Leading Meeting Professionals

Professional Convention Management Association

August 2013

How to Ensure Your Meeting's CSR Activities Actually Make An Impact

By Michelle Russell, Editor in Chief
make a significant difference in a community is the limited amount of time they spend there. “How much impact can you have in one afternoon?” Heisman said. “What is it that you can do that is possible? If you go to an afterschool program and play with the kids, you’re going to have a one-time impact that is going to kind of evaporate really quickly. If you tutored for one day, that would be nice, but a kid who can’t read well needs to be tutored for six months. If you can do something like building a playground, you have the ability to create something that has some sustainable impact.”

With that in mind, Smith said that she looks for opportunities “to help the more social-enterprise kind of organizations that are actually employing people and helping them to make a living,” because those efforts have a more sustainable impact.

When looking at which charity to support with a CSR activity, Heisman said, it’s important to recognize that some organizations are simply not equipped for volunteers. “People always hate to hear this when I say it, but it takes staff time and money to organize a volunteer effort,” she said. “If you want to go paint a fence, who is going to buy the paint and get the paintbrushes and get you guys ready and put the aprons on and then clean up everything? Some charities just aren’t set up to have a ton of volunteers, so you’re actually costing the charity time and resources to manage you.” She advised meeting professionals to be sensitive to that, adding that charities “don’t exist to have you come in for half a day.”

One way around this, Heisman said, is to work with local organizations that are set up to manage volunteers. “You might want to find the organization near those communities [where your meeting is being held] that actually helps match volunteers to projects,” she said. “Maybe you have a whole list of projects and people divide up into smaller groups, so everybody doesn’t bombard a small charity at once.”

DO YOUR HOMEWORK

Heisman also thinks it’s important for planners to consider whether they would “rather be a little fish in a big pond or a big fish in a little pond” — by working with a local chapter of the Boys and Girls Club of America, or finding a small organization in the community without national ties. She suggested that planners consult the local United Way chapter and some of the private foundations in their host destination to see what they are funding in the community. Because they have “program officers that are there on the ground all the time,” Heisman said, these foundations “are usually very good at sorting out who is doing a good job. I would really encourage — if people have time in their meeting planning — to do a bit of homework.”

‘People always hate to hear this when I say it, but it takes [charity] staff time and effort to organize a volunteer effort.’

Unfortunately, not all planners take that kind of time. Many “do not dig very deeply,” Smith said, and rely mostly on CVBs to pick organizations suitable for volunteer efforts when their meeting comes to town. But Smith believes that there may be “better ways to engage with communities in the cities that we meet” and that “going through a tourist organization” is not necessary optimal. “I am sure that there are some CVBs that are doing it well, but my guess is that they have a challenge being really honest about it,” Smith said, “and that you have to reach out deeper. I think CVBs are just getting their head around how to connect communities with the meeting planners. But I think they’re trying to shelter [attendees] in some instances from real needs. I think they want to paint a pretty picture of their destinations — we all have [those less desirable aspects], and in the tourism and hospitality industry, we don’t talk about that.”

Smith thinks that planners can take better advantage of site inspections by talking with people on the ground. She recommends asking individuals about their own volunteer activities; or, if they work at a hotel, what are some of the things the hotel does to give back to the community. “In a lot of cases,” Smith said, “we’re doing work in our own communities, but we’re just not talking about it.”

FINDING THE RIGHT FIT

It has become expected now, Smith said, that attendees have an opportunity to participate in a CSR activity as part of an event — and that could be a problem. As community-service initiatives have become actual components of events, they have “become almost event-sized. And I don’t know that it necessarily is having the amount of impact that is really needed,” she said. “Like, we go and paint a school, but is that the second time that school has been painted in this last year? … We’re trying to look for projects that are easy for people to do, and when you start limiting based on logistics and the skill level of the people, then you start kind of watering down the need. Maybe that school needs its furnace rebuilt. And no one at the American Cardiology Association is really going to be able to do that — but maybe there is other expertise that they can lend.”

‘When you start limiting [projects] based on logistics and the skill level of the people, then you start watering down the need.’

Looking at the skill sets of your attendees and connecting them to a real need in the meeting destination is what Smith called an “interesting angle” — and something Heisman agreed is a good idea. The meeting planner should try to work with “the kind of orientation or bent” a group has, Heisman said. For example, real-estate professional attendees might be interested in volunteering for a housing project, she said, or a psychology group might want their efforts to go to improving children’s lives. “It’s good to get a cause that is a reasonably good match to what the organization does,” Heisman said. “There aren’t charitable parallels for everything, but for a lot of things there are. There are charities that focus on education, the arts, and the environment. Charities are so diverse. You have to sort of pick big or small, and then pick what part of the sector you want to participate in. And then within that, you have to narrow it down from the whole universe of a million charities down to where you’re going to be and who is there and also who is willing to have you.”

Kristin Bakota, CMP, meetings manager for APICS, the Association for Operations Management, used those parameters to select a charity for the APICS 2013 conference next month. “Based on the location of our conference this year — Orlando — we decided to partner with Clean the World to create a CSR activity for our attendees,” Bakota said. “It’s the first time we’ve done anything like this, and the idea stemmed loosely from the activity PCMA conducted with Clean the World [at Convening Leaders] earlier this year. We plan to start our tour at the Gaylord with a brief behind-the-scenes look at how soap is collected, and we will then bus everyone to the Clean the World facility to put together the hygiene kits [for those in need] on site. Since we work with supply-chain professionals, they will enjoy the process of seeing everything from start to finish.”

While that seems a natural fit for APICS, finding a charity and activity that will provide the most benefit to a community is not always an easy feat. “I do feel for a planner, because this is only one aspect of what they’re doing — and then we make it that much more complicated for them,”

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