The Ripple Effect
Conferences have different agendas. Some are filled with keynote presentations, some with breakouts and round-table discussions. A few have service days preceding the conference; others offer attendees opportunities to give to various organizations of their own volition. Yet every conference has one thing in common—coffee.
What simpler way could there be for event organizers who want their conferences to make a difference then to jolt attendees into action with coffee? “Everyone wants the opportunity to help transform lives, and for many of us jumping on an airplane and going on a mission trip is either too scary or just isn’t feasible, but there are simple things we’re doing already in life that we can transform into being missional and help build the kingdom,” says Robert Crow, community and relationship director, Land of a Thousand Hills Coffee Company.
“One of those things is making sure the coffee you drink is helping people and not exploiting them.”
Thousand Hills sells Community Trade coffee, which is based on the company’s goal to build relationships with farmers in Rwanda, Thailand and Haiti by providing them a fair wage for their coffee and equipping them to become better farmers. Using coffee from Thousand Hills could be a first step in aligning every part of your conference with your organization’s mission.
When developing giveback elements of your conference, the most important decision is choosing which programs best match your group and your conference’s mission. Thousand Hills found connection with the mission of Story Conference, a gathering of practitioners from a variety of creative fields who want to inspire and equip the next generation. “Story believes that the Christian story revolves around everything you do—that every action you have revolves around that story,” says Crow, including the coffee you drink.
The company has worked with Story, as well as Orange Conference and Catalyst, to share its Community Trade philosophy. At conferences, the company brews coffee, sells Rwandan lattes and merchandise, and distributes information about the impact of purchasing its coffee. Bulk orders also can be purchased from Thousand Hills that come with materials and videos to educate attendees. Crow says 135 pounds of coffee supports a farmer for a year. That’s the equivalent of 2,700-4,000 cups of coffee, an amount easily consumed during many conferences. Founder Jonathan Golden speaks at conferences and churches about sustainability as a solution to poverty and using coffee to build Christ-centered relationships in the communities it serves.
Better World Books funds literacy programs and donates a book to organizations around the world for every book purchased from the social enterprise. It is the official bookstore of TED conferences. “Our values align,” says John Ujda, vice president of marketing for Better World Books. “The concept of TED is spreading ideas to change the world. And what Better World Books believes is that books are a good way to spread ideas and we’re trying to improve the world.”
The bookstore, which seeks a social, economic and environmental profit, exhibited more than 300 titles from TED speakers and books recommended by influential TEDsters like Bill Gates at TED2011 in Long Beach, Calif. Other conferences can partner with Better World Books by sponsoring book drives at events or using the online bookstore, betterworldbooks.com, for purchases.
“There’s a halo effect for having Better World Books as your bookstore, rather than any other bookstore that is strictly for profit,” says Ujda, who also urges organization’s working with social enterprises to be willing to compromise on fees and other costs. “Be conscious of the value their brand brings to the game, and be willing to make some tradeoffs because of what comes with that.”
Lights, Camera, Action
Sometimes passive changes that encourage attendees to contribute to causes aren’t enough. Some organizations plan entire events around giving back.
Christ in Youth recognized an opportunity to educate more than 60,000 attendees at more than 100 events a year about social ills around the world by using a medium that was familiar to its participants. “The students we see are really part of that Millennial Generation,” says Chris Jefferson, director of organizational advancement for CIY. “They are 10 to 18 years old. Everything they have seen in education or entertainment has a video screen or a computer. Even at live events, they look up to see a replay on the video screen.”
CIY produced several short films and a feature film that are shown at the organization’s youth events, Know Sweat (now called Engage: Service), Move, SuperStart, Believe and Mix.
After a video presentation, a speaker expands on the topic and at the end of the week-long or weekend events, students can accept a challenge card to come up with a creative idea either individually or as a group to meet the need on their card. The challenge might be related to a global issue in the movie, such as not drinking anything but water for a year to raise money and support for clean water in Africa, or closer to home, like collecting 500 coats for the homeless in their community.
The result? Two middle school girls raised $24,000 in one year for clean water in Zambia, Africa, by selling hand-sewn decorative birds after seeing “Zambia’s Song” at Know Sweat. A couple of teenage boys sold T-shirts at concerts and music festivals to raise money and awareness for victims of sex trafficking in Southeast Asia after watching “Baht,” a movie about the issue, at Move. There are hundreds of stories about students who were challenged at the events to make a tangible difference for others.
Each summer, CIY chooses a single organization to support. “We try go beyond the event in a way that is real and lasting and impacts communities here and around the world…rather than scattering support to four or five different organizations,” Jefferson says. This past summer, the organization focused on persecuted Christians around the world through a full-length feature film, “Love Costs Every Thing.” Representatives from the Central Indian Christian Mission spoke and interacted with students during events. “[Students] immediately know who the money is going to support,” says Jefferson. “These are real people whose lives are being impacted.”
The films and additional resources are available from CIY for other groups to use at their events. “Video clips become a powerful teaching moment as razor-sharp illustrations, than become products of an event,” Jefferson says. “A five-day event with video elements is its own living breathing thing…the video has the opportunity to encourage greater involvement.”
For the past two years, youth ministers at the Worship Center in Lancaster, Pa., have hosted events supporting Sweet Sleep, a faith-based organization that provides beds for orphans in Moldova, Uganda and Haiti, to educate their students about living conditions around the world. In September, almost 80 fifth through eighth graders participated in Under the Stars, a lock-out event during which kids sleep outside in cardboard boxes in order to raise money. “It was a hands-on experience to help others in need,” says Heather Bivins, Worship Center student ministry pastor of Route 56, the fifth- and sixth-grade ministry. “Even if it was just for a night, they could step outside themselves and see the rest of the world.”
Due to rain, the event was moved inside, but the kids listened to speakers, played games like hauling water through an obstacle course and carrying mattresses on their heads, and slept some. They raised enough money for 80 kits for orphans in Northern Uganda that include a sleeping mat, mattress, mosquito net, blanket and Bible in the child’s language.
“[The kids] were excited to know they could help someone they would never meet,” says Bivins. “Eighty kids’ lives were forever changed, plus it was a lot of fun.”
Sweet Sleep provides promotional and educational materials, videos and an event plan for each of its programs. Under the Stars is recommended for high school and college students, but Bivins recommends choosing programs in which the format can be adapted to fit the needs and culture of your group. She combined aspects of Insomnia, a lock-in event that encourages participants to stay up all night to experience an uncomfortable night similar to what others around the world face, and Under the Stars. “Also, I would start promoting earlier,” she says. “In promotions, I’d explain more about who we’re helping and what we’re actually doing at the event.”
Other Sweet Sleep fundraisers include Bed Races, Nickels for Nets and Build-A-Bed. Event organizers can get creative. At Rejuvenate Marketplace this year, Tri-Valley CVB sponsored a station where attendees could make stuffed animals for the orphans who receive a bed from Sweet Sleep. Attendees stuffed 200 “buddies,” which were donated to Sweet Sleep and Next Door, a local women’s shelter, and purchased enough Sweet Sleep T-shirts and jewelry made by women in Uganda to purchase 40 beds for orphans in Uganda.
Convention and planning executives in various cities say the demand for volunteer activities in conjunction with meetings has led them to create lists of local organizations that need help and welcome volunteers. “It’s becoming more and more common,” says Judi Quesonova, director of convention services for the Greater Houston Convention and Visitors Bureau. “I think more companies and organizations are doing it because they want to leave their footprint on a local community.”
That increase is expected to spread, keeping meeting and convention planners on their toes. Quesonova reasons that an organization that does it in one city is likely to do it in each city in which it holds events, prompting a change in how conventions are planned. Community projects, while noble, present their own challenges. Many tourism bureaus assign specific staff members to work with individual companies on giveback activities, but it becomes just another task on the long list of responsibilities for those staffers who often juggle multiple convention clients. If a client requests ideas about a local charity to work with, the staff member must be ready to make suggestions.
“Getting the client with the right group is the biggest challenge,” Quesenova says. “It has to be a good match. These events can be used as part of the convention programming as a teambuilding exercise. You’re going off-site and you’re helping the community, but you’re also working together as a team. So it’s important, if the client wants that, to match them with the right organization that will allow them to do that.”
Houston’s CVB dedicates a service manager to work with each convention client, Quesenova says. Besides serving as the primary liaison with the client on meeting logistics, the person also helps plan a local charity event.
Arvie Murff, director of special events and conferences for Aglow International, says the religious organization, which has locations and ministries in more than 160 countries around the world, partners with local ministry chapters and CVBs in each city in which conferences are held to identify local charities in need of help.
For its worldwide conference in Houston last summer, Aglow worked with the Houston CVB and targeted Redeemed Ministries for outreach. Aglow donated more than $15,000 worth of retail gift cards from Target, Wal-Mart and other local grocery stores. It also donated journals and Bibles. “For us, it’s basically about wrapping our arms around those who are in need to show them that they have the love of the Lord, and that they have not been forgotten—and not just forgotten by people that know them, but by strangers as well. Everyone is important,” Murff said.
The publicity surrounding post-Katrina volunteer projects in New Orleans helped spread the adoption and popularity of community giveback programs as an opportunity for meeting participants. “These types of projects are powerful tools for teambuilding and create unforgettable meeting memories for attendees,” says Jennifer Day from the New Orleans CVB. “This type of work is so positive, and really about the essence of a national and global community. After the storm, the city’s nonprofit organizations exploded with assistance and in turn their capacity and skill set has truly fine-tuned their ability to accommodate groups large and small and to create customized experiences to fit the client’s needs.”
—Andrew Guy Jr. contributed to this article.
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