Meetings

Give Back: Community Service Projects at Conferences

By / Jul 25, 2014 (iStock/Thinkstock)

Sure, your association’s meeting may bring a lot of money to the host city, but why not also give your attendees the opportunity to help out the local community? Service projects will help your attendees feel a closer connection to the city—and also to each other and your association.

I spent a few days up on Long Beach Island in New Jersey earlier this week. There’s something about the ocean breeze, salt air, and sand that make me immediately relax and push work out of my mind.

But, as I was reading my book on the beach late Monday morning, I noticed a group of adults, all in matching T-shirts and wearing badges on lanyards, walking down the sand in my direction. Some were holding trash bags, while others were using trash pickers. While I couldn’t make out what group they were a part of, seeing them there drew my mind back to associations and how they hold community service projects during their meetings to give back to local communities. (OK, I realize this completely contradicts my previous statement about leaving work behind, but, come on now, cut me a break. I do need to find something to blog about every week.)

These type of volunteer projects are not out of the norm for associations: According to a recent survey by ASAE’s Convene Green Alliance, 39 percent of association meeting professionals said their organization does at least one community service or legacy event at their meetings, with another 15 percent expecting to do so in the coming year. Not only are they an opportunity for attendees to give back to host cities, but they give them the chance to network with fellow delegates and association staff and leaders.

Curious to see what service opportunities associations were offering, I did a little bit of Googling upon my return to the office and came across a ton of examples. Here are a few I found interesting.

At the American Society for Healthcare Engineering Annual Conference and Technical Exhibition next month, attendees can participate in a service event that will support the Anti-Cruelty Society—Chicago’s oldest and largest nonprofit humane society. Participants will “craft toys, blankets, and beds that the Anti-Cruelty Society supports.” That’s right, attendees—many of whom are engineers—will put their skills to the test by creating these items from scratch. Wondering what it entails? Here are instructions from the society on how to make a no-sew pet bed in about an hour.

Next up is the Association of Asthma Educators’ 2014 Annual Conference, taking place in San Antonio next month. The meeting’s community service project gets right to the heart of what its membership is all about: AAE members will partner with San Antonio Northeast Independent School District and its year-round school, Castle Hills Elementary, to present a two-hour education program that consists of free asthma screening, fun, interactive asthma educational activities for the entire family, and free educational materials and asthma tools. According to AAE, “the community service projects are created as a means to address the disparities in morbidity and mortality attributable to asthma among underserved populations in the local areas.”

But what if your conference is so jam-packed with education and other activities that your attendees can’t get away for a few hours and donate their time to a project? Follow in the footsteps of the American Camp Association, which held its Plant Books, Grow Minds book drive at its National Conference in Orlando earlier this year. With a goal to donate 1,000 books to ReadingPals and the Florida Hospital for Children, ACA encouraged attendees to bring new or gently used children’s books to the meeting. If attendees didn’t want to pack the books, they also had the option to ship them to a local address in advance.

Recognizing the importance and appeal of community service projects to meeting planners, some destinations and CVBs have taken the initiative and started offering their own programs to develop these volunteer projects. Take, for instance, Virginia Beach’s One Beach, One World program, which helps meeting planners reach their social responsibility goals by creating “meaningful experiences that delegates and attendees value.” Planners are given numerous options for community outreach, including picking up litter or planting trees to improve the health of the Chesapeake Bay and working with the area’s large military community.

Another example of this is the Alexandria (Virginia) Convention and Visitors Association’s Alexandria Cares offering, which creates custom-tailored community service experiences for groups. Among the recent projects was bowling with special-needs children, tidying up the waterfront area, and building bicycles for families.

How do you encourage your attendees, exhibitors, or staff to give back to the local community during meetings and conferences? Or what creative service projects have you signed up for? Share your service-project successes in the comments.

Samantha Whitehorne

Samantha Whitehorne is editorial director of Associations Now. More »

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