By Peter Lyle DeHaan, PhD
Working in a call center is challenging and demanding work. Owning and running one is even harder. Daily activity seems, all too often, to consist of reacting to the urgency of the moment. There is little time to plan and few opportunities to look beyond the confines of the call center. Yet looking beyond is exactly what needs to be done. Seeking ways to give back to your community may be precisely what you need to do. Some call centers have done so – with profound results.
Why Give? There are many reasons why it is wise and appropriate for a call center to give back to its community. Aside from principled reasons, the practical justification is that it is good for business. Community involvement expands networking opportunities, increases corporate standing, and generates goodwill. From an employee standpoint, it builds team camaraderie as staffers serve together and pursue common non-work related goals, increases employer esteem, and provides a connection outside the workplace. These, then, have an indirect effect of improving employee job satisfaction and thereby decreasing turnover. Lastly, as employees see a new and different side to their employer, respect can be increased and better understanding nurtured. With all these benefits, what call center wouldn’t want to promote and pursue a philanthropic effort?
What to Give? There are primarily two forms of assistance that can be provided: money and manpower. Most organizations are more in need of volunteer labor than they are of monetary donations. (Although, as nonprofits find volunteers scarcer, they seek the funds to hire the labor that could otherwise be volunteered.)
Let’s start with the manpower aspect. You can provide opportunities for your staff to volunteer. They can go in groups. It is generally easier to go somewhere new or try something different if it is done with a friend. Plus, there is the bonus of being able to serve together; this has its own rewards. Generally, these opportunities should occur outside regular working hours. Some businesses have a provision to take time off without pay; a few even offer paid time off when volunteering. These, however, are rare, costly to the company, and generally not needed. Setting up a simple means to allow employees to know about and pursue volunteer opportunities takes little time and incurs little cost to the call center.
For many people it is easier to write a check than it is to volunteer. The same is true for businesses. But if a corporate financial donation is not feasible, don’t worry about it. Having you and your staff involved is generally more important anyway. If making a financial contribution is feasible, one consideration is setting up a matching fund. This is when companies budget monies to match the donations of their employees. The employee makes the donation, submits the receipt, and the company makes a matching contribution. This, too, is quite easy to set up. Payroll deductions for charities are also an option, but more costly and time-consuming to implement. Of course, there is also the option for the call center to make a direct contribution.
Where to Give? Needs exist all around your community. Find out what is already going on. Consider after school programs, food pantries, clothes closets, homeless shelters, and soup kitchens. Call your nearest school and ask how you can help. Opportunities might include “adopt-a-classroom,” reading programs, tutoring, providing back-to-school supplies, or helping with GED classes. If you have a college nearby, check with the service organizations on campus and see how you can support them. A side benefit of working with college students is that you will be interacting with potential job candidates. Just make sure that agent prospecting doesn’t become the reason for getting involved.
Who to Give to? By now, your mind is likely spinning with ideas. So many needs, so many opportunities, so much to do. It can quickly become overwhelming; being overwhelmed leads to discouragement, which leads to inaction. The key to prevent this from occurring is to whittle down the list, identify one organization that is a good fit, and focus on how you can help them.
Start by asking your employees to make recommendations. They will tend to suggest groups which they already support with their time or money. Although only a small percentage of your staff will currently be involved with any organization, it is a great place to start. They already have a connection and an affiliation; they can acclimate others as they step forward to volunteer. You will also have some staffers who have esteem for a particular organization, but have not yet taken that first step towards involvement. Those recommendations are also worth considering. Again, their predilection towards that organization will help move things forward.
Before you make a final selection, perform a “due diligence” just as you would for an important business purchase or partnership. For nonprofits, find out how long they have been in your community; check out their annual reports; ask what percentage of donations goes to overhead; see if the Better Business Bureau has a file on them or what the Chamber of Commerce may know. If things look good, meet with the executive director, ask to attend a board meeting, and seek an easy way to test if you are a good fit for each other.
Regardless of the size of your call center, pick just one organization to support – at least initially. It is far better to make a significant and sustained effort with one group, then to be thinly spread to many different organizations, resulting in frustration and ineffectiveness. Once you have successfully proven that support can be provided for the long-term to one organization, then a second one could be considered, but proceed slowly and carefully. Remember that for many call centers, focusing on one group is the ideal.
How to Give? Once you have selected a group to work with and identified an initial area of service, it is time for tangible action. Ideally, call center leadership should be in this first wave of volunteering, setting the example and inspiring others to follow. As previously mentioned, it is easier to go as a group, especially for the first few times. Hopefully, there are already one or more employees who have practical volunteer experience with the organization. Let them take a lead role, comfortably easing others in and showing how things are done. In no time, everyone will be serving with practiced confidence. Then they can repeat the process with others.
It is important to remember that, no matter how great the need or how rewarding the work, only a percentage of employees will opt to take part. Also, their degree of involvement will vary greatly. This is to be expected, so accept it. Just make sure no one feels obligated to get involved, and remind them that volunteering is, in fact, voluntary. After all, you don’t want to serve with someone who is negative or resentful; the goal is to have fun and find fulfillment as you volunteer. Leave the naysayers at the office.
When to Give? Now! Not next month, not next year; now.
[From Connection Magazine – March 2007]
Peter Lyle DeHaan, PhD, is the publisher and editor-in-chief of Connections Magazine, covering the call center teleservices industry.