by Geraldine Gatehouse | April 19, 2012
After losing so much, New Orleans is helping companies realize the benefits of giving back. It is always good to hear about the positive effects that are so often created in the wake of the negative. In 2005, New Orleans had what seemed an almost insurmountable volume of negativity to offset following the epic fallout from the effects of Katrina. In the city, the storm surge from the Category 3 hurricane caused more than 50 breaches in drainage canal levees and navigational canal levees and precipitated the worst engineering disaster in the history of the United States. Part of the positive outcome, in addition to Congressional reviews, has been the significant research within the academic community into urban planning, real estate finance, and economic issues in the wake of a natural disaster.

Another big positive has been the amount of give back that has been engendered since then. After Katrina, millions of volunteers traveled to New Orleans to help with the rebuilding of the city. By August 2010, according to the University of New Orleans, approximately 2.2 million people had participated in voluntourism projects. It continues to be a popular activity among visitors and convention attendees; no firm figures are currently available but Tara Letort, Director of Group PR for the New Orleans Convention and Visitors Bureau says they are well over that figure. According to Letort “Many times, major corporations and associations incorporate voluntourism projects into their conference itinerary. It is extremely popular for clients to connect with a volunteer organization and assist with rebuilding a home or constructing a playground, etc.” The New Orleans CVB's latest Voluntourism list shows examples of what companies have done in the past to give back.  It also provides a link to more information for groups looking for a community project suitable to their needs. 

Additionally, in partnership with the state's seven regional Volunteer Centers, the Louisiana Office of Lt. Governor Jay Dardenne maintains a listing of other volunteer opportunities in the New Orleans region and throughout South Louisiana.

Letort continues: “As the Director of Group PR with the New Orleans CVB, a unique position among CVB's, I not only work closely with meeting planners and marketing teams for associations and corporations to provide marketing and attendance-building resources to help them maximize attendance, but I also provide recommendations on which voluntourism options would be the best fit for groups that are interested. Sometimes groups come into the city with CSR already included in their convention itinerary. Others are presented with the idea by us when planning their upcoming event, which is sometimes the first time that their group has organized such a project, and many times becomes so rewarding, that they add it to their meeting itinerary in every city they hold their meeting in moving forward.”

Some pro-active non-profit organizations in New Orleans are now offering turn-key projects that meet the needs of today's conventioneers. St. Bernard Project was founded in 2006 to help rebuild the homes and lives of Katrina survivors, and corporate partnerships have been integral to their success. Toyota, UPS, Zurich, and Cisco are just a few of many major corporations who have not only volunteered in the customizable program, but have also funded rebuilds and provided skill-based labor. These companies agree that volunteering with SBP increases teamwork, reinforces their corporate values, and supports employee retention. According to Adrian Cohn, one of 25 Site Supervisors who oversee volunteer groups on site “close to 100% of homes were lost or destroyed in St. Bernard Parish, a suburb of New Orleans. Today, SBP rebuilds homes all over New Orleans where hard-working families have lived for generations, providing a magical, unique sense of community. We rebuild and renovate homes utilizing volunteer labor, and fundraise to underwrite the cost of building supplies.  Since its inception, 425+ houses have been made habitable with the help of over 36,000 volunteers.  The volunteer experience can be customized to fit the requirements of any group.  Because SBP's homes are owned by the family that lived in the house before the storm, one of the give backs is that participants meet the families they are helping to get back into their homes. It helps to showcase and emphasize the importance of what family means.”  

Volunteers are well supervised by AmeriCorps members who are on site at all times to oversee construction, answer questions, and provide a background about SBP, their homeowners, and how critical their help is in re-establishing family and community. Zack Rosenburg, CEO and Co-Founder adds, "You will feel great walking away knowing that you made an impact on families in New Orleans who will finally be able to celebrate their next birthday and anniversary in the comfort of their own home for the first time in six and a half years."  SBP has over 135 clients on the waiting list, and 8-10,000 homeowners are still struggling to rebuild.

One idea to extend the impact of a group give back to SBP would be for the hosting company to organize a fundraiser in advance of its visit. The average cost to rebuild a home is about $30,000, so this amount, or a percentage of it, could be set as a goal. The group could then work on rebuilding the house that correlate to the funds raised, or SBP could schedule the "Welcome Home Party" for the client they fund on the date groups are slated to volunteer. These are ways SBP further connect the dots in experiencing the true meaning of “give back get back.” 

Just imagine the feeling participants would get when they realized the time and effort they were contributing would enable someone to move back into their home and when they saw that their employer cared enough to support a great initiative. Combined, this would be a powerful, unforgettable emotional experience for any of us. And that in itself is a gift that a company could give back to their employees while contributing to a great cause in a destination that needs all the help it can get to rehouse its residents.  

CSR quote of the month: “Life is a gift, and it offers us the privilege, opportunity, and responsibility to give something back by becoming more,” Anthony Robbins.

Geraldine Gatehouse is an independent incentive and event planner, freelance writer, speaker and instructor, with a passionate belief in the value and potential global impact of CSR. She is based in southern California, is an MPI member, a Site Classic 2012 committee member, a 2012 Site Southern California Board Advisor and a member of the IMEX America team. She can be reached at [email protected]; or via her website Geraldine Gatehouse and at LinkedIn. Her Twitter address is @ggbrit.