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Philanthropic team building lends a hand

Boxes stamped with the warning “do not open” sat on the desks of the 200 employees who attended this year’s corporate meeting of Indianapolis-based Universal Procon. When given the OK to open the boxes, attendees found an assortment of plastic pieces and metal springs — parts that would eventually become a prosthetic hand.

“We have [corporate group attendees] brainstorm what the pieces are going to be, and rarely do they say it’s going to be a prosthetic hand,” said Bill John, president of Odyssey Teams, a Chico, Calif.-based company that organizes team-building and leadership-skills programs. “The Helping Hands program started a year ago to give hands to people around the world who could never afford them otherwise. When we uncover the inspirational part of what we are going to produce, people become more engaged about the project. We tell them about the need for prosthetic hands in developing countries. It’s incredible how many people can’t afford them.”

Helping Hands is an example of team building with a philanthropic twist, a concept that is catching

Prosthetic hands are shipped to recipients around the world.

Courtesy Odyssey Teams

on with meeting planners who are looking for different ways to unite their attendees.

Two programs offered by Odyssey Teams allow groups to leave their meeting or retreat having improved someone else’s life.

  In addition to Helping Hands, there’s Life Cycles, in which teams assemble bikes for needy children. Life Cycles has delivered more than 10,000 bikes worldwide; Odyssey Teams plans to distribute at least 10,000 hands.

“We’ve been in the experiential learning industry since 1991,” said John. “In 2000, we realized if we used a lot of experiential concepts and overlaid our facilitations to be more relevant to the community, we could drive a stronger message with our participants. We leveraged the experience to say something about who the company is; so the actual building of the bike or hand is a small part of the program, but it’s also the most describable part as well.”

Corporations are increasingly using philanthropic team building to give back to the community, create a positive company image, encourage company loyalty and teach team-building skills.

Altruistic activities

Socially responsible team building is also a way for companies to improve their public image.

“In the ’80s, you had companies that wanted to be socially responsible, so at the end of the year, they wrote a check to their favorite charity,” said Alan Ranzer, managing partner for Impact 4 Good, based in Bethesda, Md. “In the ’90s, Habitat for Humanity showed we could do something as a team to physically build something we can leave behind to visually show what we’ve done.”

Impact 4 Good helps its clients create socially conscious team-building initiatives, such as building beehives, constructing toys for children and doing chores for senior citizens.

Community volunteering is especially popular during conferences with religious ties. For example, when the Latter Day Saints Mid-Singles Conference was held in Santa Cruz, Calif., in September, the more than 350 attendees of the third-annual conference were divided into teams to go out and clean the coastline. Conference organizers turned to the Santa Cruz County Conference and Visitors Council for philanthropic team-building suggestions.

“There has been some kind of service activity at each of the three conferences,” said Letta Meyer, a conference committee member. “A lot of people coming to the conference are here to meet other people, and working together is one of the best ways to do that.”

Service events can be substituted for typical team-building icebreakers; they not only strengthen camaraderie but also involve participants in a worthwhile cause. Avon, Colo.-based Destination Service Corp. works with the Broadmoor Resort in Colorado Springs to offer this alternative for meetings.

“We try to put a fun spin on it so it energizes and boosts the morale of the employees,” said Ashley Robertson, sales and marketing coordinator for Destination Service Corp. “One rewarding and entertaining experience is Christmas Unlimited, where groups assemble gifts for parents who couldn’t afford Christmas presents for their children otherwise. It is always a very rewarding experience for our participants, because you know you are making a difference.”

Employees who feel good about helping others also often feel more loyal to their company. Many would rather work for an organization they deem socially conscious.

“Millennials who are coming into the work force are not being asked by employers, ‘How are you making the world a better place?’ But they are
asking the workplace, ‘What opportunities are you going to give me to give back to the community?’” said Ranzer. “They are more involved than ever in that aspect. Their pride in the company, increased by these community-service programs, leads to increased productivity and employee retention.”

Potential clients, investors and the community perceive a business more favorably from its community service.

“Companies are more aware of how they change their community,” said Scott Miller, senior partner and principal of Action Learning Associates, an international consulting firm and partner of the Broadmoor that develops experiential components for corporate meetings.

“They hope it will be a positive change. They need support from those communities, and they need to give back support to the community. When they participate in community service, it adds a raised awareness to their presence in a positive light.”

A ropes course with a heart

Ritz-Carlton Hotels in the United States offers community-service team-building options at all its properties.

For example, the Ritz-Carlton Naples’ Giveback Getaway programs allow groups to venture into the Florida Panther Refuge to help protect the habitat of the endangered Florida panther. Or groups can stay in the hotel’s meeting rooms and package meals for Kids Against Hunger.
“We give them two options, because we have groups that want to stay on the property and we have others that want to go off-site,” said Lauren Rotchsord, director of public relations for the Ritz-Carlton Naples. “It’s nice because both of these activities can appeal to any age group or demographic.”

Team Odyssey, a program developed by Action Learning Associates, turns team-building activities into fundraising competitions for charities.

Groups are divided into teams that choose among team-building activities, such as a ropes course or an art quiz, to gain points for their team.
Points earned are translated into dollars. One such event, which involved 600 attendees, raised more than $100,000 for a nonprofit that provides foster care to children. The event also built cooperation and camaraderie.

“A typical team-building experience is a metaphoric experience that fits with what the company is trying to do,” said Miller.

“It doesn’t matter what the activity is; it’s about leveraging people on the team, identifying the resources they can use and cross organizational collaboration. The community service is the pull that makes people want to perform.”

Small investment of time has big impact

Even if there is only a couple of hours for an on-site community service activity, there can be dramatic results, especially if the meeting attendees interact with those they are helping.
Impact 4 Good’s two-hour Build a Bike program often invites participants of Big Brothers and Big Sisters to accept the bikes from event attendees.

“When you can see the person you are helping, it is very meaningful,” said Ranzer. “Giving a child the experience of owning a bike for the first time is something they can relate to and can really hit the emotions.”

During a two-hour team-building program, groups can build bikes and deliver them to children.

Courtesy Impact for Good

Trying to arrange an event directly with a philanthropic institution can prove tricky. Many nonprofits have small staffs with little time to assist with  arranging a corporate event.

“Because we work with corporate groups, it is sometimes hard to find a way to help the charities within the corporate meeting context,” said Robertson. “They [charities] are often looking for a more steady volunteer base.”

Researching nonprofits in the area where a corporate event will take place to find charities that mesh with corporate goals can make the volunteer effort more significant to participants.

“We have been trying to keep a lot of our charity programs local,” said Robertson. “We have found that corporate groups like to give back to the local community even if they are not from that area.”

Some believe that the trend in local community service is an effort to polilsh corporate images in a world that’s more aware of the effects companies have on their surroundings.

“The reality is that right now there could not be a better time for corporate responsibility, because we are facing unprecedented criticism,” said Ranzer. “Meeting planners are facing scrutiny on every dollar spent, which can be combated by corporate responsibility and giving back to the community.”

As a result, team-building firms like Destination Service Corp. continue to seek more ways to help local charities.

“I think we will continue to expand on team-building offerings for our clients,” said Robertson. “In Colorado Springs, there is an organization called the Springs Rescue Mission that helps the homeless in the area. We want to develop an event that will benefit their organization.”