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The Group Travel Leader Going on Faith Select Traveler

Voluntourism at Faith-Based Meetings

‘Near and Dear to the Mission’

For some visiting church groups, donating time and energy is second nature. In late June, the Unitarian Universalist Association held its 53rd general assembly with 4,600 people in the Rhode Island Convention Center in Providence. They knew what they were doing.

“They organized it all themselves and worked early on the planning,” said Kristen McGrath, vice president of sales for the Providence-Warwick Convention and Visitors Bureau.

The group’s goal was to make a dent in Rhode Island’s hunger and homelessness. They assisted Housing First in Rhode Island, which provides housing placement and intensive support to chronically homeless people, and McAuley Ministries, run by the Sisters of Mercy, which provides food, clothing, shelter, health services, emotional support and guidance to vulnerable citizens.

“Community service is very near and dear to the mission of that group. It’s something they do year in and year out in whatever city they meet,” said McGrath, who matches groups with carefully vetted nonprofits so that volunteers’ efforts, whether human or financial, make a difference for a responsible entity.

The New England Chapter of Professional Convention Management Association held its board meeting in Providence. As a kick-off to the gathering, the group volunteered several hours in the Head Start Program at Children’s Friend and Service.

“Some projects foster team building between group members, but there’s typically a social aspect to the activity, which is also important to the group,” said McGrath. “We’re grateful for the economic impact they bring with meetings and conventions. But with a community service project, they can literally go somewhere in the morning, do a project and then stand back and see how they made a difference; and it happened quickly.”


‘Whatever They’re Capable of Doing’

Many CVBs suggest group volunteer options to meeting planners during the negotiating process, said Erin Filarecki, media relations manager for Visit Norfolk. Her CVB is one of them.

“We offer opportunities to folks coming in,” she said. “Some groups already have something in mind, so then we just assist them in any way we can.”

Recently, Alpha Kappa Phi fraternity contacted the CVB about doing something for children when it goes to Norfolk for a meeting in the summer of 2015. The CVB did research and found two children’s charities that could use a boost: For Kids and the Norfolk Education Foundation. The group said it wants to “stuff” a school bus with school supplies for kids associated with one or both of the charities.

“It can be a small, midsize or big group that volunteers,” Filarecki said, “whatever they’re capable of doing. We’ve had the voluntourism information on the Visit Norfolk website for several years now.” Visit Norfolk informs groups about many volunteer opportunities. It has partnered with an organization called Volunteer Hampton Roads, a nonprofit resource center for southeastern Virginia. It acts as a link between nonprofit organizations needing help and eager volunteers, some of whom are in the area to attend meetings and have built volunteer time into their itineraries.

Among local nonprofits to benefit are the Norfolk Botanical Garden, the Virginia Zoological Park, the Hermitage Museum and Gardens, the Virginia Arts Festival and the Chesapeake Bay Foundation, which dedicates itself to saving the Bay’s watershed.

‘We Care About the Places We Go’

The Scottsdale Convention and Visitors Bureau in Scottsdale, Arizona, refers meeting planners with voluntourism on their minds to a variety of needy causes in the valley. The St. Mary’s Food Bank, Maricopa County Animal Care and Control, and the McDowell Sonoran Conservancy are a few of the organizations that benefit from the generosity of meeting attendees.

“Whether it’s feeding the homeless, assisting in an animal shelter or helping to build a hiking trail, meeting-goers who voluntour go home feeling like they’ve contributed something to the Scottsdale community,” said Kelli Blubaum, vice president of convention sales and services for the CVB.

Occasionally, a local company called the Event Team acts as the go-between for meeting groups and charitable causes they’re interested in supporting in the Greater Scottsdale area. The Event Team matches groups with organizations that can use their help. They can also organize and coordinate the whole event, or customize the event for any charitable purpose, all while promoting team building within the meeting group.

Eli Hernandez, Event Team general manager, said that Gila River Indian Community Orphanage is one recent example. A liquor distributor’s meeting attendees “did a huge facelift, a beautification of the orphanage,” said Hernandez. “We had professional contractors on-site, but the company brought 200 of its people. Together, they completely painted, replumbed the bathrooms, wired up new computers, painted the basketball court, built bike racks and created a bus stop, since the orphanage is out in the middle of nowhere.”

In another Arizona example, a group of software engineers assembled swing sets, other playground equipment and toys for kids. The wood and hardware and other materials were brought to a staging area. All parts and materials were organized for the group to assemble items over several hours.

“They built two large swing sets, 30 wagons, and stuffed 60 teddy bears in three hours. All were donated to Sunshine Acres Children’s Home in Mesa,” Blubaum said. Sunshine Acres is a home for children separated from their parents or guardians for various reasons like domestic violence or homelessness.

Hernandez said volunteers have their own reasons for performing the tasks.

“They can say, ‘Hey, we did our meeting, spent money on it and gave that opportunity to the community. But we also care about the places we go to as well.’”

Dan Dickson

Dan has been a communicator all his professional life, first as an award-winning radio and TV news reporter for two decades and then as a communications director for several non-profits for another decade. He has contributed to The Group Travel Leader Inc. publications since 2007.