Have you heard the one about the 30 lawyers who spent an afternoon landscaping, planting flowers, and putting in a sprinkler system for a battered women's shelter? Don't wait for the punch line--it's no joke. In fact, the Young Lawyers Division of the American Bar Association has been doing these kinds of public service projects at their annual meetings for almost a decade. And they're not alone. In fact, more and more associations, including the Professional Conference Management Association (PCMA) and the International Association of Conference Centers (IACC), are incorporating community service projects into their downtown meetings. Think it would be too much additional work, or something your attendees just wouldn't go for? Think again.

A Different Kind of Footprint Service projects provide an alternative free-time activity to the usual golfing, shopping, and museum or site-seeing tour, while giving attendees a chance to do something good for the local community. "It's like that sign you see when you go camping, 'Take nothing but photos, leave nothing but footprints," says Paul Tringale, director of conferences and summer programs with Tufts University Conference Bureau in Medford, Mass.

"A large association meeting can cause a lot of congestion, traffic, and general wear-and-tear on a city," he adds. "Community service is our way of doing a little road repair." Tringale, who coordinates Habitat for Humanity projects for IACC's annual meetings, says another benefit is that attendees see more than just the airport and the hotel or convention center. This kind of project "gives people the opportunity to see the real community, the people who make the city work."

Not only is it good for the people who want to give back, but it's good for the planner who can bring in a fresh, innovative idea to revitalize his or her meetings, adds Laura Palmer, the Birmingham, Ala.based coordinator of the Network for the Needy program at PCMA. Last year PCMA donated beds, and cleaned, painted, landscaped, and cooked for residents of a battered women's shelter. For last month's meeting, volunteers went to Walden House, an HIV/AIDS care center in San Francisco that serves more than 2,000 people each year.

For white-collar professionals like attorneys, it's also a chance to get out from behind their desks and roll up their sleeves. "It's a treat for them to get to use their brawn instead of their brains for a change," says Ann Fiegen, assistant staff director for the American Bar Association's Young Lawyers Division in Chicago. Painting a domestic violence shelter or cleaning up a beach also can give the lawyers' images a little much-needed boost. "The volunteers gain by showing laypeople that lawyers are good people who are willing to help, not just the brunt of bad jokes. Everyone wins: the community, the individual volunteer, and the image of our profession as a whole."

Tringale notes that a community service project also adds another dimension to your downtown meeting. "It's a great teambuilding exercise, and people who participate get a lot of satisfaction out of it." The project also can be a good introduction to volunteering on an individual basis: Once people do something like this in a large group, it's much less intimidating to continue volunteering when they get home.

"Attendees know what's involved in working with Habitat for Humanity: They just need to bring their boots and gloves, and someone will show them how to bang the hammer," Tringale explains. "It's a good introduction to the volunteer community." And it's not difficult to coordinate.

Working Your Way Up Still don't think your group is up to banging nails or sloshing Lysol around the floor of a shelter? No problem--there are lots of other ways your group can contribute to the local community. For example, the Alexandria, Va.based Society of American Florists has two semi-trucks full of beautiful, top-quality, fresh flowers and plants from around the globe, arranged by top designers, at its convention each year.

At its 1999 annual convention in Tucson, Ariz., the association's local designer set up a system called "Blooms Over Tucson" to distribute 650 floral arrangements from the events to local hospitals, nursing homes, shut-ins, and medical centers. Letters from grateful recipients flooded in, and the companies who donated the flowers were happy to hear how their donations lived on after the convention. As Nancy Lawler, CMP, the society's director of meetings and conventions, says, "It turned out to be great public relations for the industry, and for the local Tucson florists, too."

Windy Christner, CMP, the director of meetings and expositions for the American Pharmaceutical Association (APhA) in Washington, D.C., says her organization is working its way up to doing a hands-on project. In 1999, APhA donated leftover food to the food bank in San Antonio, Texas, where the meeting was held. They also asked exhibitors to contribute extra products to the Children's Shelter of San Antonio, and coordinated a program called "Cuddles for Kids," which provided more than 360 stuffed toys for needy and displaced children at the shelter. For its 2000 meeting in Washington, D.C., the association is holding a book drive for its Friends of Pharmacy program to benefit the Family and Child Services of Washington, D.C.

"We hope to have it grow into a full-fledged program that includes community service projects," Christner explains. "I think it would go over well with our attendees, especially the 1,300 or so students who come to our meetings--but we're not there yet."

Donation Tips To get started, your group can donate:

* Leftover food. Check with your hotel or convention center to find out if they already have a food-donation program in place. If not, call the local office of Foodchain or Second Harvest for a list of food banks in the area that could accept donations. The Bill Emerson Good Samaritan Food Donation Act will protect your organization from civil and criminal liability, just in case a good deed goes wrong. Foodchain's national office number is (800) 842-5145; Second Harvest can be reached at (800) 532-FOOD, or visit www.secondharvest.org.

* Excess exhibitor products. All those freebie pens, notepads, T-shirts, and other goodies don't need to hit the trash can when your convention leaves town--they could benefit local schools or shelters. Contact Gifts in Kind International's Product Donation Management Team at (703) 836-2121; ProductDonations@GiftsInKind.org; or visit the organization's Web site at www.GiftsInKind.org.

* Goods for local food and clothing drives. Ask attendees to bring along canned food or an extra shirt to donate. To find local charities, contact United Way of America at (800) 411-8929, or check www.unitedway.org.

* Money from a fundraiser. Some groups might be willing to forgo dessert and have the money saved donated to a local charity in their names, or hold a special fund-raising dinner and give the proceeds to charity. Contact United Way of America.

* Airline miles. Eight major airlines now will let you put your frequent flier miles toward programs like the Make-A-Wish Foundation, which provides dream trips for seriously ill children: American Airlines' Miles for Kids in Need; Continental Airlines-CAREFORCE; Delta Airlines' SkyWish; Northwest Airlines--AirCares Program; Southwest Airlines; TWA Operation Lift Off for Children and Salvation Army Programs; United Airlines; and US Airways.

The Requisite Number Most associations don't have too much trouble getting the volunteers. In fact, PCMA's Hospitality Helping Hands program has been sold out for the past several years, and they even charge volunteers a small fee to cover paint and supplies. IACC also has no problem getting the requisite amount of volunteers for its projects.

But don't worry if you aren't able to get the 10 percent participation that the American Bar Association's Young Lawyers Division enjoys. As John Potterton, director of business development with Summit Executive Centre in Chicago, says, "Even if only five people participate, it's still a win-win for all. We all want to be part of organizations that are doing the right thing, even if we are not directly involved in the project being offered."

IACC's Tringale agrees: "There will always be those you can't drag away from the golf course. But those who do participate will get a lot of admiration," he says. "Participating in a community service project makes everyone feel good, and it gives attendees and organizers another topic to talk about when they're networking."

While some planners shy away because they don't think their attendees are interested, others can go too far in the other direction. "The biggest problem some people run into is trying to be too ambitious, to change the world through their project," says Fiegan of the American Bar Association's Young Lawyer Division. "Just painting one room can really make a difference." For example, her organization redoes waiting rooms where children stay while their parents or guardians are in legal hearings. "They bring toys and books, paint, put up pictures, and generally make it more child-friendly," she says. "These are small things, but they are things that make these kids' lives a little brighter and happier. So you can keep it small and still make a big statement."

And all those small statements really could add up, says Christner: "We have so many associations. If only half of them did these projects in conjunction with their meetings, just think of what a huge difference it would make in the world."

1. Carve out a block of time in your schedule. Most projects last about four to six hours, although charitable organizations usually are glad to work with different schedules. Many associations run projects during an afternoon break, but some do them before or after the meeting. Choose your timing carefully: If most people are driving to your event, they may not be as willing to stay for a Saturday afternoon post-meeting project as those who have to stay over for the Saturday night airfare discount.

2. Determine what types of projects would appeal to your attendees.Hearty types tend to like physical activities like cleaning, painting, or raking. More sedentary groups might prefer reading to those with sight impairment, or doing a toy drive.

3. Choose a charitable organization. One starting point is Habitat for Humanity, which builds affordable houses. Call (912) 924-6935, or use the search engine at www.habitat.org. Or contact the United Way of America, (800/411-8929 and www.unitedway.org) a national group of volunteers and charities with almost 1,400 independent United Ways nationwide. They can put you in touch with retirement homes, battered women's shelters, and other organizations in your meeting's locale.The area CVB can be helpful. Newspapers are a good source; most include a section on volunteer opportunities. Ask local, state, or regional chapters for suggestions.

4. Get buy-in from your board of directors. Just deciding which organization to donate to can be a hot topic for some associations.

5. Make sure the charitable organization understands how many will be in your group, when to expect them, and for how long. If any liability waivers will be needed, find out whether the organization will have them on hand or if you need to provide them. Make sure that the organization comes up with something suitable for your time frame (i.e., you won't be plumbing an entire house in four hours) and that there will be enough work for your entire group. Also, if it's an outdoor project, make sure there's indoor work as well, just in case the weather doesn't cooperate.

6. Promote it in your pre-conference mailings. Make it just another check-off item, as for any other activity. In the conference confirmation, inform volunteers of any special considerations. For example, if the project involves construction work, tell them that they should bring sturdy shoes and work gloves.

7. Keep in touch with your contact person at the charity in the time before the meeting.

8. Contact local media. It's a great opportunity to get some coverage for your association.Consider hiring a photographer for the event--even if you don't get coverage by the big newspapers, the volunteers' local papers might be interested in running a story.

9. At the conference, announce the project and the location of sign-up sheets and transportation.

10. Publish the results of the activity in post-conference materials. To generate enthusiasm--and more volunteers at next year's meeting--include the thank-you's you're bound to get from those you helped.