If you’re a sales representative for Thrivent Financial, you’re probably involved in community service. As a fraternal organization, Thrivent is built on service and outreach. “We are among the largest corporate sponsors of Habitat for Humanity in the world,” says Dan Young, CMP, director of event planning and recognition, at the Minneapolis-based company. “Our reps are out there doing charitable work all the time. And our local chapters initiate a lot of charitable projects in their communities.”

In line with the corporate culture, Young had organized giveback activities at meetings in the past. But finding a way for hundreds of attendees to do something truly productive for a local community is a challenge. And once you identify a project, there’s a significant investment in time and money before any of the attendee work begins. And what if the project is, say, to paint a daycare center? Offering the labor of your qualifiers and their guests is generous—unless the community organization could get the job done better by contracting the work to local vendors (thereby helping them as well). And is this really the best way for attendees to spend their time away from home when they’d spent the rest of the year giving back to their own communities? Maybe, Young thought, it made more sense to ask attendees for donations, which Thrivent would match, and let the charity allocate those funds appropriately.

That was years ago. Since Young’s epiphany, Thrivent Financial has matched attendee donations and presented a national charity with the proceeds at its five major annual meetings—four incentive conferences and the National Sales Meeting. “The donation has always exceeded $100,000,” he notes.

Giving Local
Recently, Young had another thought about giving back at meetings: If attendees were donating their own hard-earned money, maybe they should have more of a say in who was receiving it.

So Young and his team revamped Thrivent’s “volunteer of the year” program, adding new opportunities for field reps to help their favorite nonprofit organizations in a big way. Traditionally, each of Thrivent’s regional financial offices selected a volunteer of the year, who would receive $1,000 from Thrivent to donate to their preferred organization.

This year, each regional office was asked to nominate candidates for divisional volunteer of the year. (Thrivent has four divisions, each made up of five to eight regions.) Applications were scored by a selection committee that included members of the field recognition team, the company’s director of community relations, the four divisional vice presidents, and Young. Four divisional volunteers of the year were chosen, each of whom will receive $5,000 for his or her favorite charity. But that’s not all.

Those volunteers have in effect chosen the charitable organizations that will be the beneficiaries of Thrivent’s conference-based fundraising. Each volunteer of the year submitted the name of an organization, and all attendees at Thrivent’s five major meetings in 2011—the Field Leadership Strategy Conference, the 2,000-attendee Peak Performers’ Conference, the Summit Circle and Pinnacle Council incentive conferences, and the National Sales Meeting—will choose one or more (or all) to receive their donations.

“They are thrilled,” Young says of the four chosen organizations—the Good Samaritan Society, Daytona Beach, Fla.; Kids Against Hunger, Great Lakes Coalition; GoOD Works, Chapin, S.C.; and the SIREN/Eaton Shelter, Charlotte, Mich. “These are relatively small community charities for whom a few thousand dollars is significant. We were so pleased by the variety of charities that will get support this year.” Young hopes that most attendees choose to donate to all the charities. But just in case one ends up being less popular than the others, Thrivent is guaranteeing at least a $10,000 donation to each.

Further, Thrivent has created promotional materials for each organization that will be distributed to all conference attendees, and each of the charities will get a booth at the trade show during Thrivent’s National Sales Meeting.