CSR: Making a Big Impact on a Small Group

When it comes to CSR events, bigger isn't always better. Here's why

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CVBs, DMCs, and hotels can help identify the best local projects and beneficiaries. 

Putting a name and face to a recipient can make a CSR project even more impactful. 

More often than not, corporate social responsibility (CSR) programs skew toward the bigger, the better: painting schools used by hundreds, cleaning beaches or parks enjoyed by thousands, or collecting supplies to send to innumerable troops overseas or to victims of natural disasters. 

These programs fill an incredible needs gap and benefit tremendous numbers of people the world over. But sometimes, CSR projects that benefit just a handful of people‚ one military family with a dad serving in Iraq, one couple who lost their home to Hurricane Katrina, or one little girl whose parents can't afford furniture for her bedroom‚ can leave a more nuanced imprint on a group. Because the beneficiaries of these programs have names and faces that the attendees can connect with, the impact can be significantly more substantial. 

"The impact of a large group doing something for a few allows them to do that much more," says Alan Ranzer, managing partner at Impact 4 Good, a Bethesda, MD, company that specializes in organizing CSR events at meetings. "Connecting a large client group to one family makes the group feel that much closer to the family. The personal nature of programs that give back to a few can make their impact remarkably strong, memorable, and lasting."

Extreme Makeover
When independent global safety organization Underwriters Laboratories (UL) chose San Diego for its meeting, the group wanted to incorporate a CSR event into the program. Louise Olson, president of Oak Park, IL-based Zest Events, an independent meeting management firm that was responsible for planning the UL meeting, turned to San Diego's ACCESS Destination Services for help. 

The result was Extreme Military Makeover, a teambuilding event for 70 attendees who came to the aid of a young military wife who found herself unable to keep up with home maintenance while her husband was deployed on his third tour in Iraq. She was only told that she and her three children were being treated to a trip to Legoland for the day. While they were gone, the UL group replaced her fences, landscaped the lawn, caulked, painted, and installed shelves in the garage.

"When working with a smaller group, they receive so much more," says Jennifer Miller, general manager of ACCESS Destination Services San Diego and Los Angeles. "With this particular program, we were able to redo their whole yard and beautify their house. ... You can make a bigger impact." 

ACCESS does research to find out what a company's particular CSR philosophy is before making a recommendation on projects. Being an active member of the community makes it easy to ascertain who needs what. Miller says the average cost per attendee to take part in a CSR teambuilding activity is $100 to $200. 

"The members of the group were beyond thrilled to be helping this family. This was a multinational group, and many had never held a shovel or hammer before. They were happy to be doing something that helped someone else. No one dragged their heels," explains Olson. “The woman we were helping was visibly affected throughout the program. She broke down in tears several times and told the group, "There is hope. There is somebody out there who really does care."

Walking the Walk
CVBs are another go-to resource for planners interested in coordinating more intimate CSR events, and bureau staffers are often involved in area projects themselves. In Virginia Beach, Mahatma Gandhi's famous adage, "Be the change you want to see in the world," is framed and adorns a wall in the office of Al Hutchinson, vice president of convention sales and marketing for the CVB. "That quote is at my core. It's what I believe in. As a city department, it is our responsibility and obligation to help change lives in our community," says Hutchinson. 

Four years ago, CVB staff members learned of a local family that didn't have the funds to buy a bedroom set for their daughter. "Here was this young girl sleeping on the floor," explains Hutchinson. "As a staff, we came together and donated money and furniture to the family. We were able to make a positive impact on her life."

Similarly, hotels often can point planners toward projects in need of support. In New Orleans, where Hurricane Katrina left the needs of the community exponentially higher than in most areas, incoming groups and even celebrities have made rebuilding the city a priority. 

Brad Pitt founded the Make It Right Foundation to build 150 environmentally friendly single-family homes in the hard-hit Lower Ninth Ward. The first homes were finished in August 2008 and construction continues; 75 have been completed to date. To maintain momentum and help area families, the Hyatt Regency New Orleans‚ which will be the last major New Orleans hotel to reopen post-Katrina when it welcomes guests back in October, has pledged $300,000 to build two Make It Right homes. Interested groups can contribute goods, services, and, of course, cash to fund the remaining residences‚Äîall of which are built to be affordable, LEED Platinum homes for displaced Lower Ninth Ward residents. 

While these initiatives benefit a small number of people, some groups prefer to tackle projects with a slightly larger recipient pool. Back in Virginia Beach, for example, 18 meeting professionals completed a CSR project during a site visit in May coordinated by the CVB. The project took place at a mini-trade show, where every exhibitor had different personal care products. Each meeting professional filled backpacks with items like toothbrushes, toothpaste, deodorant, washcloths, soap, and shampoo. They had a few minutes to speak with the exhibitors as they filled the bags. One hundred fifty bags were assembled and delivered that day to The Potter's House, which provides support to area homeless. 

Dos and Don'ts
Emogene B. Mitchell, president of Arlington, VA-based Mitchell Meetings & Events and a planner on the Virginia Beach trip feels that it is up to meeting professionals to make organizations aware of CSR activities that are available. 

"Planners need to take the lead," she says. ‚"The first thing many organizations ask about is the expense. It's important to demonstrate that the benefits of such an activity far outweigh the financial outlay." She is in the midst of planning a program for a client that will participate in its inaugural CSR event in September. 

Nina Zapala, director of public relations for Anson-Stoner, a Winter Park, FL-based advertising and PR agency, says when promoting a CSR activity, care must be given to the way it is packaged. "Under no circumstance do you want to appear as if you are exploiting those you have helped. From a PR standpoint, it is a good idea to tap into community leaders to see how the program has helped. Connect with the nonprofit that benefited to get a true news angle. Media outlets are always ready to hear stories from nonprofits."

She adds that as budgets are getting slashed across the board for education, senior citizen programs, homeless outreach, and the like, the work corporations do to give back is more important than ever.