Creating a Volunteer Program That Brings Business One Step Closer to the Community
There are many reasons to consider starting a volunteer program for your home services business: tax write-offs, brand-building, not to mention the general satisfaction of giving back to the community.
When the owner of an interior painting company started working with a local nonprofit, he had no idea his whole life would be so changed by the experience. This is Chris McCarthy’s story, as well as his advice about home service companies can start a volunteer program.
Part One: Chris Takes Over the Family Business
When Chris McCarthy graduated with a marketing degree at the beginning of the recession, he joined the family building and remodeling company with big plans.
“I told my dad, ‘Alright, I'm going to take this company to the next level. I'm 24 years old and ambitious.’”
Now his dad could have tempered Chris’s grandiose plans with practical advice based on years of experience; instead, he retired, left the business in his son’s hands, and moved to Guatemala with his best-friend.
“He left me with everything,” Chris said. “He was an electrician and a plumber and had all the licenses. I was just a really good painter, floorer, and minor handyman at that point.”
And he had a marketing degree. Chris decided to focus on interior painting and run specials to boost business.
At the time, the only places to advertise online were yellowpages.com and Craigslist, so he did his homework and discovered that nearly every residential painter was charging around $200 per room.
“So my best guys and me are going to go rock out rooms for 100 bucks plus whatever the paint costs. And we got around 300 calls the first week from Craigslist.”
His crew quickly grew to six or seven painters.
He took every phone call and got the job, in many cases, because he was the first or the only person to call back. Most painting contractors worked long days on job sites and didn’t have time to take phone calls and prepare estimates. Once again, the marketing major had a solution for this.
Chris bought an 800 number that took messages and, through an automated recording, directed people to his website. The website gave estimates based on average room sizes so that people could know exactly what their painting project was going to cost. Back in the early 2000s, this whole system was cutting edge.
Based on these estimates, people requested jobs that Chris knew he could manage which made job planning much easier, but he still averaged six on-site estimates a day. He’d go to the home to make sure the online estimate was accurate, then he’d send along his crew.
This process lasted around seven years, and by then, Chris and his team were painting over 4,000 rooms a year.
“That was the point where I said, ‘We're making enough money. We've got enough people to where we can start to give back to the community.”
Part Two: His Business Starts Giving Back
Chris and his crew started helping out at Little City, a nonprofit in Palatine, Illinois. The organization offers comprehensive support to children and adults with developmental disabilities, including a 56-acre campus that houses 300 people.
He began building volunteer days into his business’s schedule and paid his crew to paint apartments on Little City’s campus. His team loved it, and Chris began getting more and more involved with the organization. Soon he was sitting on the board.
This relationship between Chris’s business and Little City led to an unexpected opportunity.
Part Three: Volunteering Creates a New Opportunity
Chris had a problem common with painting businesses: a massive amount of left-over paint, and in the Midwest, there’s not a good recycling solution for latex paint.
He hired a couple of folks from Little City and trained them to process the paint and make it reusable.
This was beneficial for both parties: it provided a solution to Chris’s leftover paint problem, and it helped employ individuals with autism or Down syndrome that had a hard time getting hired elsewhere. Chris discovered that his new employees loved learning a new skill.
Then Chris had another idea. Why not expand this service to other companies? In the Midwest, you almost always have to pay someone to take leftover paint off your hands, which nobody wants to do.
“We have to charge you for all of this paint that we're taking because we have to pay a staff of people, but would you feel better about paying a staff knowing that they are individuals who haven't been given opportunities anywhere else?”
The answer was yes.
Chris’s small team of paint reprocesses grew. And what started as a small side project became an entire nonprofit called EarthPaint.Org with its own budget and staff housed in a 5,000 square foot building. The organization reprocesses Latex paint and sells it.
“We're providing an amazing solution for not only consumers, but also for painting companies, and creating opportunity for more and more individuals that are struggling to find opportunities.”
EarthPaint.Org has become Chris’s life. While he still runs a small painting crew which pays most of his bills, he hopes to be running the organization full-time in the near future.
Chris’s Advice For Home Service Businesses on How to Run a Volunteer Program
If you’re considering a volunteer program for your home services business, here are some tips to help you get started.
Reserve volunteer days in the company schedule
Building volunteer days into your schedule makes it more manageable.
Give your employees a choice
“You know the core group that you work with, and you know who's going to be by your side and not require pay for the day. You also know the people that are going to be like, ‘I've been working seven days straight. I would just rather have the day off.’ And it's like, all right. How'd you like to just get paid to come help us so we can actually get something done today? I leave it up to them and generally everybody shows up because it's a real laid back kind of giving back.”
Volunteer during your slow period
It just so happened that Little City had more time and resources available to coordinate volunteer teams in the winter when Chris’s painting business slowed down. But you can plan this intentionally, as well.
Have a difficult time keeping your team busy during certain months? Fill up their schedule with volunteer days which acts as marketing and tax write-offs (which we’ll get into next).
Build volunteering into your marketing budget
“We really supercharged our referral network. People were appreciative that we would come and do work for their family members who live at Little City and can't help themselves. When these families had the means choose a painter, they chose us because we already knew each other.”
Don’t forget about the tax write-offs
There’s a monetary value to the resources (including staff hours) that you volunteer. When you work with a 501(c)3, you can write this off of your taxes as charitable giving.
Build Volunteering into Your Business Early On
Chris waited until his business was well-enough off to support volunteer days, but he advises other business owners to not wait too long.
“If you have these altruistic hopes and dreams, don't put them off until you think you're going to be wealthy enough to do it, because it's just not going to happen. It's only a day here and there. So integrate those days into your busy schedule, and they end up creating relationships with people even outside of your profession.”
Chris’s Advice For Working With Special Needs Employees
Working with folks who have had limited opportunities can be rewarding for everyone involved, but it can also be daunting for folks who have never done it before and don’t know what to expect.
It’s Okay to Be Uncomfortable
Working with special needs individuals may be outside of your comfort zone, but that’s how you can try something new and challenge yourself as well!
“It’s not scary as long as you know that you want to be there guiding somebody through something new,” Chris explained.
Chris explained that you have to be patient as people try new things and either fail or succeed. These new experiences can be daunting and stressful.
“Patience is important because there is a stress level associated with being a special needs adult because you're probably held back just because of society or your parents had been afraid to give you independence.”
But there’s also a major reward for having patience and challenging your new employees:
“We want to find something that you're not amazing at immediately because that's how you grow, and that's how you feel this sense of accomplishment and pride. That's the reason why you want to come back to work because you're proud of yourself.”
Make Volunteering What You Want it to Be
For Chris, volunteering became a new career. This doesn’t have to be the case for a business owner who just wants to give back to the community.
In the end, if you set your own boundaries and goals, you can make volunteering be as big or as little of a commitment as you want it to be.
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