Buycott, Don’t Boycott

How to positively impact social conditions in destinations with politics that don’t align

by Gary Diedrichs

Sep 14, 2023

Flashback to 2019. Elena Gerstmann, FASAE, CAE, was hungry. The only open option at the airport she was passing through on her way home from a business trip was a restaurant she had boycotted for years because of its anti-LGBTQ+ financial support. Begrudgingly, she bought a sandwich, then stewed over how much of her tab could land in the hands of someone actively working against what she believes in.

She thought, wouldn’t it be great if there was a way to help people donate money to rebalance their spending?

That thought lingered until last year, when Gerstmann’s wife, Beth Surmont, FASAE, CMP-Fellow, CAE, was about to attend a conference in a state “that had recently put forward harmful anti-LGBTQ+ policy.” Surmont thought about boycotting the event until the two of them came up with the idea of making a donation to offset the impact of her spending in the state instead.

Not long thereafter, they cofounded SocialOffset—the prototype launched at ASAE Annual Meeting in August 2022 and the pilot soft launch was this past January—a nonprofit that provides a socially conscious alternative to event and destination boycotts. Its website describes SocialOffset’s brief this way: “We are a community of people determined to stay true to our values when we travel to or host events. We help event attendees and business travelers offset spending in destinations whose laws do not align with their core values by making it easy to donate to local charities that do.”

Gerstmann, who serves as president and CEO of the organization, adds:

“We know that attendees and exhibitors are conflicted between needing to engage with their professional and industry networks and not wanting to support states that have enacted restrictive legislation targeted at specific groups. SocialOffset gives everyone involved a third way. At its most basic level, SocialOffset says ‘no’ to event boycotts and ‘yes’ to making a difference.”

Offering event attendees peace of mind via an option to donate to bettering the destinations they visit, Gerstmann says, tells them their meeting hosts “know that they understand their concerns.”

Founding CVB/DMO partners of SocialOffset were Visit Seattle, Visit Austin, Nashville Music City and Visit Baltimore. Additional sponsorships to date have come from Birmingham, Alabama; Dallas; and Orlando, Florida, as well as Destinations International.

How It Works

The process begins with SocialOffset vetting local nonprofits and charities making an impact. Event organizers select the cause(s) to be offered from those SocialOffset has endorsed, then promote a custom web page on which to make offset donations. To cover the campaign costs, SocialOffset charges a flat fee of $750 for nonprofits including associations and $1,500 for for-profit corporations and other businesses. The SocialOffset website also states: “As part of our commitment to inclusion, please let us know if this fee will be a barrier so we can discuss.”

Gerstmann says her organization is currently working with more than 40 different associations to create their own SocialOffset page.

She continues: “We are very proud of the fact that 100% of the funds donated by meeting attendees are donated to one or more vetted, local nonprofits that deliver programs, services and advocacy for racial justice, LGBTQ+ equality, hunger relief, housing security, environmental sustainability and reproductive freedom.”

In a statement issued about travel to Florida, Gerstmann and her team cite Lynn Minnaert, academic director and a clinical associate professor at New York University, who says travel boycotts are not effective at achieving political change, noting that “turning away from something doesn’t necessarily make it go away.”

The SocialOffset statement concluded: “By visiting locations that have policies many of us disagree with, and making donations, we can provide vital support to mayors, community organizers and local activists who work tirelessly to bring about positive change. Staying home doesn’t always help; supporting does.”

In short, buycott, don’t boycott. 

This article first appeared in SmartMeetings on September 1, 2023