Social Offset links meeting organizers, participants to charities that represent people adversely affected by state and local laws
Sep 14, 2023
Associations have struggled for years to reconcile a culture of inclusivity with the spread of local and state laws that many members find unwelcoming or an infringement on their rights. In certain sunbelt states, legislation such as abortion bans and “bathroom bills”—restricting which facilities people can use based on their sex at birth—have led to calls to boycott certain destinations.
But in Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis’s bitter ongoing battle with Disney—one of his state’s largest employers—is any indication, economic considerations are not always strong levers to influence social policies. Especially when those social policies are red meat to a voting bloc in the midst of a culture war and a presidential election cycle. Further, in many cases, members are divided on the issues. (DeSantis’s feud with Disney is seen as a response to the company’s opposition to what critics call the “Don’t Say Gay” law DeSantis signed last year, under which classroom instruction on sexual orientation and gender identity is banned.)
A new nonprofit, Social Offset, has been founded on the premise that boycotts aren’t effective but that associations can still have a positive impact in the destinations where they meet through voluntary donations. “Boycotting events, boycotting cities, really doesn’t work,” Social Offset co-Founder Elena Gerstmann told CEO Update. Gerstmann, CEO of professional society INFORMS, founded the organization last year with her wife Beth Surmont, vice president of business event strategy and design at 360 Live Media.
“When you boycott, you’re actually hurting the very people many of us want to help. The frontline workers tend to be women, and tend to be women of lower economic status.”
Co-Founder, Social Offset & CEO, Informs
The idea stemmed from experiences Gerstmann and her wife have had in recent years, she said. First, Gerstmann was stuck in an airport on a business trip in 2019 and found the only food option was a Chick- fil-A, a business Gerstmann was boycotting. The former CEO and current chairman of the chain, Dan Cathy, is an outspoken opponent of gay marriage and the company’s charitable foundation has given millions of dollars to organizations that LGBTQ+ activists consider hate groups.
Then last year, the ASAE Annual Meeting & Exposition was held in Nashville, Tenn., just ahead of an abortion ban going into effect. Searching for a proper response, Gerstmann and her wife raised more than $3,500 for a Tennessee abortion rights group, she said. “When you boycott, you’re actually hurting the very people many of us want to help,” Gerstmann said. “The frontline workers tend to be women, and tend to be women of lower economic status. “But we can’t ignore the fact that some people are really upset that our organizations are going to certain cities,” she said.
So, the all-volunteer Social Offset was born, and has received funding from destination bureaus such as Visit Austin, Visit Baltimore, Visit Seattle and the Nashville Convention & Visitors Corp, which are its founding partners. Sponsorships from CVBs, at the $5,000 or $10,000 level, help fund Social Offset’s operations and web site. “They want a way to help their clients,” said Social Offset board member Rhonda Payne, CEO and founder of speakers agency Flock Theory and former ASAE chief learning officer. “They also want to be able to manifest their organizations’ values, which are not always aligned with state laws.”
Meeting organizers can partner with Social Offset for a donation of $500 to create a fundraiser where attendees can donate to vetted charities of their choice. The first association to do so was the International Society for Heart and Lung Transplantation, under CEO Greg Schultz. The group had a meeting with about 100 attendees from around the world in January in Florida. ISHLT selected three charities for attendees to consider supporting: Equality Florida, an LGBTQ+ rights group, Planned Parenthood Florida and the Southern Poverty Law Center. Schultz said about three-quarters of meeting participants made donations, raising a few thousand dollars. “A survey showed that 90% of (respondents) felt the opportunity to make this donation added value to the event,” he said.
“This is a big area of discussion in the meetings and association space and (Social Offset) offers an excellent solution,” Schultz said. “It’s an optional program and it offers a practical solution to some of the concerns about meeting” in certain places. “(Ours) is an international group of people,” he said. “We had people coming from Asia and Europe. There’s always the concern of being too U.S.-centric, so I was concerned about that. But as it turned out, our members from around the world really appreciated the opportunity to participate and to support these causes.”
Another group that has partnered with Social Offset is ASIS International, a professional society for people in the security field, which has Global Security Exchange 2023 coming up in September in Dallas. ASIS has selected five Dallas charities for attendees to choose from, supporting racial justice, LGBTQ+ equality, hunger relief, housing security and environmental sustainability.
“It’s not trying to keep everyone happy, we know that doesn’t work,” said Social Offset board member KiKi L’Italien, CEO and host of online community Association Chat. “But it’s a matter of offering options so that we can avoid hurting as many people as possible but keep things rolling, keep people meeting.”
This article first appeared in CEO Update on July 7, 2023.