Beyond the Feel Good

Beyond the Feel Good

The benefits surrounding volunteer community service extend beyond the participant’s personal sense of satisfaction. There is a business case to be made, too. Volunteering builds brand equity, attracts progressive-minded talent, fuels company morale and builds stronger relationships between associates and clients. And that’s just for starters.

Last year, Starbucks brought 10,000 associates to New Orleans and provided 54,000 volunteer hours with seven local non-profits in one week.

“What it did was build the community of Starbucks,” says Rodney Hines, director of community involvement for Starbucks. “You had, for example, someone from Philadelphia painting or planting trees with someone from San Francisco. So it was unifying in terms of the company, but at the same time you walked away with something much bigger than coffee. You walked away with a stronger connection to your own community back home, and your place within it.”

Most importantly for planners, community service brings groups together powerfully through shared and purpose-driven experiences with direct, tangible results.

“Community service and voluntourism is beyond a doubt the best way for any group to instantly bond,” says Marcia Willett, president of MW & Associates and former senior director of corporate events at Ingram Micro Systems.

Willet participated with Prevue in a volunteer event with the US Virgin Islands. She adds, “Even the most reluctant participants quickly become engrossed in the ability to make a difference in the community. It’s the most worthwhile event endeavor you will ever plan and organize.”

And demand for these events is growing. In the book Keeping the Millennials (2009), authors Dr Sujansky and Dr Ferri-Reed argue that Millennials, born since 1980, “show a preference for employment with an organization that engages in community service,…and permits employees an opportunity to volunteer times or services.”

“In the last couple years, volunteering among corporate groups has become so prevalent to the point where it’s almost an expectation for some groups,” says Bethany Johnson, associate producer at One Smooth Stone. The company offers CSR programs from Hawaii to Uganda.

“Part of it is the visibility as more and more planners are sharing best practices and word spreads,” she says. “I think it’s more of a corporate trend than a meetings trend.”

In May last year, Bethany helped BMC Software bring an incentive group of 800 qualifiers and guests to the Big Island of Hawaii. Part of the trip included a 5K run/walk event, and the company agreed to donate a certain amount of money per participant to the Daniel Sayre Foundation. The non-profit raises money to equip the underfunded local fire department, which requires an inordinate amount of rescue equipment due to the island’s diverse variety of ecosystems.

Over 200 people joined in, and the group surprised Laura and Daniel Sayre on the beach with a check for $10,000.

“They were blown away,” says Johnson. “And it’s not just about the dollar amount. It’s about getting people together and being excited about something as a group. You always get more out of these events than you put in.”

ACCESS Destination Services has developed a growing roster of volunteer opportunities. One is sprucing up houses owned by US military families with a spouse deployed overseas. A recent Extreme Military Makeover included 70 attendees helping one very thankful woman at home alone with her to-do list, followed by a big dinner.

“There has to be that emotional tie-in for these events to really soar,” says Jennifer Miller, general manager of ACCESS. “When we ask clients what was their favorite part of an event, the CSR program almost always ranks at the top of the list.”

In San Diego, another recent program involved 60 male execs visiting 75 high school boys at New Haven Youth Center. Together, they built bookcases, learned about electricity and carpentry and spent time painting together. Miller describes New Haven as a “last chance kids facility that teaches real life learning skills to at-risk foster kids who’ve never been adopted.” But the first time Miller planned the event, she wasn’t sure if the kids would take to the idea.

“We thought the boys might be a little cynical but they were just thrilled and gave the men such a huge thank you,” she says. “And the guys were touched, you know, I was surprised. It’s not very often you see 50 out of 60 grown men with tears in their eyes.”

So how do you sell such an event to a planner?

“Well, it’s like every other program,” says Miller. “It’s giving a group an experience they can’t find at home. Most people can’t make such a dramatic impact on their own.”

Odyssey Teambuilding is credited for launching the popular group bikebuilding concept back in 2000. Today, they specialize in corporate experiential philanthropy, with programs like Helping Hands, which divides groups into small teams to build prosthetic hands for landmine victims.

During the process, the teams are told that each participant will receive a photo of a Rotary Club member delivering the device to a person in Africa or Asia.

“There’s a real poignant part in the program where people realize holy s—, this isn’t a hypothetical thing, this is real,” says Bill John, president of Odyssey. “They realize there’s a real customer behind this end product, and there’s just no denying that their actions matter.”

John says that’s when people start getting up and going around to other tables to help out their peers.

“Then they start recognizing that, hey we need to work more like this,” he says. “We need to be thinking about the impact of our products, and the difference they’re making. You know, what if we were to feel the same way about our products as we do about what we’ve just done?”

In August, Odyssey Teambuilding officially partnered with Destination Hotels & Resorts, representing more than 30 upscale properties. This will effectively streamline RFP and operational processes for groups seeking community service.

“Our properties are very much a part of the local community where they reside,” says Maureen Callahan, vp of marketing. “Odyssey Team’s programs fit in perfectly with our company’s core values.”

RockResorts was one of the pioneering boutique hotel companies to implement an official Green Meetings program. They followed that with a Give & Getaway initiative that creates group projects revolving around natural resource conservation and preservation. A wide variety of opportunities range from maintaining hiking trails in river and stream ecosystems to working with local farmers.

“The package has been a successful initiative to promote conservation of the spectacular environments that surround our resorts,” says Julie Klein, director of environmental affairs. “It’s an excellent opportunity for group bonding, as well as taking time out to enjoy nature.”

Rosen Hotels & Resorts in Orlando just launched its community service website at The portal provides contacts and expertise to assist visiting corporate groups who want to volunteer, along with an array of photos and text describing the experiences of past groups.

“The question is how do you combine entrepreneurial spirit with philanthropy?” asks Harris Rosen, president. “I think it falls under the umbrella of responsible capitalism. If someone enjoys the benefits of living in this country, they should—actually, it should be required—to include in that thank you a plan to help those less fortunate.”