“Sometimes people look at corporate social responsibility as touchy-feely,” says Stephanie Olivero. “In reality, it's smart business.” Olivero, meeting planner at MetLife in Long Island City, N.Y., has seen first hand the incredible motivating effect of community service projects at meetings. She's watched attendees bring smiles to the faces of kids, turn a nondescript yard into a beautiful garden, and build playhouses. She's also heard one consistent complaint: “We wanted to do more.”

“We have really enjoyed planning these givebacks and hearing that our attendees feel the same way participating in them,” she says. “More are planned for the future with hopefully no end in sight.”

Do the Good Thing

Companies have incorporated charitable giving or community service into meetings for years. What's new is that these projects are now reflecting a company's overall social responsibility mission, something that consumers, employees, and even investors increasingly see as critical.

At PMI, the Walnut Creek, Calif.-based mortgage insurance provider, giving back is part of the culture. “Strengthening communities” is part of the company's mission, and service projects have been under way locally and globally for more than a decade. The company's insurance products help potential home buyers get mortgages without the usual 20 percent down payment. (In response to the current mortgage crisis, PMI joined the HOPE NOW Alliance, a nonprofit organization made up of loan originators and servicers and related companies and counselors. The alliance was created late last year to help at-risk homeowners avoid foreclosure.)

“We're very much into corporate social responsibility and the service that goes with it,” says Barbara Moreland, director, internal communications, events, and recognition. In fact, PMI's community service is what attracted Moreland to join the company six years ago. For example, PMI is a Cornerstone Partner with Habitat for Humanity. “It's not just money. We're putting in time as well,” she explains. PMI employees apply to go on “blitz builds” with Jimmy Carter, where a home is put up in one week. “We just did one in Biloxi, Miss., in an area hit by Hurricane Katrina,” Moreland says. “Employees and volunteers were working right alongside Jimmy and Rosalynn Carter. They start with a foundation, and, by the end of the week, there's a dedication ceremony. People are so moved. It really goes along with what we do as a company — we put people into homes.”

Creating Opportunities

Soon after she started working at PMI, Moreland looked into doing projects with local nonprofits. Her first initiative: Community Days. At an annual back-to-school drive, for example, employees bring backpacks and school supplies for kids who can't afford them. The drive has grown to the point where PMI donations provide for 300 to 400 kids annually. Likewise, during the holiday season, PMI employees “adopt” foster children and send them gifts. “The kids have wish lists,” Moreland says. “What's so amazing is that they're asking for a warm coat or a gift card to McDonald's so they can go with their friends.” The company sent gifts to 150 kids the first year; now it's up to 300.

“The employees just got so behind this,” she says. “So many people have the intention of doing something and want to do it. We're bringing the opportunity to them.”

Among other projects, Moreland also started a biennial nonprofit fair, where 10 local charities come in and describe their missions, everything from youth programs to animal shelters. And a constant at PMI is the food barrel in the lobby, where nonperishable items are donated by employees and regularly picked up by the local food bank.

Can Service Motivate?

But recently Moreland had her biggest, and riskiest, insight. Why not live the company's mission at the 2008 Sales Kickoff? The meeting was booked into San Diego, for 200 salespeople. In addition to the business sessions and networking, there would be spa and golf and an opportunity for seeing the sights — probably the San Diego Zoo's Wild Animal Park, Moreland thought. But after meeting with Jennifer Miller of Access San Diego, one of three destination management companies she interviewed for the conference, Moreland thought again. “When I have these meetings with vendors I take the opportunity to share what our corporate culture is all about,” she explains. “When I told Jenny, she mentioned a teambuilding service project and it resonated with me right away.”

Senior executives, however, did not embrace the idea immediately. They saw a meeting element that salespeople had come to expect being taken away. “It took a little bit to sell it,” says Moreland.

Here was the scene in January: Attendees walked into a ballroom where they were divided into 17 teams and told that each team would build two bikes to be given to kids in need. These were children whose families couldn't afford bikes or whose homes and possessions were destroyed in wildfires that swept through some areas north of San Diego.

Led by facilitator and Access teambuilding director Paul Blanchard, the teams elected leaders and recorders, chose names, created team songs, and proceeded to answer trivia questions in order to earn the bike parts they would need. They also wrote cards for the recipients, since they were told that they wouldn't be able to present the kids with the bikes (and helmets) directly.

Meanwhile, however, the 34 kids were in fact arriving at a breakout room. At the appropriate time, the ballroom door opened and in they came to receive their bikes. “There was not a dry eye,” Moreland says. But there was a little more work to be done. “People would have said it was the best thing ever when the kids left the room,” says Moreland. But the critical extra element, she believes, was the processing of the experience. The teams stayed for another 20 minutes, with Blanchard having the participants report out on what the experience meant to them personally, as teams and as PMI employees.

“If you're truly doing teambuilding, the key is to process it,” Moreland says. “That gives everyone the ability to internalize the experience. This was not just about community service. It reinforced our company's core competencies of collaboration, communication, adaptability, leadership, customer focus, and results.”

In follow-up surveys, 98 percent of participants said their expectations were exceeded (the other 2 percent said the event met their expectations). Most gratifying for Moreland, many tied the experience back to their jobs. Said one: “My job is not just to get people into homes. It's to get families into homes and help them stay there.”

And the doubtful executives? The chairman and CEO called Moreland that night to thank her. “The key was having the right partners and facilitators,” says Moreland, who has high praise for Paul Blanchard and Jennifer Miller.

Blanchard has been designing corporate teambuilding activities for 15 years, and service-oriented activities for the past eight years. Requests for service projects, he says, now easily outnumber other activities. “We've added staff and doubled the number of programs in the CSR area,” says Blanchard. “It's a direction that not only companies are going in, but the whole country as well. People are realizing it's time to start taking care of each other.”

Meanwhile, Miller of Access San Diego has seen “a huge increase” in requests for service activities, which she attributes to two factors. “The meeting industry tends to be wasteful, and people are taking a closer look at that,” she says. “And companies want to leave a positive imprint on their meeting city.”

Saving NOLA

Nowhere has that been more evident than in New Orleans, still in the process of rebuilding after Hurricane Katrina. For years now, the meetings industry has showed its support for the city by bringing in needed revenue.

Last November, MetLife's Stephanie Olivero booked a 200-attendee sales conference into The Big Easy. The meeting sponsor, MetLife's Auto & Home Agency Distribution Sales group, was considering teambuilding options for the meeting, which is held to review performance for the current year and plan for the year ahead.

Working with Care Force, a division of City Year Louisiana, the group refurbished the Sarah T. Reed Elementary School, whose students had been displaced after Hurricane Katrina. They painted murals specific for each grade level depicting local culture as well as international travel. They also built a wetlands pond for both landscape and educational purposes. Bookshelves were assembled to hold their new books, and MetLife mascot Snoopy was there to spread goodwill among the kids. “We received overwhelmingly positive feedback from participants,” Olivero says. “The emcee even used the Care Force chant at the next general session. He said ‘Are you ready?’ and the crowd replied, ‘MetLife is always ready!’ It was great to see.”

Meanwhile, wholesalers from MetLife's Individual Business Marketing division have put service on the agenda for two years now. At their annual training conference in Tampa, Fla., in January 2007, some 150 attendees spent five hours building six full-size playhouses which they donated to local Boys & Girls Clubs.

The following January, the group met in Huntington Beach, Calif., and planned another local service effort. Attendees traveled to a nearby town to renovate the exterior of a Boys & Girls Club. “They painted the entire building; built a large, safe, play structure; built and installed several picnic tables and bench seating arrangements; and created a garden area that the kids could work on every year,” Olivero reports. Peggie Milane, manager, who was MetLife's lead planner for the event, adds, “There is no better feeling than seeing the faces of the attendees when the children came outside and saw the results of their labor.”

Work is under way on service options for both groups' upcoming meetings. “Charities and organizations are selected based on how well they fit with the group and its giveback goals,” Olivero explains. “While we discuss potential organizations with our internal Corporate Contributions group, I have also found local convention and visitors bureaus to be great resources for identifying local needs and groups that could use our help the most.”

Olivero regularly gets calls from meeting sponsors throughout the company asking how to find service projects and add them to their own agendas. “Good news travels fast,” she says. “That certainly has been the case with these community teambuilding activities.”

A Tradition of Serving Others

Then there are companies like Thrivent Financial for Lutherans and Fireman's Fund Insurance that trace their very beginnings to community service. In the case of Thrivent Financial, its predecessor companies Lutheran Brotherhood and Aid Association for Lutherans were created in the early 1900s as fraternal benefit societies providing Lutheran families with life insurance. And when Fireman's Fund Insurance Co. was created in 1863, 10 percent of profits were given to widows and children of fallen firefighters.

Today, Thrivent, a not-for-profit financial services organization, has become Habitat for Humanity's largest financial and volunteer ally, with a four-year, $125 million commitment called Thrivent Builds Homes. The program builds on a tradition of volunteerism that has seen Thrivent participating in more than 500 home builds since 1991.

Dan Young, CMP, CLU, ChFC, LLIF, director of event planning and field recognition at Thrivent, recognizes the Habitat work at each of his four field conferences throughout the year. “A lot of financial advisers are involved through their local churches and internationally,” he says. “So we promote and reinforce Thrivent's work with Habitat at our conferences,” including a special reception for attendees who have participated in a Habitat project.

Also at each field conference, Thrivent makes a significant financial donation to a selected charity or service organization on behalf of the company and conference attendees. Advisers are told about the year's beneficiary organization and send in contributions. These are matched by Thrivent's fraternal division, which funds the organization's charitable activities.

Last year, Thrivent conference attendees gave $100,000 to an organization called Feed My Starving Children, which puts together low-cost meals that are safe to transport and can be made with boiling water — rice with vitamin, protein, and flavor packets. The meals are then shipped to needy populations in 50 countries.

This year, $75,000 in seed money was given to Operation Barnabas, a Lutheran organization created to help and counsel soldiers and chaplains returning from the war in Iraq.

Young has planned hands-on service projects at meetings in the past; however, a few years ago the decision was made to support national nonprofits financially so that they could choose their own local resources in their specialized area of service. “Logistically, service projects are very challenging,” Young says. “Many organizations would prefer the money rather than the task of getting tools, buses, lunch, and training for participants.”

In some cases, Thrivent donates a particular item, as when a hurricane-damaged area of Jamaica, where Thrivent would be meeting, needed a particular type of bolt for reconstruction and this bolt was nowhere on the island. Thrivent attendees bought boxes upon boxes of the bolts at Home Depot before leaving home. In another instance, attendees arrived at their field conference in Puerto Rico with homemade “health kits” — essentially a few toiletries wrapped in a bath towel — that were presented to people living in shelters following a hurricane.

“All of these things are done in support of our mission statement,” Young says.

Grants That Save Lives

At Fireman's Fund, meanwhile, a renewed emphasis on the company's charitable history was the basis for the Heritage Program, explains Jan Hennessey, CMP, CMM, senior director, meetings and event management. Under the program, grants are awarded for equipment, fire prevention tools, firefighter training, fire safety education, and community emergency response programs.

Fireman's Fund employees and independent agents direct the grants based on points they earn from their level of production. Launched in 2004, the Heritage Program to date has awarded $19 million to fire departments across the country.

When Hennessey was planning the annual Fireman's Fund event for brokers attending the Insurance Brokers Association West Annual Conference on the Big Island of Hawaii last year, the Heritage Program inspired her to do something different.

“We usually do a party with a theme,” she says. “This year I decided to tie the event more closely to our brand and to our mission.” So she created a firehouse inside the hotel, borrowing a fire engine and equipment from the Hawaii County Fire Department. She built fake-brick walls hung with firefighters' gear, and served “firehouse food” family-style on platters. During the event, two “redemptions” were announced. When brokers earn enough points, they “redeem” those points for grants to fire departments. Two brokers had made grant requests for the Hawaii County Fire Department, and these were awarded at the event. “So we still had the party, but it was a party for a cause,” Hennessey says.

A Heritage Program grant also was awarded during an incentive program in Cabo San Lucas, Mexico. The fire chief attended the meeting to receive the donation of a thermal imaging camera. “It was a highlight of the meeting and a huge deal to him,” Hennessey says. “This is a direction a lot of planners are taking. We are looking at how to incorporate corporate social responsibility into meetings.”

  • Dan Young, CMP, CLU ChFC, LLIF
    Thrivent Financial
  • Stephanie Olivero
    MetLife
  • Jan Hennessey, CMP, CMM Fireman's Fund Insurance
  • Barbara Moreland
    PMI

Hotels Help, too

You've heard of voluntourism. Now The Ritz-Carlton Hotel Co. has coined the word “volunteaming.” Under its VolunTeaming program, launched in July, corporate groups can plan community service projects during meetings. Overseeing the projects is Sue Stephenson, recently named vice president of community footprints for the global hotel company.

Groups can spend a full or half day off-property engaged in a service activity or choose a shorter, on-property option. Projects are developed locally, educating participants about the area in which their meeting is held. For example, in Florida, participants might travel to the Everglades to plant cypress trees, during which the life cycle and needs of this unique habitat are explained. In San Francisco, attendees can learn the colorful history of Alcatraz Island while they work to preserve its once beautiful gardens and wildlife habitats, in disrepair since the closing of the famous prison.

Whatever the size and scope of the project, Stephenson says, “there is an incredible teambuilding element. You're partnering to be a force for good.” Find program descriptions at www.volunteaming.com. Individual hotels will work with planners to customize programs for their groups.

No Time to Give?

If there's no room for a hands-on project in your agenda, consider Ritz-Carlton's Meaningful Meetings program. Companies can donate 10 percent of their room revenue, with half going to a charity of their choice and half to the Community Footprints program.

Fairmont Hotels & Resorts recently announced a similar program, called Meetings That Matter, by which 10 percent of a group's room revenue may be donated to a charity of the group's choosing. The program is available for meetings booked and taking place in 2008 or 2009.

Marriott International, meanwhile, gives planners a way to contribute to the Amazonas Sustainable Foundation, an environmental organization in the Brazilian state of Amazonas to which Marriott has committed $2 million. Planners who book programs at Marriott brands through 2009, for meetings taking place through 2011, can donate 5 percent of room revenue to the foundation. Through its own Spirit to Serve mission, Marriott partners on projects with many organizations such as Habitat for Humanity and America's Second Harvest. In 2006 alone, Marriott employees volunteered some 210,000 hours during company-sponsored events.

Pick Your Project

Don't Have All Day? You Can Still Serve.

Incorporating a service project into your meeting agenda need not involve box lunches and buses. “We can bring the community service experience to the ballroom,” says Alan Ranzer, executive director, Impact 4 Good, a three-year-old company that helps corporate groups plan service activities.

These are just a few on-property options:

  1. Fare to Share

    Culinary teambuilding is prevalent — and so is food waste at meetings. This teambuilding program results in appetizers for participants and lots of donations to feed hungry people: Recipients are soup kitchens, food banks, and organizations that deliver food to needy people who are homebound. Visit www.impact4good.com or www.teambonding.com.

  2. Housewarming Packages

    Among the project possibilities at some Ritz-Carlton properties, says Sue Stephenson, vice president, community footprints, is to assemble a package of necessities for a family moving into a Habitat for Humanity home. After learning about the family they will work to benefit, teams get $100 to purchase kits with materials needed to construct one of four items for the beneficiary family. Teams will not have enough funds to purchase all needed items, however. So they need to get creative to “earn” more money. Go to www.volunteaming.com.

  3. Support the Troops

    Anysoldier.com is an organization that has created a way for people to send letters and small gifts to soldiers serving in Iraq who don't get much or any mail. The nonprofit group, founded by a soldier and his dad, gives your company a list of commanders or sergeants. Your attendees write cards and fill cardboard boxes with toiletry or other items, then address the boxes to specific leaders followed by “Attn: Any Soldier.” That line is a signal to the leader that he or she should distribute the contents to soldiers throughout the unit. Visit www.anysoldier.com for details. (Be sure to read the entertaining FAQs.)

If You Do Have All Day …

Of course, with a bigger budget and more time to spend, project options are limitless. In partnership with Access San Diego recently, for example, Paul Blanchard led 60 executives through the construction of a playground for a local Head Start school. The sponsoring company purchased a small piece of land that had been cluttered with old building materials, paid to have it graded and prepped, then five teams showed up and got to work.

Companies might also consider projects in line with their specialties. For example, earlier this year Blanchard worked with the IT division of a major company on building a computer lab in New Orleans for high school kids who had lost everything in Hurricane Katrina. Blanchard found a local after-school program for kids interested in computers, a vacant four-room house, and the sponsoring company bought 15 computers and printers. On site, 70 IT executives painted walls and assembled 40 desks, several blackboards, bookshelves, and printer tables, and then networked the computers. Going one step further, the IT employees exchanged e-mail addresses with the students so they could potentially act as mentors.