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Do Good While Gathering at Hilton San Francisco Union Square

By Janet Fullwood

When Jo Licata gets a request from a meeting group seeking a Corporate Service Responsibility (CSR) project, she replies with a grab bag full of suggestions. As community projects manager for the Hilton San Francisco Union Square, the largest hotel (1,919 rooms) on the West Coast, Licata has been making connections and building outreach programs since she came on board in 1995.

With a location on the edge of the Tenderloin, one of San Francisco’s most notorious and misunderstood neighborhoods—one where many residents live in single-room occupancy (SRO) hotels and even on the street— there is no shortage of opportunities to help those in need.

Interest in doing so has grown in recent years as companies have begun to incorporate service into their events. “Hilton Hotels is really leading the way in hospitality by incorporating some kind of CSR in most every social client event they hold,” Licata says. “It’s very rewarding that more and more companies are determined to give back and I’m happy that I can help them.”

Licata says she likes to give companies a choice of helping different organizations that support different populations. “I will give them maybe five choices,” she says. “These are organizations like Episcopal Services, St. Anthony’s, Hamilton Family House, Boys and Girls Clubs, Glide Memorial Methodist Church—all places with national and sometimes international reputations and followings.” The Hilton can also help facilitate volunteer work with neighborhood agencies. For example, Licata connected a group of mortgage lenders to a nearby senior center for an afternoon of giving.

Popular projects include assembling hygiene kits, filling backpacks with school supplies, putting together welcome kits for hospitalized children and preparing food boxes for distribution at neighborhood churches assisting marginalized populations.

Not all groups have time for an off-site project, and not all nonprofits can accommodate them even if they do, Licata notes. “Time is precious, and when a group comes in and has only a small window of time, say before or after a reception, we find a teambuilding/CSR component for them to do on-site.”

For example, OneHope, a sustainable winery in Napa set up as an enterprise to raise awareness and funding for charitable and social causes, did an in-house collection event tagged to Hilton’s Global Month of Service last July. “I had heard about the Hilton Union Square’s sustainable and green efforts and was introduced to Jo to see how our company could support while on-site,” says Amanda Lamberti, director of OneHope Foundation. “Our conference was held at the hotel and our attendees and home office staff—about 230 people—brought socks, hygiene products, diapers and jeans. We collected it during the three days of the conference and turned it over to Jo to donate.”

Socks were donated to Project Homeless Connect, hygiene products to San Francisco City Impact, disposable diapers to Prenatal Homeless Clinic and Hamilton Families, and jeans to Swords to Ploughshares and The Gubbio Project.

Meeting planners themselves have an opportunity to participate in community projects, too, with an annual event that Hilton hosts for loyal customers in the Bay Area. The most recent gathering was held at International Smoke, a popular San Francisco restaurant, where attendees assembled hygiene kits for Clean the World, a foundation that distributes recycled hotel soaps and other amenities to people in need. “Our company is committed to traveling with purpose and giving back to the local community,” says Dana Hahn, Hilton Hotels’ manager of special events, who organized the project.

When there’s not even time for active volunteering, Licata can direct groups on opportunities to make a meaningful donation instead.

Sometimes, groups, or a number of attendees, are eager to learn more about the Tenderloin neighborhood. For that, Licata sends them to the new Tenderloin Museum, which tells the district’s story through exhibits, programs and walking tours.

“We have contracts with many tech companies, some of which mandate their employees to come here, and we also get a lot of tourists,” says Del Seymour, the unofficial “mayor” of the district and co-chair of the city’s Local Homeless Coordinating Board. “The tours are very balanced—you see the good, the bad and the ugly.”

There are other less direct ways to give back. For the past couple of years, the Hilton and other San Francisco hotels have been working with Outward Bound California, which has had a presence in the city for a decade.

“We work with schools, nonprofit and corporate groups,” says Emma Rapp, director of communication and outreach. “Changing lives through challenge and discovery is what we’re about” she says. “We all need to get out of our comfort zone rather than be bubble wrapped all the time.”

Despite the organization’s reputation for hardcharging wilderness programs, not all involve physical challenge; team development and challengeday programs for professionals, for example, might take place in Golden Gate Park and involve games that build rapport and hone problem-solving skills. Proceeds go to support scholarships for local youth and veterans. The largest fundraiser of the year, called City Skyline Challenge, sees participants rappelling off the Hilton’s 46-story tower. This year’s event attracted 130 people and raised $280,000.