November 01, 1998
Meetings & Conventions Common Ground November 1998 Current Issue
November 1998
Good Will Meeting

Community service projects let groups give to those in need and take home rewards of their own


It’s a late Friday afternoon following a meeting, and the salespeople from Merkert Enterprises are not out on the golf course or enjoying cocktails. They’re not even in their offices or visiting with clients. Instead, they’re in a cavernous warehouse in Hillside, N.J., surrounded by boxes and cans of food cereal, beans, pasta and peas that must be inspected, sorted and readied for distribution.

This work isn’t some sort of penance for failing to meet their sales quotas. Instead, it’s part of Merkert’s commitment to community service a commitment that goes beyond pledging corporate dollars to good causes. For the past five years, the salespeople have volunteered at the Community FoodBank of New Jersey, which collects food and distributes it to local soup kitchens, shelters and children’s meal programs.

Fairfield, N.J.-based Merkert Enterprises, a sales and marketing organization that represents food manufacturers, is a partner in the annual Check-Out Hunger campaign in the New York-New Jersey-Pennsylvania area. To encourage consumers to donate money to area food banks, Merkert runs a promotion in local newspapers featuring coupons from its clients; this drives customers to the participating supermarkets, which run programs targeted at shoppers.

Prior to the annual fall event, Merkert heads to the FoodBank for a sales meeting part pep rally, part education on the brands the company sells. The employees are then asked to help out in the warehouse for a few hours. This past September, about 80 people sorted donated food. “One of the neat things about the experience is that we were scheduled there for a few hours, but they would have worked even longer,” says Jim Lavin, senior vice president of business development. “They enjoyed it very much. They felt they were doing something from the heart, something good for the community.”

A growing number of corporations and associations have been incorporating community service projects into their meetings, conventions and even incentive programs. They may be voluntary activities held the day before or after an event, or they may be built right into the purpose of the meeting. Why would a group take time out of a full business schedule to do even more work? Because if it’s done right, participants not only give, they also get something back. Here’s what it takes to organize a rewarding program.

Set a goal. “The outcome is not necessarily the product of your work; it’s how it makes the individuals feel and what they learn from it,” says Britt Dunaway, executive director of Project America, a Richmond, Va.-based nonprofit that encourages community service and brings volunteers together with organizations. “If a meeting group is going to have a service project, it’s for a desired effect, and the project should support the message they are trying to relate.”

A service project can be an alternative to typical team-building exercises. Or it may be a way of encouraging networking among members. It can be simply to promote volunteerism or to support a cause related to your organization’s industry. Figuring out your goals first will help you decide which project is best for your group.

Get support from higher-ups. A volunteer project isn’t likely to generate warm feelings of accomplishment if the executives are out on the golf course while the lower-level staffers do all the hard work. At Merkert Enterprises, the do-good attitude comes from the top down. The company’s owner is an active philanthropist and looks at community service as a way to improve employees’ quality of life, according to Lavin. During the annual food bank project, members of the management staff and even some of the company’s clients help out alongside the sales team.

Managers more used to high-ropes courses than to building playgrounds may need to be convinced that the activity is appropriate. To help make your case, nonprofit groups such as the Points of Light Foundation in Washington, D.C., can provide materials detailing the benefits of volunteerism in the corporate environment. (See “Reaching Out Online” on page 54 for resources.)

Find the right project. Planners looking to incorporate a service activity into a meeting generally want something that can be accomplished in one day or less.

“Find a good DMC and give yourself plenty of time to review projects that are available,” suggests Marcia Willett, senior director, corporate events for Ingram Micro Inc., a computer distribution company in Santa Ana, Calif. “You might want to ask for two or three to pick from.”

When Willett wanted to incorporate a service project for the first time into an incentive program in Hawaii, she worked with Mary Charles & Associates, a Honolulu-based destination management company that had worked on other group service projects. The firm matched the 125 participants with a shelter for homeless families, Ka Hale O Kawahiae Transitional Housing, where they painted 19 houses, built picnic benches and planted trees and flowers.

Other routes to go: Call your meeting destination’s volunteer center, community foundations, library, schools, places of worship or local branch of your favorite national charity. Read the local paper. (See “In Search of a Worthy Cause?” on page 52 for project ideas.) The convention and visitors bureau or your hotel may be able to steer you to a service program. Many major cities have organizations, such as affiliates of City Cares of America, that coordinate volunteer activities. Hands On Atlanta even has a program, Hospitality Helping Hands, designed to match meeting groups with short-term projects.

Project America’s Action Guide to Community Service gives some tips for selecting a successful activity: Look for a project that meets a real need in the community, fits with the ages and physical abilities of your participants, gives your group something concrete to show at the end of the day, allows your participants to contribute their special skills and, if possible, gives them a chance to work with the people they are helping.

Also take the size of the group and the site into consideration, points out Willett. You need to have enough work to occupy everyone, but not so much that they won’t see results. And the group’s presence shouldn’t be disruptive. One recent Ingram Micro event involved more than 100 participants renovating a home for abused children in Southern California. “To take them all to the site would have been overwhelming,” she comments. “There wouldn’t have been room to move. We broke the group into sections; one worked in the morning and one in the afternoon.”

Check out the charity. Before donating your group’s time and effort, ask for written information, such as the most recent annual report and a complete financial statement. Nonprofits are required by law to disclose Form 990, which is filed yearly with the IRS. The Better Business Bureau’s Philanthropic Advisory Service ( distributes information on charities; local bureaus may have details as well. The National Charities Information Bureau in New York City (800-501-NCIB or evaluates charities and provides free reports on their activities.

Get local help. A volunteer project takes quite a bit of coordination, stresses Willett. “It’s not as simple as doing a regular team-building activity.” The project may require expertise, equipment and funds that your organization doesn’t have. A local coordinator (if your organization is not based in the area where the group will be volunteering) can check on what needs to be done and find people to do it. Ask local businesses to help out with donations of supplies, money or manpower. Other area nonprofit organizations may be able to recruit volunteers to pitch in.

When the Ingram Micro group fixed up the children’s home, “There was a lot of pre-work to be done before attendees came on site,” says Willett. “We worked with local landscapers and painters, who came in and gave us advice. They gave freely of their time and told us what we had to do to get [the house] prepped.”

Cover your legal bases. It’s unfortunate, but even when you’re trying to do good, you can be held liable for things that go wrong. Before undertaking anything, consult with a lawyer and an insurance agent. The Nonprofit Risk Management Center in Washington, D.C., (202-785-3891 or can provide information about liability, insurance and avoiding legal trouble.

To protect your organization, Project America’s Action Guide to Community Service suggests you get informed consent from the volunteers either a signed participation form that clearly describes the activity and any risks or an actual waiver that states the volunteer gives up the right to sue. Make sure your organization’s general liability insurance covers the activities you are planning. For a special event, an organization may be able to buy a limited policy that covers participants. Take safety precautions, especially during construction and renovation projects, to reduce the chance of an accident. Make sure any equipment used is in good shape, and provide orientation and training if needed.

Volunteers have some safeguards of their own. In 1997, the U.S. Congress passed the Volunteer Protection Act, intended to grant immunity from personal liability to volunteers for nonprofit organizations. According to an analysis by the American Society of Association Executives’ government affairs department, volunteers are protected as long as they are acting within the scope of their responsibilities and as long as harm was not caused by willful or criminal misconduct, gross negligence or reckless misconduct. It does not cover harm caused by the operation of a vehicle. The act does not prevent lawsuits from being filed but increases the likelihood they will be dismissed.

Participants may also be protected by any liability insurance they have. Homeowner’s or renter’s insurance and automobile policies should protect them against most accident claims.

Attend to the logistics. Make sure all of the resources the volunteers will need are available. “As a leader you have to micromanage to make sure the supplies are there, whether it be shovels or tutoring materials,” comments Dunaway of Project America.

Remind volunteers in advance to wear appropriate clothing. Provide an orientation and training session to familiarize them with the site where they will be working and with any equipment they will be using. Give out specific job descriptions or team assignments. Don’t forget to look after the attendees’ comfort throughout the day, recommends Dunaway. Provide snacks, drinks and a break time.

Motivate attendees. “Make sure they understand and are processing what they are doing,” says Dunaway. He recommends holding a pre-project session to explain the goal for the day. “A lot of times people are just told they are going to volunteer. They don’t know who actually benefits, the long-term ramifications and what this means in the life of the organization or the lives of the people they are helping.” Willett had the director of the Hawaii shelter and one of its clients come talk to her group over breakfast.

Remember to have fun. During Ingram Micro’s projects, says Willett, “We added some competition among ourselves. We gave out crazy awards for things like the person with the most paint on their clothes.”

Savor the experience. “[A project] is more successful if you bring the group back together at the end and have people share what they felt and learned,” says Dunaway. “Often they’ll sing its praises.”

If you don’t have time for a post-project celebration, keep the warm feeling going in other ways, such as sharing thank-you letters with participants and encouraging them to come back later and volunteer on their own. Merkert Enterprises’ approach is simple but effective. Says Lavin, “We ask [our participants] to take a minute during dinner and think about what they did that day and share it with their families.”

In Search of a Worthy Cause? For groups looking to help, there's plenty to be done. Consider what's important to your attendees and try to find a cause that will appeal to everyone. Here are a few suggestions to get you started.

Building and Renovation
Short-term construction projects can be perfect for groups seeking a team experience. Building an entire house for a homeless family may take more time than many groups have, but there are other options: Refurbish the headquarters of a local charity, repair an inner-city school or spruce up a living facility for people with disabilities.

Who to call: City Cares of America is a network of organizations that facilitate volunteer activities. The groups also hold "servathons," where many companies spend a day on different cleaning, painting and refurbishing projects. There are 23 affiliates, with names like Kansas City Cares and Hands On Nashville. Call New York City headquarters at (212) 533-4734 or go to for a list.

Collecting Goods
If you don't have a lot of time, holding some sort of drive is ideal. Charitable groups need a variety of things to distribute to their clients or for their own operations: coats, suits, kids' clothes, school supplies, toys, personal-care products, books and more. Send a notice to attendees detailing items to bring to the meeting (limit it to easily packable items if most attendees have to travel) and recruit volunteers to collect, sort and pack them.

Who to call: Ask any local charitable organization what they need. Goodwill Industries International collects clothing and household goods to sell in its stores to generate income and provide employment and training for vocationally disadvantaged people and those with disabilities. The headquarters is in Bethesda, Md., at (301) 530-6500. Call (800) 664-6577 or go to to find its 187 North American members and 54 international associates.

Feeding the Hungry Have a group pitch in at a local food bank's warehouse; they can help unload donations, inspect and sort them, stock shelves or repackage the food for distribution. Or organize a canned-food drive to support a food bank or soup kitchen.

Who to call: Second Harvest in Chicago is a national network of 187 regional food banks in all 50 states and Puerto Rico. These food banks support about 50,000 charitable organizations that operate soup kitchens, shelters, children's meal programs and more. Call (800) 771-2303 or (312) 263-2303, or go to for a list of affiliated food banks.

Preserving the Environment
Groups can quickly clean up a park, a beach or a stretch of highway, or plant trees and flowers to create a park. Larger nature preserves need help with planting native vegetation, maintaining hiking trails, removing non-native pest plants and monitoring endangered species.

Who to call: The city parks or public works departments may be able to direct you to sites. American Forests oversees tree-planting projects on damaged lands and in urban areas. The Washington, D.C.-based group is at (202) 955-4500 or The Nature Conservancy protects more than 9 million acres of land in the United States and more around the world. Its headquarters are in Arlington, Va., at (703) 841-5300; state offices and volunteer opportunities are listed at

Reaching Out Online Looking for that perfect service project? Many organizations have Web sites that list volunteer opportunities or centers, link to other nonprofits and offer tips on planning projects. Here are a few.
  • Charity Village (in Canada)
    (905) 453-7321
  • Idealist (run by Action Without Borders)
    (212) 843-3973
  • Impact Online
    (650) 327-1389
  • Internet NonProfit Center
    No phone number provided
  • Make A Difference Day
    (800) 416-3824
  • Points of Light Foundation
    (202) 729-8000
  • Project America
    (800) 880-3352
  • SERVEnet
    (202) 296-2992
  • Volunteer Canada
    (613) 241-4371
  • Volunteer Now (run by Community Action Network)
    (site under revision at press time)
  • Volunteers of America
    (800) 899-0089
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