Incentive Travel: Motivated to Volunteer

Barbara Blumhof, manager of trade shows and events for the Harrison, NY-based Citi Commercial Business Group, always thought that her incentive qualifiers didn't like team- building events. But, last year, when she organized an activity on the lawn of the Ritz-Carlton Golf & Spa Resort in Jamaica to build beehives for the nearby All Island Bee Farmers Association, a farm cooperative, she was surprised to see that 175 of her 400 attendees had given up their free time to construct the honey-collecting wooden boxes. "Had we known the event would be so successful, we would have brought materials down to build many more units," she says. "We only built 30. We could have easily done twice that number."

That response didn't come as a surprise to Alan Ranzer, executive director of Impact4Good, an East Hanover, NJ-based company that organizes socially conscious teambuilding activities. Ranzer organized the beehive building event for Citigroup's top sales people. "There is a growing interest among many incentive groups to do this. I do find that people are looking outside of the resort, and that's something that's kind of new and interesting," says Ranzer.

Incentive groups go to a resort destination and find a very comfortable world inside that resort. They're sheltered from the harsh issues that are usually right on the other side of the fence. And traditionally, that's been the goal of incentive programs—to keep that fence right where it is. But now groups are looking for more opportunities to break down that fence symbolically and see what they can do to make the other side of it a better place for the locals. "There's got to be a way we can help—that's what people are saying and we're definitely seeing a lot more interest in interacting with the host community on incentives, both domestically and internationally," says Ranzer.

But incorporating a community-oriented charitable activity into an incentive program presents some unique challenges compared to a meeting or convention. Here are some tips on how to do it right.

The Match Game

One of the challenges on the incentive side is that the attendees have earned this reward—they're on a great trip, they've worked hard to get there. You have to have something that's not going to seem like it's too much, shall we say, work. You need to match the program with the group. "That's really important," says Ranzer. "An incentive winner might not want to go and get all dirty building a house and really get hip-deep in the squalor and harsh reality of a rural area in destination. The great thing about the Citigroup program was they were able to do something on site that still gave back to the community. Know who you're working with and know if the program is a good fit—that's the important thing."

The destination has to be right as well. After the success of the beehive event, there was a groundswell of interest among the Citigroup attendees to include more socially conscious activities. "This event had a tremendous impact on the attendees," says Blumhof. "Many of them came up to me after it was over, saying they wanted to make this a regular itinerary option on all future incentive programs. They were coming to me with all kinds of suggestions for what we could do."

But success proved a bit more elusive this year when the group went to Bermuda.

"When we went to Bermuda this year it didn't work out, because there's basically no poverty in Bermuda. So what we ended up doing was making a large donation to the Bermuda National Trust, a non-profit conservation organization," she says. "It was a difficult location for charity. Could we have raked the beach? Yes we could have, but it just wouldn't have the same impact as helping people in a way that would really make a difference in their lives."

So Citigroup opted for the donation in the attendees' names. Each attendee was given a brochure telling them exactly what the Bermuda National Trust does when the donation was announced to the group. "It wasn't as dramatic as the beehive event, but it did fulfill the desire of most of the group to incorporate a socially responsible component into the program," says Blumhof.

Racing the Clock

The time factor is another issue companies have to deal with when looking to incorporate a volunteer component into an incentive program. There are dozens of organizations doing great programs for volunteer- minded people, all over the globe. Here's just a sample of projects currently looking for volunteers: the conservation of the pink-river dolphins in Brazil, an elephant conservation program in Namibia; and a project to save the vervet monkey in South Africa. They all sound like very rewarding projects, and they are. There's just one catch—they can't be completed in an afternoon, or a full day, or even a week for that matter. The time commitment required to participate in these programs is far greater than a corporate group can commit to. Unless, of course, an organization wants to give all of its top sales performers a sabbatical at the same time.

And that's how the volunteer movement has developed around the globe. There are now lots of opportunities for people to participate—if they have the time to commit and, in some cases, special skills. But as the demand from corporate groups to participate in these activities on an international level grows, many of the organizations that facilitate volunteer programs have needed to adapt to meet the demand. "We've had overseas affiliates working with corporations for many years through what we call 'global village trips' in which companies say, 'We're going to devote a full week and go build something somewhere.' It's not a meeting—they just take a global village trip," says Heather Sitz, spokesperson for the Americus, GA-based Habitat for Humanity. "But there is certainly a greater interest from corporate groups now than there has been in the past."

Habitat has been working so long in the volunteerism community that they are able to adapt to the time constraints of the new corporate volunteer with relative ease. "We're in 30 countries, so we do offer a host of different kinds of opportunities in terms of what's going on in the various countries at a particular time," says Sitz. "Each country is usually pretty flexible for groups who just have time for a one-day event or a few days or a week."

Cross Cultural Solutions, a New Rochelle, NY-headquartered non-profit organization that has been organizing volunteer programs around the world for the last 10 years, is also successfully adapting to the needs of the corporate group market. "In the beginning, we didn't have groups of employees going on our trips. But we now find that more corporations are looking for charitable activities that are group-oriented," says Cassie Hayes, director of partnerships for Cross Cultural Solutions. "We do have one-week programs called 'inside abroad' which align with the needs of the corporate volunteer. The corporate volunteer has time restrictions and, in some cases, a need to have projects that are group-based. So we have come up with programs that address those requirements and let a group work together to fulfill a project within one week."

The program's format also meets the reward requirement of an incentive program. In the morning, the volunteers do the work for which they've signed up. In the afternoon, they have cultural and learning activities. "They also have time to explore the community so it's a very balanced program," says Hayes.

The Organization's Payoff

The Atlanta-based Cartoon Network will be sending 14 employees to Guatemala to participate in one of Cross Cultural Solutions' "inside abroad" programs this October. While the company has been doing volunteer events domestically for some time now, this will be its first international program. "We wanted to go abroad because we thought it would be an enriching experience that would broaden our employees' point of view," says Tom Alexander, vice president of trade marketing for Cartoon Network. "We also thought being in a foreign country together would bond the group. We thought it would be a really cool way to bring these people together in an environment they are unaccustomed to."

The Cartoon Network program is not a traditional incentive program, in that the participants are not being rewarded for meeting specific performance benchmarks; but two of its core goals are to reinforce the company culture and to boost the morale of the organization. "We're going to have our participants take photos and videos of their experience to bring back to show the rest of the company," says Alexander. "We want to document this to help us tell the story when we get back home and share it with the rest of the company, and hopefully that will help to build participation in the program."

According to Hayes, it's quite common for a program to grow quickly inside an organization once the initial program has run. "This is also a program that generates a great deal of positive word-of-mouth within an organization," says Hayes. "When employees get back from this type of a trip, they want to talk about it to their colleagues. So in addition to it enabling a company to show global responsibility to the public, it communicates that value internally as well."

Big Builds
Since its founding in 1976, Habitat for Humanity International has built and rehabilitated more than 150,000 houses for families in need, becoming a true world leader in addressing the issues of affordable housing. And it's still one of the best organizations for corporate groups looking to volunteer outside of the U.S. Here are a few recent success stories.

all hands on deck

BANGKOK, Thailand, 24th April 2007: "All Hands" was a fitting theme for Cisco's employees' recent build with Habitat for Humanity Thailand in Bangkok. More than 260 staff members from 15 countries took part in the project in the Sueayai Ruamjai community, Sai Mai District, about one hour's drive north from Bangkok.

The build was the first in Thailand for employees of the California-headquartered company. Cisco volunteers poured cement into footings for 30 houses, dug holes for footings, tied wires for the foundation's steel bars, and used hoes to cover the septic tank with dirt. The 1,033-square-foot houses being built are part of a two-story duplex design that caters to large, extended families.

Hitting the Sweet Spot

AGANA, Guam, 9th January 2007: A Global Village volunteer team from Marriott International scored a hole in one during the second Habitat for Humanity's Golf & Build in Guam.

Six executives from Marriott's global sales office in Japan arrived on the western Pacific island to join 15 executives from Guam Marriott Resort & Spa in building two Habitat houses.

The volunteers worked alongside the Habitat home partner families, in the village of Mangilao, on the eastern part of the island. The volunteers did mostly painting and caulking of windows and doors at one house, as well as installing electrical wiring at another home. Each house comprises three bedrooms and one bathroom.

After the one-day build was over, the Marriott team had a day's rest before taking part in a golf tournament in Dededo village, in northern Guam. The tournament was mostly run by local staff from Marriott, including employees from banquet, housekeeping, and administration departments.

Do’s and Don’ts of Combining Volunteerism with Incentives
forget the attendees are winners. They earned the trip. Even when they're giving to others, always acknowledge that it's all about them. Right now, volunteer opportunities are optional itinerary choices in traditional incentive programs. "I don't know of any organizations that are offering incentive qualifiers a choice between a week of volunteer work somewhere or a lavish incentive in a resort destination," says Alan Ranzer, executive director of Impact4Good, an East Hanover, NJ-based company that organizes socially conscious teambuilding activities. "But the itinerary option is where volunteer work is thriving in incentive programs. Making it mandatory could be demotivating. Make it voluntary, but make the activity intriguing enough that people want to get involved—that's the key to incorporating this into an incentive program."

keep on top of the logistics. Find out if you need to get approval by governments if you are going to be bringing materials into the country and leaving them there. It can be a hassle if your paperwork is not in order. Barbara Blumhof, manager of trade shows and events for the Harrison, NY-based Citi Commercial Business Group, had to jump through hoops to leave a giant Jamaican flag on the island when she brought her group there for an incentive last year. "The manager of our office in Kingston wanted to keep it but we couldn't leave it in Jamaica without paying a huge tax. So we had to ship it back to Chicago, and then ship it back to Jamaica. Anything you bring to the island that doesn't go back with you can be a problem," she says.

show up bearing tons of gifts. You have to be aware that you are entering another culture and you don't want to look like you are trying to impose your culture on them. That's not what this is about. "This is about broadening your horizons and learning about other cultures while you help the people there," says Julia Braganza, spokesperson for the Atlanta-based Cartoon Network. "And there is a perception around the world that Americans are gluttons for material items and we don't want to reinforce the image that we're dumping our materialistic values on them. We want to share our culture and bring items to do that. Things that will help us tell the story of our culture."

make sure everyone's papers are in order. Most U.S. citizens still do not have passports and, with all the uncertainty surrounding the implementation date of new travel requirements for going abroad, it's best to make sure these details are taken care of as early as possible.

schedule a program towards the end of the year, especially if you are doing a week-long Habitat for Humanity trip. This period is usually very hard for people to find the time for a trip due to the holidays and the end-of-year deadlines at work.

make sure everyone's health is in order.

leave your legal department out of the loop. There are a host of liability issues and international laws that you'll need answers to in order to avoid getting surprised once your group is in country.

name a "head honcho." A lot details need to be addressed. The attendees will have many questions and that adds up to tons of information that has to be communicated in all different directions. It's best to have one point-person to traffic it all.