Ten years ago, the Professional Convention Management Association (PCMA) started a program called Network for the Needy. Initially founded to link meeting planners with food donation programs, it has evolved into a full-service volunteerism program.

"We're encouraging other associations to incorporate community service projects into their events," says Laura Palmer, coordinator of PCMA's Network for the Needy. "There are so many ways to get involved--I heard that one organization even held a blood drive during its meeting. There are lots of neat ideas you can pick up on."

The easiest way to begin, she says, is to contact her at (205) 978-4918; fax (205) 978-3083. She'll send you the NftN Resource Manual, which includes a step-by-step guide to including volunteerism of all kinds in meetings, as well as contact information for numerous charitable programs. Updates to the manual are posted regularly at PCMA's Web site, www.pcma.org/nftn.htm. The manual is also updated as new ideas come in. "When anyone in the industry comes up with an idea, we try to incorporate it," Palmer says. One unique aspect of the program is the involvement of GES Exposition Services, which not only sponsors the program, but also provides a network of 20 or so representatives throughout the U.S. who volunteer to act as mentors, answering the planner's questions and giving advice.

"Not only do these projects make attendees feel good for giving back to the community, but they also help the meeting planner industry," Palmer explains. "When associations offer these opportunities to their attendees, they're adding a forward-thinking, innovative concept to their program. It's a good thing for everyone."