As planners get back to booking in-person events, they are looking more than ever for ways to infuse their meetings with a sense of purpose and social responsibility. In the wake of a world-shifting crisis we seek opportunities not only to reconnect with each other but also to rebuild and strengthen communities.
Despite the past success of community service projects and frequent rave reviews from both planners and attendees, incorporating a corporate social responsibility initiative into a meeting was far from standard practice before the pandemic. More than half of planners were not making CSR part of their events and just 32 percent said they occasionally do, according to the 29th Annual Meetings Market Survey from the Professional Convention Management Association. That may shift in the coming months, however, as many expect attendees will be seeking a greater purpose from traveling and meeting.
Planners who don't include activities that give back to the community are missing out, according to Alan Ranzer, cofounder and managing partner for West Orange, New Jersey-based Impact 4 Good. His special event company pioneered bike-build events in which bicycle parts are provided to attendees who compete as teams to assemble them, often donating them on the spot to local youths.
During the pandemic, Impact 4 Good began doing Zoom-based CSR programming. These included game shows, for which winning teams were able to select a cause and participants were shipped product parts to be assembled at home during virtual meetings. Finished products were then mailed to charitable organizations.
"These programs are more important than ever," Ranzer says. "In a time like this, people see the value of reaching out to the communities where their employees live and meet."
Those looking to enhance their next in-person gathering with a CSR program can connect with their destination's convention and visitors bureau or destination management organization. These groups can help connect planners to special-event companies or worthwhile local charities that might complement a group's mission or meeting theme.
To help spark ideas for adding CSR to your upcoming in-person programs, here are examples of groups that gave back to kids and communities, helped the homeless, cleaned up the neighborhood and had a positive impact on the city where they met.
Harmonizing to Help With Homelessness
Carl Zeiss Vision Inc.'s annual sales meeting was booked at the rock-memorabilia-infused Hard Rock Hotel San Diego. Music and song were integrated into all parts of the agenda, and a team-building event focused on creating sanitation kits (filled with socks, toiletries, etc.) for area people experiencing homelessness.
The activity was an emcee-hosted competition that included about 100 meeting attendees. More than 2,000 kits were assembled to be donated to the Voices of Our City Choir.
Then a surprise guest was announced: the choir itself. Voices of Our City is a singing group that's also a nonprofit organization. It offers counseling to its singers — most of whom are homeless — and has helped find shelter for more than 70 members.
The choir sang Paul Simon's "Homeless" and the R&B standard "Ain't No Stopping Us Now." Plenty of tears were shed during the performance.
"The crowd was definitely moved," says Trademark Event Productions planner Stephanie Tejada-Feinman. "People were clapping and really getting involved. Attendees had donated their time and energy to the kits, and it was such a great bonus to see the recipients in person."
The energy exchange went both ways. "It was wonderful watching the expressions on the faces of people in the choir," says a choir spokesperson. "These are people who are invisible to society most of the week. On this day, they felt like rock stars."
By the end of 2020, the nonprofit choir — a semifinalist on the most recent season of America's Got Talent — had started producing music videos for Zoom events, kicking off with a performance during a Christmas tree-lighting ceremony for California Gov. Gavin Newsom's office.
More info: voicesofourcity.org; 619-738-1232
Reeling in the Trash
"With face-to-face events coming back, organizations can give participants a heartfelt experience by helping others through a CSR project," says Nancy Zavada, founder/president of MeetGreen, an event agency that helps organizations create sustainable gatherings and activities. "The need is even greater than ever before for underserved communities. Imagine the opportunity, people helping people toward a better future."
She emphasizes that any activity should "be connected to what a group does, what they are committed to and how they think." As restrictions remain in some parts of the country and attendees are getting used to gathering indoors again, an outdoor CSR activity may be a better fit for some groups — and MeetGreen is very experienced with developing such programming. The Fishing Tournament and Riverbank Cleanup was a perfect event for her client, the Pacific Northwest Clean Water Association.
The group met in Boise, Idaho. More than 900 members convened at the Boise Centre, and 30 members arrived one day early to participate in the tournament.
The event title was self-explanatory. Teams competed in a (catch-and-release) fishing contest and simultaneously walked along the Boise River picking up trash from the shoreline and in the riverbed. The winning team filled more than six large trash bags. Zavada jokingly notes that the group collectively pulled enough boating-related flotsam and jetsam (paddles, oar holders, etc.) out of the river to outfit their own ship.
More info: meetgreen.com; 503-252-5458
A Helping Hand
Like many special event companies, Odyssey Teams does a multitude of CSR programs. One signature event is called Helping Hands. In January 2020, SAP Concur (a travel-and-expense software company) met in a breakout room in Seattle's Washington State Convention Center and built 27 prosthetic hands.
There are 30 plastic-injection-molded pieces that have to be assembled before the devices are checked by experts and shipped around the world to those in need. A catch: Each CSR participant wore a mitt over one hand while doing the building — to build empathy for people who will be recipients of the prosthetic devices.
When Covid-19 made in-person hand-building impossible, Odyssey Teams developed a remote solution, sending kits to participants and organizing virtual events in which everyone could create the prosthetics as a group.
"The virtual platform is an important tool in the meeting bag and definitely here to stay," says Lain Hensley, co-owner of Odyssey Teams.
He agrees that while the remote option will continue to be available for any groups who prefer that (or want to provide a hybrid option), that for those gathering in person will be eager for activities that create a more meaningful experience after so many months of social distancing.
"A well-placed CSR program is just the ticket to shake off the isolation of the past year and remind everyone we are all in the business of changing lives," says Hensley. "The 'nuts-and-bolts' content we shared at live meetings in the past can be handled over virtual meetings before you pay to get the team physically together to get connected and be inspired."
More info: odysseyteams.com; 800-342-1650
The Grass Really Is Greener Now
Marriott International's 2019 general managers' meeting brought 4,000 attendees to McCormick Place in Chicago. More than 50 volunteers donated their time to help local nonprofit Inspiration Corporation dig up city street medians and replace dried grass with gum trees and shrubbery.
New Orleans-based NetWork Volunteers specializes in service day programs that can be customized for conference and event planners all over the country. "It was a determined group," says Carly Bryeans, director of strategic partnerships for NetWork Volunteers. In three hours, they managed to replant six city blocks."
Dawn Infanti, Marriott International's director of event services, says she spoke with colleagues who were so motivated by the service project that they're drumming up support to go back to the Chicago work sites and continue what they started.
More info: networkvolunteers.org; 504-233-2995
Putting for a Purpose
One of Impact 4 Good's many team-building CSR programs involves creating a miniature golf course made from canned and boxed food items. Putting for a Purpose allows groups to compete on the self-made holes — and then donate the food items to a charity.
In January 2020, Sageview Advisory Group putted for holes-in-one on a course that added up to 4,320 cans and boxes of veggies and proteins. After the team competition was held in a ballroom at Monarch Beach Resort in Dana Point, Calif., the food was donated to the Orange County Rescue Mission.
"Doing the donation to staff from the Rescue Mission right after the competition makes it so much more meaningful to the group," says Ranzer from Impact 4 Good. "Also, we see time and again that employee engagement like that builds pride and loyalty in a company."
More info: impact4good.com; 973-952-9052
Love Is a Four-Legged Word
Building bikes and prosthetic hands can be tremendously fulfilling work — but how about some comfort and consideration for our four-legged friends too? In 2019, San Diego-based Out of the Ordinary Group Adventures crafted the Build A Dog Bed team challenge for The Mirum Agency.
Convening in downtown San Diego's Luce Loft space, teams from the local marketing/advertising agency hammered, screwed and painted pieces together into cushioned beds that were immediately donated to the Rancho Coastal Humane Society.
RCHS representative Nina Jimenez-Taylor brought a pair of furry companions to witness enthusiastic advertising pitches about the beds — which included rapping, dancing and lots of dog jokes — delivered by the creatives at Mirum Agency.
More info: groupadventures.com; 858-487-3418