Give Back to Your Meeting's Host City

By: Linda C. Chandler

With all of the hard work that goes into planning your meeting or tradeshow, it can be easy to forget how much a host city does to prepare for the event. In Texas, organizations are finding that service or charitable projects are a great way to show appreciation to a local community and bond with members at the same time. (Titled "Say Thanks by Giving Back" in the print edition)

In recent years, tighter budgets and increasing demands on members' time have caused many association meetings to become so compressed that there's little room for extras. Every hour counts, whether the goal is professional and personal growth, education, networking, or team building.

Yet associations are finding a new way to accomplish those very same goals: They're encouraging members to participate in community service or charitable projects onsite. Feeling good about doing good can be a morale booster, and working for a charitable cause creates bonding among participants that is much more difficult to achieve in a seminar or general session. Whether your association is planning a project for your board, committees, affiliate chapters, or volunteers from across the membership, here's a look at a few of the projects that organizations meeting in the Lone Star State have undertaken.

Make It Relevant

The National Association of Elementary School Principals (NAESP) began hosting a service day when its annual conference was held in New Orleans in 2009. "Now our service day has become one of the highlights of our conference, and typically about 100 principals participate," says Deborah Young, CMP, CMM, director of conventions and meetings. "We work with the local CVBs, our state affiliates, and school districts to identify schools that need help, and the district supplies school-bus transportation to our volunteers."

CEAT volunteers Clean the Creek.psd
The National Association of Elementary School Principals focuses its annual conference service project on schools in need, making the work it does relevant for the organization's members.

The service project is held the day before the three-day conference starts and lasts from four to seven hours, depending on the work being done. In 2010, when NAESP met in Houston, volunteers tackled three separate locations with one common goal: to beautify the schools selected for the projects. Volunteers installed a playground at one school and did landscaping projects at two others.

"Seeing the kids watching while we're working just gives everyone a great feeling," Young says. "I can't begin to express how good it feels to accomplish something for students who otherwise wouldn't have a playground or nice landscaping to beautify their school grounds. And it tends to get local media coverage for the association and exposure for our corporate partner."

NAESP is sold on the service concept. In 2011, it built an outdoor reading area for a school in Tampa, Florida, and this spring in Seattle, they constructed a playground for students with special needs. Keeping the focus on kids makes the projects appropriate and significant for the organization's members.

Relevant projects can be incorporated into smaller group meetings, too. Last February, Tyler, Texas, hosted the Code Enforcement Association of Texas (CEAT). The 135 attendees representing 39 Texas cities met for four days. One of the most meaningful activities put their skills to use in the host city.

Members of the Code Enforcement Association of Texas used their expertise to bring a popular walking trail up to code in Tyler, Texas, during their annual meeting last February.

One afternoon, attendees could earn continuing-education units for helping to "Clean the Creek," bringing a half-mile section of a popular walking trail in the city up to code, an appropriate project for code-enforcement officers. The local newspaper and the ABC television affiliate covered the event, which drew about 35 participants.

Chris Lennon, code enforcement manager for the City of Tyler and local coordinator for the conference, said the idea came from the association's president. In fact, when CEAT board members met in Tyler the previous October, they joined with city staff and Keep Tyler Beautiful teams for a similar clean-up project.

Make It Easy

The American Mathematical Association of Two-Year Colleges (AMATYC) took on its first charitable project during its annual conference at the Hilton Austin last November.

"I'd been on the lookout for a community service project that we could incorporate into the conference," says Keven Dockter, AMATYC's conference coordinator and professor at Anoka-Ramsey Community College in Minnesota.

With the help of Ken Sien, CMP, of the event-planning company Experient, and Sien's colleague Karen Watson, CMP, Dockter learned of Open Arms, an organization that provides a workplace and income to women refugees from all over the world. Women are paid a living wage to create products from recycled T-shirts to sell online.

"It was easy to market participation," Dockter says. "Pack an old T-shirt or two to give away. Wear your college T-shirt one day and donate it the next. What could be simpler? We had collection boxes in the registration and exhibits areas. There were about 1,200 people at the conference, and we must have given almost 5,000 T-shirts."

Reaction to the initial project was great. "People were asking, 'Can we do something like this again in the future?' It really hit a personal chord," Dockter says.

Make It Count

For other associations, giving back to the host city is not new. Since 2002, the Financial & Insurance Conference Planners, based in Chicago, has given almost $400,000 to organizations in the cities that have hosted its annual conference.

Each year FICP members and their hospitality-industry partners contribute prizes to a silent auction, including items like travel bags, tickets to sporting events, and hotel packages. Last year, members not attending the conference could participate in the auction online along with the 600-plus attendees bidding live onsite.

The proceeds from the auction at FICP's fall 2011 annual conference at the Grand Hyatt in San Antonio went to Family Violence Prevention Services, Inc., a nonprofit organization that offers crisis services, transitional housing, counseling, legal aid, and other help to victims of domestic violence in Bexar County.

"All the proceeds—100 percent—go to the selected charity. We do not factor in for the overhead," says Steve Bova, CAE, FICP's executive director. "In fact, in San Antonio, the auction raised about $38,000, but the organization wrote a check for an even $40,000." The donation is always presented to the charity at the end of the conference.

"It is a great lead-by-example program," Bova says. "Many of our members' companies do similar things to help their communities."

FICP takes its community social conscience to smaller meetings, too. At a regional meeting in San Diego in June 2011, the organization donated more than $5,000 to Neighborhood House Association, a multipurpose social services agency helping families in San Diego County.

Make It a Habit

Arlington, Texas, will be hosting the Texas Association of Student Councils' annual conference for the next three years. The ongoing relationship with the city includes giving back, says Terry Hamm, TASC's director. When 4,500 high school students and their advisors descend on Arlington each year, they will contribute in age-specific programs. About 1,000 are expected to participate in the community service project.

"This year, we set aside three hours for our students to go to Mission Arlington, a citywide faith-based social-services agency. They could sort school supplies and fill children's backpacks or decorate Easter eggs for the agency's event," Hamm says. "Student council is not a social club or honor society. It embraces students across the board. They are learning civic participation, leadership, and responsibility. Community service projects are great teaching tools."

Make It Fun

Cameron Fox is the chief creative officer for i-Entertainment, a company based in Arlington that offers a variety of event services in the Dallas-Fort Worth area. "A few years ago, we heard the demand from hotels and [destination management companies] for team-building events that weren't the same old ropes courses and trust falls," says Fox. "We've tried to differentiate our programs so that participants have fun first."

That valuable lesson came from experience. Early on, Fox said, i-Entertainment hosted a build-a-bike competition among its staff. But when it was over, participants said the process was "lame and boring." So the thinking caps went on.

The staff of i-Entertainment participate in a bike-building competition that benefited a nonprofit in Dallas. The completed bikes were given to the children of Jonathan's Place.

Now bike building is a lesson in negotiation. Instead of each team getting all the parts for assembling a bike, groups get different parts, and members have to interact, negotiate, and trade for pedals, chains, or whatever they're lacking. There are mini-contests where teams can win nuts and bolts. Fox purposely builds in some frustration by withholding a few critical pieces. Only then are participants told it isn't just a team-building contest—the bikes are going to children at Jonathan's Place, a 501(c)(3) center for children in crisis in Dallas.

"The event immediately goes from a competition to heartfelt cooperation," Fox says. "Everyone does a 180 and helps one another to finish all the bikes for the kids."

During March Madness one year, i-Entertainment introduced construction of free-standing basketball nets instead of bikes and has had groups assemble IKEA kids' furniture that is donated to charities in the area.

Make It Happen

Karen Watson of Experient has helped association and corporate clients with give-back events across the United States. "With the time crunch involved in most meetings today, not every group can afford to take a day for Habitat for Humanity or painting and landscaping at a homeless shelter," she says. "But most can still do smaller projects, like building birdhouses or mailboxes or giving to some special charity. The important thing is to remember that the goal is bonding and networking among participants."

She offers these tips to help make the logistical aspects easier to handle:

  • Put links to the organization you'll be working with on your website and in email marketing pieces.
  • Allow the charity to set up a table or booth during the conference. Give them a "face" through a video or slide presentation.
  • Be sure volunteers register to participate so you know how many to expect and can adjust plans if necessary.
  • Assign staff or experienced volunteers to lead each work team and keep things organized and on schedule.
  • People are generally more open to giving an item rather than cash, but with luggage restrictions, heavy items are out. Books for children and adolescents, school supplies, toys, socks, and pajamas are good choices.
  • Use local help to assemble supplies and monitor the project room or coordinate transportation if required.
  • Set up games where attendees compete to win "play money" to spend on items in a "store" for the charity.
  • Be sure the final confirmation reminds attendees what they must bring to participate.
  • Food banks and support-the-troops organizations are popular recipients for give-back efforts, but finding a cause that relates to the association is ideal.

Many CVBs and hotels now have website pages explaining potential local charities that welcome participants' service projects. The Fort Worth CVB and the Omni Fort Worth Hotel (the convention center hotel) both offer extensive lists for meeting planners. Other CVBs have staff or local volunteers who connect with the community to coordinate such projects.

"When convention attendees contribute to the host community, it builds a bond between the organization and the city," says Shari Rickman, vice president and general manager of conventions for Tyler. "Attendees are more likely to have positive memories of their experiences in the destination, and the host city becomes more aware of what the organization stands for."

Linda C. Chandler is a freelance writer and editor based in Tyler, Texas. Email: [email protected]

Sidebar: Help fight hunger when ASAE meets in Dallas

Going to ASAE's Annual Meeting & Exposition in Dallas this August? You will have the opportunity to help support the North Texas Food Bank (NTFB), a nonprofit that serves 13 local counties. And you can give your support in a way that suits your style:

  • On Saturday, August 11, you can take part in one of seven tours exploring arts venues, the Dallas Arboretum and Botanical Garden, the Sixth Floor Museum (which chronicles the Kennedy assassination), or the world-famous NorthPark Shopping Center. The $35 fee for each tour goes to NTFB.
  • On Sunday morning, you can participate in a 5K fun run on the downtown Katy Trail. There's a $45 entry fee, and net proceeds go to NTFB.
  • If you prefer a hands-on experience, you can join a group and work a shift at a NTFB facility on Saturday or Tuesday afternoon. Your labor is your personal contribution.

For details and registration, go to

Linda C. Chandler