On Jan. 12, more than 50 business event professionals came together online for Hospitality Helping Hands, PCMA’s pre-conference social responsibility opportunity. Past editions of the in-person event have included such teambuilding activities as packaging food donations and putting together infant care packages, but the 2021 initiative featured a new kind of collaborative assignment: Participants were instructed to make something beautiful.
The audience was divided into small groups and separated into virtual breakout rooms where they learned how to use Zoom’s Whiteboard feature to draw shapes, layer colors, and combine digital designs. The two-hour experience was more than a chance to indulge participants’ inner artist — each of their designs will be printed out and placed on in-home water-filtration systems for families in Uganda. The Convening Leaders activity Tuesday raised enough money in donations to provide 10 water filtration systems for a village in eastern Uganda.
PCMA worked with California-based Feet First Eventertainment to coordinate the effort with Lifewater, a nonprofit organization that helps provide access to clean water for people in remote and impoverished parts of the world. Convening Leaders has traditionally left behind a legacy in its host destinations, but there was a silver lining in this year’s lack of a physical home base, said PCMA Vice President of Community Engagement Stacey Shafer. The digital platform provided an opportunity to benefit a community located far away from destinations hosting group events.
“In a typical year, we aim to do something to support the city outside the convention center,” Shafer said. “This year opened the door for us to do something that will benefit an area where we otherwise would not have a Convening Leaders program. It was a chance to put PCMA’s mission to fuel economic and social progress under a new lens.”
In addition to bringing the organization’s mission to life, the experience aligned with the aims of longtime sponsor Maritz Global Events. “Maritz Global Events looks forward to this event every year at Convening Leaders,” said Ben Goedegebuure, the company’s enterprise vice president of global and industry presence. “The efforts of Hospitality Helping Hands align with our signature core value — ‘First, take good care of each other.’”
Teach Them to Fish
Lifewater’s approach follows the proverb, “Give a man a fish and you feed him for day. Teach him how to fish and you feed him for a lifetime.” Warren Press, Feet First’s vice president of sales and marketing, has seen that demonstrated firsthand. When his company began exploring ways to work with the nonprofit, Press spent a week in Gofu, a mountainside village in Uganda. Instead of simply donating the water-filtration kits, Lifewater’s on-the-ground workers teach the members of each family how to properly maintain the system and make repairs should any issues arise.
The experience had a profound impact on Press. “It’s one thing to say that we’re donating water systems,” he told Convene. “It’s another thing to go there and see the work actually being done. It was pretty profound. There is no electricity in these villages, and yet, we met some of the most happy, joy-filled people in the world. It was far more moving than what we had imagined.”
While the clean water is essential for the physical wellbeing of the villagers, Press said that the artwork also goes far in brightening the places they call home. “There is no artwork on their walls,” Press said. “When people participate in this program, we make sure that they know this is going to be the only colorful and artsy thing they see each day.”
Using Digital to Drive Deeper Connections
As the PCMA events team looked at ways to take the Hospitality Helping Hands experience online, they considered a range of options to ship materials to attendees in order for them to assemble care packages at home, but Shafer wanted to avoid a DIY approach.
“One of the main components of Hospitality Helping Hands is that it brings people together instead of feeling like an individual task,” Shafer said. “Feeling a sense of connection while doing something to give back is our primary goal.”
Press said that the experience has been tailored for the digital environment. In the face-to-face setting, teams also assemble portable filtration systems, but designing the artwork on a screen has had a surprising benefit for other types of organizations that have also participated. “For the most part,” Press said, “the artwork that attendees create on Zoom is actually better than what they make at the live events.”
Regardless of how pleased this year’s Hospitality Helping Hands participants were with their design skills, they left the Zoom experience knowing they contributed to solving a serious challenge. According to Lifewater’s statistics, more than 844 million people live without access to safe water, and every 60 seconds, a child dies from a preventable waterborne disease. Those grim figures helped instill a deep sense of meaning for those who participated.
“This program amplifies the idea that you are interconnected with each other,” Press said, “not just on a Zoom call, but also with people on the other side of the world.”
Just a few short months after ending their collaborative Zoom call, Hospitality Helping Hands participants will see the fruits of their efforts, thanks to a tracking number attached to each piece of art. When a Lifewater water-filtration system is installed in a village home, the head of the household takes a photograph that appears on 3billionstories.com, a website that tracks acts of kindness for those living in poverty. In mid-March, the handiwork of Hospitality Helping Hands participants will be featured on the site.
“You can see the people whose lives you have changed instead of simply thinking you did something nice,” Press said. “It really brings it home.”
“When these attendees get to see that their art made its way thousands of miles to someone in need, it’s going to be a powerful reminder of what makes Hospitality Helping Hands so special,” Shafer said. “In just two hours, they managed to make an impact that can be felt for a lifetime.”
David McMillin is a former Convene associate editor and a freelance writer based in Chicago.