event or group painting for hospital artwork. “The CSR at the time felt more about checking a box,” Cohen says. “Now, it’s exciting to see companies work back with the local communities to find out what the biggest needs are — and how their group can help make an impact. The meetings industry celebrates bringing people together for meaningful interactions, and it’s great to see that spill into meaningful impact to the community at large.”

Hal Powell, regional vice president of sales and marketing for Benchmark, Pyramid Luxury & Lifestyle, has seen an increased interest in community engagement opportunities and a desire to better understand sustainability practices by meeting and event planners. Now, as events quickly ramp back up, that trend continues and is becoming even more widespread. Powell is seeing smaller and shorter length events — even one-day meetings — working to weave CSR into their programming, whereas previously it was the three- and four-night programs carving out the time. “Meeting planners are approaching the opportunity with more seriousness and intentionality, too, proactively asking us about the communities their group is visiting, what its needs are, and how their event can do the most local good. It’s not just about team building, but about impact,” Powell says.

Leeatt Rothschild, founder & CEO of Packed with Purpose, suggests organizing a volunteer event, above, or having attendees build gift bags. Courtesy of Leeatt Rothschild

Leeatt Rothschild, founder & CEO of Packed with Purpose, suggests organizing a volunteer event, above, or having attendees build gift bags. Courtesy of Leeatt Rothschild

Successful CSR Programs

Successful CSR programs link the company’s CSR efforts with the meeting/event theme and any major sponsors’ CSR priorities. For example, as Sara Zellner, principal at Lynz Consulting LLC, points out, CSR initiatives in the financial industry often work to provide better resources and capital to disadvantaged areas or the businesses in these areas. “For a financial industry-related event, it could be held in a disadvantaged area, vendors from the area could provide their services for the event, special meeting content could highlight CSR programs of major sponsors that have benefitted the area, etc.,” Zellner says. As the CEO of a corporate responsibility consulting firm, Zellner works with her clients to determine how to best incorporate CSR into their organizations and through their meetings and events. She identifies their CSR priorities based on their industry, corporate objectives and other factors. Then, she explores ways to weave CSR into their meetings and events given these priorities, meeting goals and the budget.

One client Zellner worked with was organizing an event around health and wellness in the workplace. “With this theme, we created an event where all of the food served throughout the day was healthy and fresh — items like fried food, refined sugar and red meat were not included in the event menu. Wellness and mindfulness breaks were also interspersed between meeting sessions that consisted of light stretching and meditation,” Zellner says. “Another priority for the client was showcasing local, minority-owned businesses in the healthy food industry, so we had a special snack break where a couple of food vendors came in and provided their products to event participants.”

According to Leeatt Rothschild, founder & CEO of Packed with Purpose, there’s no shortage of ways to include CSR into today’s meetings and events, and planning ahead can ensure a company’s CSR initiatives double in value. Some examples Rothschild suggests include:

  • Invite a speaker that can talk to a particular aspect of your CSR strategy, and build that session into your event
  • Organize a volunteer opportunity to bring your attendees into the community to help with a food bank, soup kitchen or neighborhood cleanup
  • Create a hands-on experience by letting attendees build their own gift bags comprised of products from social enterprises, sustainable brands or diverse- and women-owned businesses
  • Ensure any kind of swag aligns with your company’s values and is sourced accordingly
  • Think beyond the end. Is there a community resource that could use the materials left over from your event?

“For example, our company recently attended a law conference expo and we partnered with a local food shelter to receive the remaining snack products from our booth,” Rothschild says. “No matter how you incorporate CSR, make sure you are telling your attendees and audience at large why you are making these choices. Creating events that support this larger purpose — often found in the CSR side of a business — further illustrates your company’s commitment to better corporate social responsibility. But they will never know the good your event does at a larger level if you’re not sharing the how and the why. Over communication on real commitments to positive environmental and social change will ensure that everyone knows you take your CSR initiatives to heart.”

Powell also advises meeting and event planners to understand the mission of the host. It’s important that the off-site experience aligns with the company’s values and corporate pillars. “It’s also a smart investment of time to try these experiences personally, or have a connection to a trusted insider with direct experience, so you know it’s set up for success,” Powell says. “And be mindful of the activity itself, and if it’s well suited to the group of attendees. Not everyone can or wishes to build houses, for example. Finally, think through the timing of the experience. An initiative that can be accomplished in the time allotted is going to feel much more fulfilling for the group and have a better impact on the community.”

Jennings’ key tip in making a CSR program a success is to choose an event based on the charity’s need — not a group’s desire. For instance, taking pictures of attendees surrounded by items they decorated or assembled for charity may look impactful, but often that impact can be a negative for charities as they may not want those items or be unable to store that many of them. So, ask what the charity’s capacity is and what they desire most. “Often that could be money. It doesn’t mean you simply have to hand over a check — you want your attendees to connect with the give via the event,” Jennings says. “So, it’s up to you to build a program that allows for that.” For instance, in Wildly Different’s Unlock The Donation program, for the charity they are helping, teams race to use information to solve clues that will eventually unlock a chest at the front of the room containing a charitable donation. “The education and involvement built around the program makes an impression on the group, and the charity gets the money they sorely need,” Jennings says.

The most popular CSR programs Wildly Different offers are those that benefit kids in need. Everyone loves to put a smile on the face of a child, and the pictures the charity can send afterward, demonstrating the results of the program, really tug at the heartstrings. “Programs like Red Wagon Brigade, where teams assemble and decorate red wagons and play games to win toys to fill the wagon; Kids Snack Packs, where teams compete in activities that are food-focused so they can earn items to assemble into after-school snack packs for kids who go hungry outside of school hours; and Play For Keeps, in which teams use much-needed sporting equipment to compete in relays that are donated after the event, are top picks at the moment,” Jennings says.

Another popular CSR “ask” is for programs that can be done with little to no space and that can be done outdoors. Charitable hunts are ideal for this. Teams can spread out around a resort to do the event in small teams. “Our technology allows them to explore an area as they open up charitable-themed tasks, such as answering questions about charitable giving, solving clues that reveal facts about the charity, allowing them to visit stations where they collect items for the charity, etc. — all in the great outdoors,” Jennings says.

Cohen adds that it’s important to understand the level of sweat equity your attendees are willing and able to contribute. “Not everyone will be interested in spending half a day of their Club program getting sweaty and dirty — and that’s OK. It’s important to provide multiple outlets for giving,” Cohen says. “Maybe there are donations that attendees can bring with them — school supplies, old electronics or even cash are all easy for attendees to do.” Then, you can also provide the opportunity to engage those who are willing to give more of their time — in areas such as construction, painting or planting. Making this investment optional also shows that the organization respects the time of their attendees. “However, you’ll be surprised at how many people do opt to participate — giving back is cool,” Cohen says.

Lisa Jennings, chief experience officer and meeting planner at Wildly Different, says one of the best ways to get attendees to join CSR activities is to make sure it’s fun. Courtesy of Lisa Jennings

Lisa Jennings, chief experience officer and meeting planner at Wildly Different, says one of the best ways to get attendees to join CSR activities is to make sure it’s fun. Courtesy of Lisa Jennings

The Future of CSR

It’s no secret that the pandemic really affected both sides involved in CSR events. Many participants saw what it was like to be in need during the past few years, and they now doubly understand the importance of helping others. “On the flip side, charities were hard-hit during the pandemic, and their need has never been greater,” Jennings says. For these reasons, she sees CSR programs’ popularity continuing to rise. “As for how it will evolve, my hope is that it evolves to help the charities get what they truly want versus just being a ‘wow’ picture-taking opportunity for attendees,” Jennings says. “Planners are constantly asking us for ‘what is new,’ but the needs of charities remain the same — money, food, consumables. As team-building experts, we have to find ways to make the programs that will deliver these items interesting versus making the items donated more interesting.”

Rothschild stresses that when you want the value of an event to be as high as possible, aligning all the event-planning tasks to a CSR framework can only help. “When you build the event brand to uphold the high standards of the corporate social responsibility initiatives, you’re also building the brand of the company, creating a cohesive experience and exceeding expectations of what a great event can be. It also helps to draw clearer, more consistent lines of communication and impact to those whom the CSR initiatives assist,” Rothschild says. “Yes, it may be extra planning and work, but it will always provide an outsized benefit to those your program seeks to help.”

Powell also thinks CSR programming is here to stay. As such, he anticipates meetings will be built around CSR, rather than building a CSR initiative into a meeting. It will become the foundation around which businesses gather. “I anticipate companies, hotels and resorts will also start taking a more holistic approach to programming decisions, weaving a common CSR mission into all aspects of their work, rather than just a one-time event,” Powell says. “This is going to lead to greater impact by the meetings and events industry, because each gathering will be pushing a larger vision and mission forward.” C&IT

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