Column: CVI’s call center giving jobs to visually impaired

By Maria Saporta
Friday, July 8, 2011

The Center for the Visually Impaired is the latest Atlanta-based nonprofit that has established a business arm to help it raise revenues.

Since 2001, the center has seen its state funding cut by 60 percent. At the same time, United Way of Metropolitan Atlanta Inc. has had to cut its grants to the center from $583,995 in 2006 to $405,561 in 2010.

“Everyone knew we had to diversify our funding,” said Subie Green, president of the Center for the Visually Impaired. “That was one issue. The other issue is that 70 percent of all working age blind folks are unemployed. We wondered if there was some way we could run a business, support ourselves and employ our clients.”

The CVI board decided to go into the “contact center” business, the new name for call centers. In January, it hired Jim Carruthers, who had established and run contact centers for several companies, most recently at Rollins Corp.

It was able to launch the program with a $200,505 stimulus grant; and it embarked on a $2.25 million campaign to build the center and implement the program.

So far, it has raised nearly $1.3 million for the center, including an $800,000 grant from the Joseph B. Whitehead Foundation, which is part of the Robert W. Woodruff family of foundations. Also, 100 percent of CVI’s board and employees have contributed to the campaign.

In late June, CVI was able to start its first class of visually impaired individuals in customer service training, a four-week program. The contact center is equipped with computers and software tailored for those who can’t see. Some people can read computer text if it’s greatly magnified. Others have an earpiece where they hear text converted to speech while they’re handling customer issues.

In short, people on the other end of a phone line or computer have no idea that the person who is helping them is someone who is blind or visually impaired.

When the first class got together, it wrote its own mission statement:

“To show the world that we may have lost our sight but not our vision. To become productive members of society through gainful employment. To demonstrate quality service with respect, acting with a can-do attitude, as we continue to strive to be the very best employees and team members.”

Green said CVI decided to establish a contact center after the success of other pioneering organizations around the country. Compared to the average staff turnover rate at other contact centers — 72 percent a year — those that employed the visually impaired had a turnover rate of only 11 percent.

“We are going to have a workforce that is much more committed and experienced and able to do the work,” Green said.

As it trains its workforce, CVI hopes to become part of the National Industries for the Blind, which would give it preferential status to receive federal contracts. It also hopes that Atlanta-based companies and organizations will seek its services.

Carruthers said that with the equipment CVI already has purchased, it would have the ability to employ 250 people.

“We are going to be an outsourcer of customer services,” Carruthers said. “We are going to stay away from high-pressure sales and telemarketing. But we will be able to handle any kind of customer interactions.”

That includes customer complaints, product orders and even telephone surveys.

“There are 250,000 people with visual impairments in Georgia. Part of our plan is that not only will they be employed by us, but will be able to get jobs in the community,” Green said. “This has been the most exhilarating year of my career because everyone has gotten excited about this project.”

National Philanthropy Day

Two community leaders will be honored at this year’s National Philanthropy Day luncheon on Nov. 8 at the Georgia Aquarium.
The Greater Atlanta chapter of the Association for Fundraising Professionals has selected entrepreneur Wendell Reilly as its Philanthropist of the Year.

Reilly, managing partner of Grapevine Partners — an investor in television and media properties — was nominated by Emory University’s College of Arts and Sciences. He is chairing the college’s $100 million campaign and has made a “seven-figure” gift to the fundraising effort.

“He’s the epitome of a quiet philanthropist,” said Laura Hamm, president of AFP of Greater Atlanta, about why Reilly was selected. “He and his wife give personally, but they choose to do it quietly.”

The Volunteer Fundraiser of the Year will be Ben Johnson, retired managing partner of the Alston & Bird LLP law firm. Johnson is being recognized for his multiple community roles over the years. He has chaired the board of the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra, and he continues to serve as chairman of the board of the Woodward Academy and Emory University’s board of trustees.

“Ben Johnson is being honored for the breadth of his work with nonprofits in the arts and education,” said Hamm, who also is a senior campaign manager for Coxe Curry & Associates, one of the top sponsors of the event. “This award is really honoring him for motivating others to get involved.”

The presenting sponsor of National Philanthropy Day is the Kiwanis Club of Atlanta, and the other major sponsors are Wells Fargo Bank and Atlanta Business Chronicle.

Former “Philanthropists of the Year” include Ada Lee and Pete Correll (2009); Madeline and Howell Adams (2007); Stephanie and Arthur Blank (2000); Bernie Marcus (1998); Elena Diaz-Verson Amos (1996); John and Sue Wieland (2005); Nita and J. Mack Robinson (1994); and Dorothy and J.B. Fuqua (1989).

Transportation town hall

The Civic League for Regional Atlanta will host its first-ever regional town hall meeting called “Get a Move On: A 10-County Town Hall on Transportation, Growth and the Future of the Atlanta Region” on Saturday, July 23.

The meeting will bring together hundreds of participants in a “facilitated conversation” to get their feedback on the debate leading up to a 2012 transportation sales tax referendum.

They will discuss what kind of priorities should exist for a fast-growing region — environmental sustainability, economic growth, infrastructure investments and governance.

The meeting, which is free and open to the public, will begin at 8:30 a.m. at the Loudermilk Center in downtown Atlanta and is expected to last till noon. To register, go to

The Civic League, however, has a disclaimer saying that it neither supports nor opposes the 2012 transportation sales tax referendum.
It only wants to provide citizens of the region with information in a neutral forum.

Maria Saporta, Editor, is a longtime Atlanta business, civic and urban affairs journalist with a deep knowledge of our city, our region and state.  Since 2008, she has written a weekly column and news stories for the Atlanta Business Chronicle. Prior to that, she spent 27 years with The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, becoming its business columnist in 1991. Maria received her Master’s degree in urban studies from Georgia State and her Bachelor’s degree in journalism from Boston University. Maria was born in Atlanta to European parents and has two young adult children.

2 replies
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