CMP Series

How to Ensure Your Meeting’s CSR Activities Actually Make An Impact

Meetings that incorporate charitable components into their programs continues to grow, so does the overall impact that the meetings industry has on the $1.5-trillion philanthropy industry.

That would seem to be all for the positive. But if meetings can magnify the good that charities do, they also can magnify their flaws. And many charitable organizations fall woefully short, former National Public Radio (NPR) CEO Ken Stern writes in his recently published book, With Charity for All: Why Charities Are Failing and a Better Way to Give. Among other things, Stern writes, the charity sector lacks sufficient government oversight: The IRS approves 99.5 percent of all applications, and once established, charities — which number more than one million in the United States — rarely die. And there is a lack of industry-wide standards when it comes to measuring a charity’s results. From water charities intended to improve life in Africa to drug-education programs run by police officers in U.S. schools, many organizations raise and spend millions of dollars without making a dent in the problems they set out to solve.

So what’s a well-intentioned meeting planner to do? The good news is that there is a movement toward finding new ways to add greater accountability and effectiveness to the nonprofit world. At the same time, meeting professionals are recognizing that, with proper research and planning, they can ensure that their groups’ giving-back efforts make the biggest impact possible. Convene spoke with Stern, National Philanthropic Trust CEOEileen Heisman, and Claire Smith, CMP, vice president of sales and marketing for the Vancouver Convention Centre and board liaison to PCMA’s CSR Task Force, about what it takes for the meetings industry to truly make a difference for those in need.


Most meeting planners work with nonprofit partners when creating charitable programs. But you can’t assume that just because a charity is in the “good-making business,” it’s doing good, Stern said. It’s very difficult, he said, to assess the real, long-term impact that a charity has on the people it seeks to help — frequently even for the charities themselves.

A first step for nonprofit organizations, he said, is to come up with a responsible way to define success. One of Stern’s most frustrating experiences at NPR was when he’d go into a board meeting and the group would spend the day talking about measuring success. “There’d be 25 different definitions of success. It turns out it’s really easy to be successful when you get to change your definition of success,” Stern said. “It’s really important that you get a consensus measurement and you stick to it, because that allows for stakeholders to — not necessarily agree or disagree with the measurement of success — but to measure your actions against it and to know whether you’re moving in the right direction. Otherwise, people are making things up as they go along.”

Unfortunately, most charities don’t spell out how they define success. There are some markers that charities make available, such as how long they’ve been around, how stable they are financially, and their long-term prospects, Stern said. “All that usually can be gotten through publicly available data,” he said. “I would say if the organization is not making that data available on its website in a transparent way, I would be careful about them.”

But if you try to dig deeper, Stern said, you’ll find that few charities are transparent on their website about their goals, how they measure themselves, and how they’re doing against those goals. “Those are all, to me, indicators of very good, positive, forward-looking organizations,” Stern said, “and you’d be shocked at how few actually do that.”

There are only a handful of third-party resources that do investment-grade research to help in evaluating charities, Stern said. Among them are Give Well, New Profit, and Charity Navigator.

And although planners should “absolutely” ask for metrics and proof of results, it’s often not reasonable to request that those metrics be customized to individual donors, cautions Heisman, whose National Philanthropic Trust is one of the top 25 grant-making institutions in the United States. “If you are giving smaller amounts, do not force the charity to do complicated metrics just for you, because you are basically burning up your money, plus more,” she said. “A lot of people want all these complicated outcome measurements, but they are only giving a gift of $5,000. It costs a lot to generate metrics. [Say] a staff person is paid $50,000 a year. You need 50 $1,000 donors to pay for a person to do program evaluation. And then you complain that you do not like overhead.”


It’s human nature that we’re quicker to give our dollars and our time to those charities that tug at our heartstrings, rather than those that present hard, cold facts about their results — however compelling those facts might be. But virtually every charity can tell a good story or it wouldn’t be in business, Stern said. Focusing on the emotional storyline is “really about resonating with the donor,” he said, and “the wrong way to think about it. Part of the cultural change needs to be about helping the intended stakeholders of the activity. And really, we all shouldn’t feel very good about it if we aren’t helping people who are hungry or homeless or need education or jobs and having a long-term impact on their lives. Until we actually change that conversation from a conversation that makes donors feel good to a conversation about what is the actual impact that these charities have, I think it’s going to be very difficult for charities to really prosper and make a difference.”

Thinking with greater intention about the actual beneficiaries of groups’ community-service work is something that the PCMA CSR Task

Force has been wrestling with, Smith said. When making decisions around CSR events, planners need to keep “the needs of the community in the foreground rather than sort of as an afterthought,” she said. “We’ve been talking about how we can help encourage meeting planners to think differently about many aspects of their [CSR] event. Because I think, number one, we want to do good, but we are really almost lazy about it. We want to feel good that we have done something, but we actually do not want to get our hands that dirty. And we want an activity that is fun…. So we are going to build bicycles for a school, and that is really lovely, but do those kids really need bicycles? And we are doing it almost like a team-building activity. So it is more really about us than it is about them. I think what we really need to be leery of is giving people things they don’t need. And I think that we do it because it’s easy, and it feels good. But if people don’t need that, then it really is tokenism.”

Adding to the challenge of a meeting group’s ability to make a significant difference in a community is the limited amount of time they spend there. “How much impact can you have in one afternoon?” Heisman said. “What is it that you can do that is possible? If you go to an afterschool program and play with the kids, you’re going to have a one-time impact that is going to kind of evaporate really quickly. If you tutored for one day, that would be nice, but a kid who can’t read well needs to be tutored for six months. If you can do something like building a playground, you have the ability to create something that has some sustainable impact.”

With that in mind, Smith said that she looks for opportunities “to help the more social-enterprise kind of organizations that are actually employing people and helping them to make a living,” because those efforts have a more sustainable impact.

When looking at which charity to support with a CSR activity, Heisman said, it’s important to recognize that some organizations are simply not equipped for volunteers. “People always hate to hear this when I say it, but it takes staff time and money to organize a volunteer effort,” she said. “If you want to go paint a fence, who is going to buy the paint and get the paintbrushes and get you guys ready and put the aprons on and then clean up everything? Some charities just aren’t set up to have a ton of volunteers, so you’re actually costing the charity time and resources to manage you.” She advised meeting professionals to be sensitive to that, adding that charities “don’t exist to have you come in for half a day.”

One way around this, Heisman said, is to work with local organizations that are set up to manage volunteers. “You might want to find the organization near those communities [where your meeting is being held] that actually helps match volunteers to projects,” she said. “Maybe you have a whole list of projects and people divide up into smaller groups, so everybody doesn’t bombard a small charity at once.”


Heisman also thinks it’s important for planners to consider whether they would “rather be a little fish in a big pond or a big fish in a little pond” — by working with a local chapter of the Boys and Girls Club of America, or finding a small organization in the community without national ties. She suggested that planners consult the local United Way chapter and some of the private foundations in their host destination to see what they are funding in the community. Because they have “program officers that are there on the ground all the time,” Heisman said, these foundations “are usually very good at sorting out who is doing a good job. I would really encourage — if people have time in their meeting planning — to do a bit of homework.”

People always hate to hear this when I say it, but it takes [charity] staff time and effort to organize a volunteer effort.

Unfortunately, not all planners take that kind of time. Many “do not dig very deeply,” Smith said, and rely mostly on CVBs to pick organizations suitable for volunteer efforts when their meeting comes to town. But Smith believes that there may be “better ways to engage with communities in the cities that we meet” and that “going through a tourist organization” is not necessary optimal. “I am sure that there are some CVBs that are doing it well, but my guess is that they have a challenge being really honest about it,” Smith said, “and that you have to reach out deeper. I think CVBs are just getting their head around how to connect communities with the meeting planners. But I think they’re trying to shelter [attendees] in some instances from real needs. I think they want to paint a pretty picture of their destinations — we all have [those less desirable aspects], and in the tourism and hospitality industry, we don’t talk about that.”

Smith thinks that planners can take better advantage of site inspections by talking with people on the ground. She recommends asking individuals about their own volunteer activities; or, if they work at a hotel, what are some of the things the hotel does to give back to the community. “In a lot of cases,” Smith said, “we’re doing work in our own communities, but we’re just not talking about it.”


It has become expected now, Smith said, that attendees have an opportunity to participate in a CSR activity as part of an event — and that could be a problem. As community-service initiatives have become actual components of events, they have “become almost event-sized. And I don’t know that it necessarily is having the amount of impact that is really needed,” she said. “Like, we go and paint a school, but is that the second time that school has been painted in this last year? … We’re trying to look for projects that are easy for people to do, and when you start limiting based on logistics and the skill level of the people, then you start kind of watering down the need. Maybe that school needs its furnace rebuilt. And no one at the American Cardiology Association is really going to be able to do that — but maybe there is other expertise that they can lend.

Looking at the skill sets of your attendees and connecting them to a real need in the meeting destination is what Smith called an “interesting angle” — and something Heisman agreed is a good idea. The meeting planner should try to work with “the kind of orientation or bent” a group has, Heisman said. For example, real-estate professional attendees might be interested in volunteering for a housing project, she said, or a psychology group might want their efforts to go to improving children’s lives. “It’s good to get a cause that is a reasonably good match to what the organization does,” Heisman said. “There aren’t charitable parallels for everything, but for a lot of things there are. There are charities that focus on education, the arts, and the environment. Charities are so diverse. You have to sort of pick big or small, and then pick what part of the sector you want to participate in. And then within that, you have to narrow it down from the whole universe of a million charities down to where you’re going to be and who is there and also who is willing to have you.”

Kristin Bakota, CMP, meetings manager for APICS, the Association for Operations Management, used those parameters to select a charity for the APICS 2013 conference next month. “Based on the location of our conference this year — Orlando — we decided to partner with Clean the World to create a CSR activity for our attendees,” Bakota said. “It’s the first time we’ve done anything like this, and the idea stemmed loosely from the activity PCMA conducted with Clean the World [at Convening Leaders] earlier this year. We plan to start our tour at the Gaylord with a brief behind-the-scenes look at how soap is collected, and we will then bus everyone to the Clean the World facility to put together the hygiene kits [for those in need] on site. Since we work with supply-chain professionals, they will enjoy the process of seeing everything from start to finish.”

While that seems a natural fit for APICS, finding a charity and activity that will provide the most benefit to a community is not always an easy feat. “I do feel for a planner, because this is only one aspect of what they’re doing — and then we make it that much more complicated for them,” Smith said. “But I do think that it’s actually quite exciting when you think of the opportunity. Because the will is there — I think people really want to make a difference and want to feel like they’ve left a place in a better way than when they got there. I think that is a human desire.”

‘Love of Mankind’

Meeting professionals “are in a great leadership role,” said National Philanthropic Trust’s Eileen Heisman, “because when you gather people, you can influence the way they think or behave or act, or educate them.” While you might offer CSR activities for attendees to participate in, Heisman believes that “some people can be incredibly charitable with money but not that interested in volunteering — and other people love the volunteering and do not care about money. I think you have to have things if you can for both people. Some people might be moved by something and want to write a check rather than volunteer.”

Heisman offered ways that planners can add charitable elements to their meeting programs that appeal to volunteers and non-volunteers alike:

During the convocation (or opening session), have a nonprofit representative talk about a social problem or social issue and how they make the world a better place.

Using crowdfunding, a group collectively decides that everybody is going to give a certain amount (it could be as little as several dollars each) to a local charity. As part of the meeting program, give two or three different charity spokespeople an opportunity to do a mini fast pitch, where they each get five minutes to convince participants why their organization deserves funding. Have the group vote, using an audience response system or app.

If you have an ice-breaker exercise during the meeting, when people introduce themselves to each other, ask them to talk about some giving-back event that they participated in that has been meaningful to them. Or use this as a topic for a speed-dating kind of networking activity. “Philanthropy actually means ‘love of mankind,’” Heisman said, “so the reason I use this example — where you did something for somebody or something else and expected nothing in return — a lot of times it has nothing to do with a charity per se, but it can just be an act of kindness.”

‘Dead Wrong’

Charitable components during meetings may have had a major growth spurt in recent years. But it turns out that how we feel about charitable giving isn’t modern at all, according to Dan Pallotta, author of Uncharitable: How Restraints on Nonprofits Undermine Their Potential.

Our beliefs can be traced back, Pallotta said during a talk at TED 2013, to America’s 17th-century forefathers, the Puritans, who were aggressive capitalists but also Calvinists who were taught that self-interest was a sure road to damnation. Donating to charity — calculated at five cents on the dollar — was the way they did penance for making a profit.

This lingering Puritan notion about “self-deprivation [being] our strategy for social change” is crippling our ability to make lasting, meaningful progress toward remedying the social ills that continue to plague us, Pallotta said. “The things we have been taught to think about giving and about charity and about the nonprofit sector are undermining the causes we love and our profound yearning to change the world.”

Pallotta’s TEDTalk, “The Way We Think About Charities Is Dead Wrong,” has already been viewed two million times. Here are some highlights:

“Our social problems are massive in scale, our organizations are tiny up against them, and we have a belief system that keeps them tiny. We have two rulebooks: one for the nonprofit sector and one for the rest of the world that discriminates against the nonprofit sector in five areas.”

1 Compensation “We have a visceral reaction that anyone would make very much money helping people. Interestingly, we do not have a visceral reaction to the notion that people would make a lot of money not helping other people. If you want to make $50 million selling violent video games to kids, go for it and we’ll put you on the cover of Wired magazine. But if you want to make half a million dollars trying to cure kids of malaria, you’re considered a parasite.”

2 Advertising and marketing “We tell the for-profit sector to spend, spend, spend on advertising until the last dollar no longer produces a penny of value. But we don’t like to see our donations spent on advertising in charity. As if the money invested in advertising could not bring in dramatically greater sums of money to serve the needy.”

3 Taking risks on new revenue ideas “Nonprofits are reluctant to try any new, brave, daring, giant-scale fundraising endeavors for fear that if the thing fails, their reputations will be dragged through the mud. But we all know that when you prohibit failure, you kill innovation.”

4 Time “Amazon went for six years without returning any profit to investors, and people had patience. They knew there was a long-term objective down the line of building market dominance. But if a nonprofit organization ever had a dream of building magnificent scale that required that for six years, no money was going to go to the needy — it was all going to be invested in building this scale — we would expect a crucifixion.”

5 Profit to attract risk capital “The for-profit sector can pay people profits in order to attract their capital for their new ideas, but you can’t pay profits in a nonprofit sector, so the for-profit sector has a lock on the multitrillion-dollar capital markets and the nonprofit sector is starved for growth and risk and idea capital.

“A very dangerous question [potential donors ask] is, what percentage of my donation goes to the cause versus overhead? There are a lot of problems with this question. First, it makes us think that overhead is a negative — not part of the cause. But it absolutely is, especially if it’s being used for growth. It forces organizations to forgo what they really need to grow.

“Our generation does not want its epitaph to read, ‘We kept charity overhead low.’ So the next time you’re looking at a charity, don’t ask about the rate of their overhead, ask about the scale of their dreams — how they measure their progress toward those dreams and what resources they need to make them come true. Our generation’s enduring legacy should be that we took responsibility for the thinking that had been handed down to us, that we revisited it, we revised it, and we reinvented the way humanity thinks about changing things.”

‘Brilliant’ Repurposing

 A simple CSR effort that really stood out for the Vancouver Convention Centre’s Claire Smith, CMP, was part of the International Congress and Convention Association’s 2004 ICCA Congress, held in Cape Town, South Africa. The organizers “made some really interesting choices on the front end that really impacted the community,” she said. Usually, on-site ICCA staff members wear green shirts with the ICCA logo on it so attendees can identify them, but in Cape Town, they wore football jerseys that had the name of a child on the back, and a number.

“They knew that a local boys football team needed jerseys,” she said, “and they went and bought them — they got the specifications, the sizes, the names, and had them all done. The staff wore them throughout the conference, and at the end of the week, they were all sent off and laundered — and then the kids had their football jerseys. And to me that was brilliant. Because it was doing something that was specific for the need rather than giving somebody something that they don’t really want. And they did a couple of other things — the delegate bags were book bags, so they actually bought book bags for a township. And they had very little logo on it, very little. And after the conference, we all donated them, and the kids used them after the fact as book bags. [It’s about] making decisions that are more intentional [about items that] can be repurposed in a way that is meaningful.”

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Michelle Russell

Michelle Russell is editor in chief of Convene.