Giving Back: How Volunteerism Can Strengthen & Grow Your Practice

Will Tantum, OD

A desire to give back inspired Best Practices 2017 Honoree Will Tantum, OD to donate frames and equipment to a practice in Guatemala.  What began as an effort to help a friend grew into an enormous, multi-faceted giving campaign.  The profound effect that giving back has had on the overall success for his practice serves as a reminder of the power of volunteerism in business.

Q: Tell us about your practice’s volunteerism and community outreach program.

A: The Eye Love Program at BCEC. This is our in-house program that we created in 2014. It all began because of a classmate of mine that decided to move to rural Guatemala to open a brand new non-profit eye care clinic after graduation from SCO. I loved where her heart was and I was jealous of how she was loving people in such a real way. She had a lot of up front needs for the clinic start up, but also a lot of long-term needs as well. We sent down a bunch of equipment to her to get the clinic open, but then I started to try and think of ways to take one small ‘burden’ off of her plate moving forward. The idea to start a one-for-one giving program was quick to follow. Each time that someone purchased a frame from my practice, we donated a brand new frame to her clinic in Guatemala. Eye Love Guatemala was born from that! Over the past 3.5 years we have donated over $30,000 worth of new eyewear to the clinic.

That program opened the doors for other giving opportunities. About a year after connecting in Guatemala, we found a clinic in Haiti that was also in need of eyewear. The Eye Love Haiti program was born from that. We actively recruit used eyewear in our community. When it comes in, our staff inspects it, cleans it and preps it for reuse. Every few months we’re proud to be able to send boxes full of quality eyewear to our partners in Haiti.

About a year and a half ago a police officer in our community was killed in the line of duty. The community was hurting and from that came the idea for Eye Love First Responders. Each year we put on a large event at our facility which honors the first responders in our county and the surrounding counties. We did away with trunk shows and replaced them with this event. We sell sunglasses at the event an donate 100% of profits to a cause to support local police, fire and EMTs. There are activities for kids, food, live music and an incredible silent auction. We also provide no-cost eye exams for all active first responders.

Last year we created the Eye Love Blount County program as well. This is a program designed to provide no-cost eye care and eyewear to people within our own county lines that don’t have the means to provide for themselves. We don’t make it a complicated system either. If someone comes to us with a need, we try our hardest to meet it. It meant enough to me that I wrote it into the contracts of all of my Associate ODs that they had to be willing to participate in and support this program by donating their skills and time. There has never been any objection 
We also created a community action program called BCEConnect. This is a name we gave to our efforts to be fully involved and invested in the community we serve. This program provides school screenings to all of the local school systems. We financially sponsor a dozen local sports teams. We have a booth at every health fair that goes on. We go into local businesses and clean/adjust glasses for free. And we’ve formed some incredible relationships with local nursing home facilities which allows us to send staff members there once a month to clean glasses and fellowship with residents. During the recent solar eclipse, we gave away 18,000 pairs of eclipse viewing glasses for free and used several thousand more as a way to help two local non-profits raise over $10,000 in funding. BCEConnect is what we refer to as ‘living outside our practice walls’ and it’s the backbone of our practice.

Q: What made you decide to pursue this form of giving back?

A: The ‘honest answer’ to this is actually kind of selfish. I built our practice on these forms of service because they bring me joy and fulfillment. I never wanted to be ‘just another eye doctor/practice’. Being confined to the exam room all day doesn’t appeal to me. Giving and serving is what makes me happy. So as I built my practice, I made those ideas the core of who we were. And to be truthful, it’s worked out really well personally and professionally. We’ve built an incredible reputation in our community as the practices that gives and gives and gives. Even people who don’t come to us for eye care know our reputation and thank us for it. That’s powerful and it’s who I always want to be.

Q: Has your volunteerism helped you grow your practice?

A: It has helped more than any marketing dollar I could have ever spent! Volunteering and giving forces you to be in the trenches. It forces you to talk to people and build relationships. At the end of the day, that’s what builds a practice. I’ve never done a billboard, TV ad, radio commercial or coupon gimmick. I’ve always rather used my money to help someone in need or support an organization in our community I believe in. To this day, it continues to blow my mind how people respond to this too. 

Growing your practice this way builds an ‘army’ of followers that you really can’t get from just providing eye care. People see who you are on a deeper level and feel a genuine connection with your practice. 

Q: Has your volunteerism helped you acquire and retain staff? How?

A: Building my practice around volunteerism has been one of the biggest staff recruitment tools ever. It attracts a certain type of person that we all want to hire. It brings you people who have a heart for service. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve gone into an interview and asked ‘why do you want to work here?’ and the answer is, “Because I see everything that you guys are doing locally and around the world and I want to be a part of it!” It’s not something we necessarily advertise, but it brings us more applicants than we could ever hire. 

As far as retaining staff, having a culture of service connects them to something larger than a job. When your staff is encouraged (and even paid) to go out and do community service work, they look at it as a job benefit they can’t get anywhere else. It also gives their day-to-day tasks more meaning because they realize things like that for every pair of glasses we sell someone else in need will get a pair. That’s powerful in combating complacency.

Consider giving your staff extra time off for service activities. Also, consider putting a small amount of money each month into a ‘scholarship’ program for your staff. If a member of your staff wants to go on a mission trip or help fund a cause they believe in, make these funds an option for them. Maybe have a form they fill out to apply for it or require them to share their experience afterwards at a staff meeting, but support the ways they want to serve the world around them.

Q: What advice do you have for other practices regarding the cost vs. benefit of establishing their own volunteer efforts or programs?

A: Don’t. Giving, volunteering and service never financially ‘make sense’. And the benefits are incredibly hard to quantify. It sounds cliché, but just follow your heart when it comes to this stuff. Don’t wait on a perfect plan. Take action and try something. Even if you fail, you still help people in the process. Don’t get caught up in worry or in what-ifs. Get caught up in the people you want to serve and go all in. What you’ll find time and time again is that the finances always take care of themselves if your intentions are pure. 

No idea is too small. If the idea you and your staff come up with seems so small or so simple, do it anyways. You never realize the impact you can have on your community with relatively simple gestures.
Be sincere and genuine in your efforts. A great way to create a negative reputation for your practice in your community is to try and use volunteerism as a way to get ahead. Support causes and organizations you believe in.

Q: Is there anything else you’d like to share about how volunteerism can help grow a practice?

A: Tell your story. I’ve heard a lot of doctors say things like “you should never advertise your volunteering or service because it’s bragging”. That couldn’t be any further from the truth! Don’t’ be ashamed of serving. The world needs a lot more of it, and we need more talk about it. If you personally volunteer or personally give, that’s more of a private experience. But if you are doing it as a part of your practice then let your audience know. Let them know that they money they spend supporting you is being used to make their community and world a better place. People who are offended by that probably aren’t the type of patients most of us want anyways.

Don’t always feel like you need to reinvent the wheel when it comes to volunteering and service. Watch what others do (inside and outside of optometry), and use ideas that you think work well. No one is ever going to get mad at you for using a great idea to help others. Take the pressure off yourself to try to come up with some innovative idea, and focus your energy on serving.

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