Leaving a Community Footprint

Today, companies make it a priority to do good during meetings and conferences.

In an era where stories about corporate greed and excess are all too commonplace, it is refreshing to find companies interested in more than just the bottom line. Many organizations are finding that corporate social responsibility programs (CSR) can be a win-win-win: The employer is looked upon as a caring corporate citizen, employees feel good about working for an empathic company, and a local community gains what is usually a generous donation.

Given the intense scrutiny meetings and incentives are subjected to, incorporating a "give back" element also makes good sense from a publicity standpoint.

The latest survey to demonstrate the value of CSR is Convention 2020, a strategic forecast of the future of meetings and conventions. It found that 70 percent of the planners who responded believe that ethical and environmental factors will continue to influence meeting attendance.

Alan Ranzer, managing partner of Impact 4 Good, an East Hanover, NJbased teambuilding program provider that specializes in community service activities, has seen a huge increase in CSR projects. So much so that business at Impact 4 Good is up 40 percent this year over last.

"In the last twenty months, since the AIG perception changed the ways meetings are implemented, there is an increase in programs that give back," says Ranzer. "Plus, with all the job insecurity that existed the last twenty months, there was the need to provide opportunities to keep employees engaged and excited about where they work. Give-back programs make employees feel really great and makes them feel great about the company they work for."

Impact 4 Good recently worked with Symantec, a global provider of security, storage, and systems management solutions, during its 3,500-participant global sales conference in Las Vegas. Symantec employees packed a thousand disaster relief kits that were sent to Haiti; assembled 600 science classroom experiment kits for donation to RAFT (Resource Area For Teaching); and a thousand "Get Green Kits" for donation to Habitat for Humanity families, which contained items to help families go (and save) green.

A Hero and a Goody Bag

CSR programs run the gamut from elaborate and time consuming, to those that can be done during a coffee break. Operation Goody Bag, which provides small decorated bags of gum, candy, puzzles, personal letters, original poetry, and inspirational messages to soldiers, is a program that can easily be incorporated into a time-challenged itinerary that will have a huge impact on all those involved.

You'd think that getting a little bag filled with treats would be a minor thing for a hard-bitten Marine confronting life-and-death struggles in a foreign land, but that was not the case for Marine Sgt. Christopher Hrbek. Receiving a Goody Bag from the county where he resided, thousands of miles from where he was serving, was a big deal for the Marine, who wrote to the organization that, "I just received a Goody Bag today! And, I can't thank you enough. It's kids and people like you who make us keep our heads up, even in the worst conditions. Especially for the guys who don't really have anyone back home, it's really comforting to know that someone is thinking about them. As I was reading the piece of paper on the Goody Bag, I found myself shocked when I saw it was from Paramus, NJ! I myself am from Westwood! Pretty small world! Thank you again for the Goody Bag."

While this is just one of some 2,000 letters Jane Cosco, the founder of Operation Goody Bag, has received, it took on great significance when she learned that 25-year-old Hrbek was tragically killed by an improvised explosive device (IED) in the hills of Afghanistan's Helmand Province, and has helped remind her of the importance of such small acts of kindness.

"We assumed we would send one shipment of Goody Bags to the troops and that would be that," says Cosco, a retired middle school teacher who started the program as a way to teach her students about service, but soon decided to continue the effort. "In our wildest imagination, we never thought we would get thank you notes telling us we were making a difference in the world."

Today, the organization has sent more than 150,000 Goody Bags overseas. For her effort, Cosco was awarded the President's Call to Service Award and met former President George Bush and First Lady Laura Bush.

At a bag-stuffing event held in Hrbek's honor in June at his alma mater, Westwood High School, his mom, Cheryl Hodges addressed the group. "Chris got a Goody Bag when he was stationed in the Middle East. He thought highly of Operation Goody Bag," she said, tears streaming down her face. "These projects help keep morale up when our troops are overseas protecting our freedom. The reality of losing him is still raw but I'm here tonight to let you know that your tireless work does not go unnoticed."

Today, Operation Goody Bag has expanded beyond the confines of a classroom to meeting and conference rooms across the country. It offers an easy way to include a fulfilling activity that has a philanthropic twist.

Viacom, which owns BET Networks, MTV Networks, Nickelodeon, and Paramount Pictures, has incorporated Operation Goody Bag stuffings in its annual ViaCommunity day the past three years. Lisa McGahran, a Viacom manager of recruiting, made the initial connection with Operation Goody Bag. "Our people love it. They bring their creativity and get to help out our troops," she says. For more information, go to operationgoodybag.org.

Lending a Hand

Much more elaborate than a bag of goodies is Helping Hands, a program offered by Odyssey Teams where participants help build prosthetic hands for children and adults in developing countries who have lost appendages to landmines, political violence, or in the case of Haiti, in the devastating earthquake.

The activity can be held in a meeting room and can last anywhere from two to four hours. The group is divided into teams and each is given a box of 30 plastic and metal pieces. Oftentimes, they have no idea what the parts are for. As participants realize what it is they are building, a profound sense of responsibility emerges. An amputee, after all, is going to use this hand.

"It's amazing what giving someone a hand—literally giving them a hand, —will do," says Lain Hensley, COO and co-founder of Odyssey Teams, and a board member of the Ellen Meadows Prosthetic Hand Foundation. "I've heard stories of children and adults who have gone into isolation after losing a hand due to a tragedy, and when they receive a new prosthetic, the light goes on. They go from being a shell of a person to being whole again." The chance to leave a meeting having improved someone else's life is a powerful takeaway.

Another popular teambuilding activity that puts smiles on the faces of children is build-a-bike programs. Participants assemble bicycles that are then donated to local in-need children. Some teambuilding firms have spun off this concept and have created build-a-bear and build-aplayhouse programs.

Turnkey CSR Programs

As programs that "do good" increase in popularity, many hotels and destinations have developed their own formal programs. Ritz-Carlton Hotels has a section on its Web site, www.ritzcarlton.com, called, "Volunteaming," that falls under the company's "Community Footprints" social responsibility agenda. Community-service teambuilding options are available at all its properties and many are truly unique.

Harvesting organic crops at the renowned Chef's Garden in Milan, OH that are donated to a local food bank is one possibility. Another is improving the facilities of the Carpenter's Shelter in Alexandria, VA, which provides shelter for more than 1,000 homeless children and adults, by making minor repairs, gardening, and serving meals. Or there is the opportunity to build enclosures, landscape, or prepare food for lions and tigers at The Big Cat Habitat in Sarasota, FL. For groups with limited time, two-hour on property programs are available.

"The Grand Dame of the Rockies," The Broadmoor in Colorado Springs, has corporate social responsibility ingrained in its own culture. Its staff has built bikes for underprivileged children in the local community; has sent basic needs and toiletries to U.S. soldiers overseas; has an employee-run food bank to help families in need; donates to The United Way, Salvation Army, local schools and myriad philanthropic organizations; and through its historical association with El Pomar Foundation, contributes to the arts and culture of the region with the second largest charitable foundation in the state.

The Broadmoor's head PGA Professional, Mark Kelbel, has gotten in on the action and spearheaded Hemisphere Charities, an organization he created after learning that many people, especially children, in developing countries, contract diseases through cuts on their feet because they have no shoes. Kelbel's group organized shoe drives and has delivered thousands of pairs of shoes to Jamaica, the Dominican Republic, Haiti, and Chile.

Fittingly, The Broadmoor makes it easy for groups meeting at the hotel to give back as well. The resort's Web site offers information about the programs that are available. "We make it very easy and turnkey for an organization to give something back to the community while visiting," says Broadmoor Vice President of Sales and Marketing John Washko.

Companies that specialize in corporate social responsibility programs abound. There is Impact 4 Good, Give Instead of Take, The Leaders Institute, and Odyssey Teams to name a few.

No matter how you connect with an organization that helps the community, getting your people involved in doing good will do good for all involved.

Originally published July 1, 2010