Successful Social Engagement

A growing trend at conferences is to include social ventures as part of the programme. In my experience with orphanages in Thailand, such activities range from building bikes for kids, to collecting donations of goods or money. In many cases, though, it’s a visit to a specific facility that is most desirable.

When such visits are planned and managed well they can be the highlight of any conference, leaving a lasting impression on all involved. The key to the success of any kind of socially motivated activity, unsurprisingly, is in the planning and coordination.

I have been involved in many different social engagement programmes, ranging from small, intimate groups right up to leading 450 delegates and some kids from a Thai orphanage on an incredible journey. Even with such a large group it was still one of the most memorable conference experiences I’ve ever had, partly because it was planned well, but also because we had pre-established a relationship.

The client first wanted the delegates to “do something” at the orphanage. Given the number of delegates and the time frame this was always going to difficult so, instead of taking the delegates to the orphanage to “paint a building”, which is the normal request, we brought the kids to the resort and set up activity stations around the hotel where delegates and kids could share the fun – in my experience it’s this kind of shared experience which works most effectively.

When building a social venture-based activity into a conference programme, key objectives can be identified by considering the following questions:

•  Is the project or experience in the best interests of the children or facility you are supporting?
•  Is this activity a meaningful experience for all involved, or does it just fill an afternoon slot?
•  In building an activity to “help someone”, who is it really about – is this something to benefit the delegates or those you are looking to help?

Remember that when visiting a centre or orphanage, you are actually in the home of the children – don’t turn it into a sideshow, the kids are not circus animals. Similarly, provide some context and honour the story of the facility – try to include them in the conference in some way rather than just imposing a tour group with a two-hour visit.

The most effective programmes arise when a meaningful experience is created. Hopefully a visit can become the start of a relationship; there are many opportunities to build bonds with those that you are supporting, and continuing the journey long after the conference will strengthen the experience for all. If the leaders of the facility you are visiting are brought along and are part of the experience, their level of engagement will also be enhanced and the outcome for delegates will be an enriched experience.

The successful inclusion of a social venture programme into a conference or workplace depends upon the experience that is created. If that experience is meaningful, you will get engagement from all involved. From that engagement will come commitment… and then you will clearly see the results that flow.

The key, though, is getting the experience right first.

Peter Baines is the founder and chairman of the charity Hands Across the Water. Formed following the Boxing Day tsunami in Thailand, the organisation builds homes for children orphaned by the disaster. Currently operating seven different facilities across Thailand, the charity and has raised A$7 million (US$7.2 million) to date. For more information, visit and


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