Got Community Service?

Got Community Service

Want to see real joy? Give an industrial strength impact wrench (like those used to change tires in NASCAR) to a grandmother. That happened recently to Sheri Estes, a volunteer with a Candler Hospital group from Savannah, helping rebuild a home on the Gulf Coast destroyed by Hurricane Katrina.

“Get my camera,” she beamed, elated after bolting a big board to a house. “My husband never lets me touch his tools!”

Volunteering in a group environment accomplishes quite a few things. It fixes stuff and helps people, primarily. It’s personally rewarding and brings co-workers together, blowing away any type of teambuilding ropes course ever devised. It’s also the perfect platform for corporate social responsibility. Just like green meetings which have become the norm, look for meetings with community service to become standard, too.

For example, last October Starbucks brought 10,000 employees to New Orleans. Everyone was mandated to spend one day volunteering.

“It’s a beautiful way for a corporation to express its CSR mission,” says Mary Beth Romig, director of communications for New Orleans CVB. “Everybody who participates always, always says it brings a deeper meaning to the meeting.”

Companies can partner with a wide array of local non-profits, from grassroots organizations like Beacon of Hope to well-established operations like Hands On New Orleans, “who can handle everything from soup to nuts for 500 people at one site,” says Beth Romig. “Although there is a bit of a misperception that these opportunities are free.”

She explains items such as equipment, insurance and transportation must be financed by the volunteering corporation. And companies have various options for participating: opt-in manual labor or monetary or material donations.

For instance, a Konika/Minolta group was so upset at the deplorable condition of one high school’s bathrooms after the storm, they worked to rebuild them with a local contractor. Then they decided to fund three permanent, yearly scholarships.

“That happens all the time,” says Beth Romig, “groups feeling they want to do more.”

In a similar vein, Ritz-Carlton Hotels is the first hotel company to have an official brandwide “VolunTeaming” program for corporate groups. This can range from assisting Habitat for Humanity in New Orleans to building bikes in Jamaica to painting a hospice in Berlin.

“The value of volunteering is the teamwork that comes out of the experience and the personal connection you build with the local culture,” says Sue Stephenson, Ritz-Carlton’s vp of Community Footprints. “It’s incredibly memorable, too. We have people talking about events from four years ago.”

One example event this year was when 40 planners at The Ritz-Carlton, San Francisco bought and put together 150 tote bags filled with blankets, Dr. Seuss books and stuffed animals for Project Night Night. The organization gives the tote bags to young children on their first night in a homeless shelter.

Yes, it gets a little real with some of these programs.

“Those types of experiences take the meeting a step up to another level,” says Stephenson.