Chris Lee of ACCESSIn my previous IdeaXchange article, I wrote about the power of shared experiences and how, when we're fortunate enough to experience something meaningful, something moving, something inspiring, our natural response is to share that experience with others.

As event and meeting planners, we have the opportunity to be so much more than simply organizers of buses, boats, ballrooms and badges. Events and meetings are meant to be shared experiences. Increasingly, event participants and guests (especially millennials) expect more than just things from us--they want experiences. They want shared experiences that inspire them. In my 28 years in the industry, I've been a part of some pretty amazing events, but it's difficult for me to think of shared experiences more meaningful, more powerful and more universally inspiring than those focused on giving back. So, this time, let’s explore Corporate Social Responsibility, or CSR.

WHAT IS CSR? Most of us today are familiar with the term CSR. The World Business Council for Sustainable Development defines CSR as “the continuing commitment by businesses to contribute to economic development while improving the quality of life of the workforce and their families as well as of the community and society at large.” I like that this definition acknowledges how many people are affected by CSR--employees, families, communities! The positive impact of CSR on local communities and causes is undeniable, but the experience can be just as significant for those individuals and groups who are giving their time and resources to a meaningful cause.

At ACCESS, we've produced hundreds of CSR programs for clients across the U.S. and around the world. Together with our clients, we’ve designed and implemented CSR programs involving thousands of coworkers, colleagues, attendees and guests working together to build parks, construct new school playgrounds, complete "home makeovers" for military families, create and deliver care packages to the underprivileged, and so much more. It's never anything less than inspiring to experience people working together and building a camaraderie that's unmatched in any other setting.

CSR AND YOUR BOTTOM LINE It’s generally known that CSR programs help improve public opinion for companies. It’s also known that those companies generally have healthier cultures along with increased employee morale and retention. But more recent studies show that a company's involvement in CSR directly affects their bottom line as well.

In our 24-7, everything-at-your-fingertips world, clients and consumers are more aware of what their favorite companies are doing to give back. Figures show that consumers are willing to pay more for products and services from socially responsible companies.

But all businesses have a bottom line, and the dollars for CSR initiatives must come from somewhere. So how can you fund your CSR initiatives? Think ahead and allocate a percentage of your meeting budget to CSR, if that’s possible. Be sure to explore all potential sources for dollars that can be applied toward CSR initiatives. Are corporate funds available from your company’s charitable giving budget? If not, consider applying for government or private foundation grants or matching funds.

Also remember to share the opportunity with your partners--encourage your vendors and affiliates to join you in your efforts by sponsoring your CSR programs. You will likely find that others are excited to be involved and relieved that your company has taken the initiative to plan the programs.  

CREATING SUCCESSFUL CSR CAMPAIGNS As planners, we’re always looking to get the best from each destination, so isn’t it time we give back to those destinations and local communities? Planning a successful CSR campaign is similar to designing any successful program.

First, identify your company’s existing charitable giving causes and integrate them into your meetings. If your company has not identified a charity or cause, you have an opportunity to pioneer CSR in your organization through your events and meetings. Incorporating CSR activities into events is a great way to enhance the experience and reinforce your company’s values. Get everyone involved across all departments; perhaps your HR executives have ideas for integrating CSR into your events. After all, they are stakeholders in improving morale and employee retention.

There are so many ways to incorporate CSR into your meetings, from simple activities such as personalizing and donating Toms shoes for children, as ACCESS recently did at a meeting industry event, to community beatification and large-scale projects. (See more here.) Successful, inspiring CSR programs combine the camaraderie and interaction of traditional team-building events with social consciousness and community benefits. CSR campaigns should feel unique to your company and be aligned with your corporate values.

CSR EXTENDS THE EVENT Inspiration doesn’t have to end when the program does. Following a particularly meaningful CSR and team-building event ACCESS produced for a longtime client, the participants were personally moved to do even more. At dinner that evening, a small group decided that each person would donate $10 to the charity they had benefitted at that day’s CSR event. This spontaneous act spread to the table next to them and so on until virtually every one of the 1,000 participants had contributed. We suddenly had a massive cash donation that was in addition to the care packages our client just delivered. The vice president of the company then took the microphone, thanked everyone, and announced that the company would match the donations they had made that night! “The sense of pride and camaraderie in that room was bigger than we could ever have expected,” he said afterwards.

Giving is inspirational, and generosity is contagious. As leaders in the meetings and events industry, let’s remember that Corporate Social Responsibility is not only a responsibility, but also an opportunity. We give not because we should, but because we can.

Chris Lee, DMCP, is partner and CEO of ACCESS Destination Services, having begun his destination management career in the early 1980s working for ACCESS precursor California Leisure Consultants in San Diego and Los Angeles. He is a co-founder and past president of the Association of Destination Management Executives, a contributing author to “The Guide to Successful Destination Management,” and the 2006 Destination Management Professional of the Year honoree.