Make a Meaningful Impact


By Peyton Scheller

Paying for someone’s coffee in the drive-thru. Serving food at a homeless shelter. Donating clothing you no longer need. These days, there are so many ways to make a difference for the local community, including at your local conference!

“Voluntourism,” the act of volunteering during an event or conference, is a rapidly increasing trend in the meetings and conventions world. Whether you have a group of 10 or 10,000 people convening, there are multiple ways to incorporate voluntourism into your meeting.

Amy Cabe, director of convention services at Visit Spokane, has been involved in a number of voluntourism activities. “When first planning an activity, it’s best to find something that touches people’s hearts and really resonates with them,” says Cabe.

Visit Spokane planned a “bike build” for meeting planners during a recent destination review. The planners broke into teams and “won” pieces of a bike to put together by completing puzzles and tasks. When the bikes were built, they were presented to the local Boys and Girls club. Through this activity, the planners had an opportunity to bond while they were completing the tasks, and they left feeling empowered after seeing that the bikes were being donated to a local organization.

While it’s important to find something that will touch the members involved, it’s equally important to consider the logistics going into the event. “For the bike build, we needed to make sure we found somewhere that was attractive and had an adequate amount of space, that was also somewhere planners could potentially use for a future meeting,” explains Cabe.

While the bike build was made for a smaller group of people, voluntourism activities can work for groups of all sizes.

“The Women of the ELCA (Evangelical Lutheran Church in America) was a very large conference. They collected a variety of items to donate back to the local community,” says Cabe. “Over $10,420 gifts cards and 11,160 minutes in phone cards were donated, as well as clothing, school kits and more.” The Women of the ELCA constantly communicate with their members, so the request for donations is known about by the members well before the conference. Because of this, the conference attendees came prepared and ready to donate.

“On the other side, we hosted about 280 people for a CMP Conclave a few years ago, and a group from the conclave got their hands dirty by mowing the lawn, cleaning the kitchen and painting a home for women,” says Cabe.

In the case of the Conclave, the group had asked Cabe what would be the most effective and practical way for their group to get involved with the local community. From there, she was able to connect them with Transitions, an organization in Spokane that hosts a home for women trying to get back on their feet.

It’s important for Convention and Visitor Bureaus (CVBs) to be involved in the voluntourism process, as they are the ones most connected with the community. Here are a few tips:

Plan ahead – The earlier you can set something up between the conference and the community group the better.

Find something that is both meaningful and enjoyable – Make sure the activity will engage and excite the participants as well as create a meaningful impact for the community.

Have information on your website about voluntourism activities – “We were asked about it often enough that it made sense to put some information about voluntourism on our website,” explains Cabe. “Now, when I receive calls or requests for information about voluntourism activities, I can direct people to our website for a list of community organizations and ways for the group to get involved.”

Think about your group before planning an activity – How much time do you have to commit to the activity? Are your attendees willing to get their hands dirty, or are they more likely to collect and donate items? Answers to these questions should affect what type of voluntourism activity is planned.

It doesn’t have to stop when the conference is over. The local CVB and convention community can also give back to their community through a variety of activities. “Visit Spokane cleans up a mile of the Centennial Trail on a yearly basis, and our local citywide services group often volunteers to plant trees or help with gardening in Riverfront Park,” remarks Cabe.

Whether you want to clean up a park, collect items for donation, visit sick children or feed the homeless, there are many ways, large and small, to get your conference attendees involved in a volunteer activity. And, the benefits to voluntourism are endless. Not only are you creating a great teambuilding activity for your group, you are also giving back to the local community in a way that will have a lasting impact.


Amy Cabe, director of convention services