First Impressions:

When “The Entire Community is Calling Family Promise,” We Answer


“When Cunningham Communications reached out to us more than three years ago and said: ‘we want to be involved in the community and we want to do it in a meaningful way; what is the best way that we can help?’ I had an answer for them.”

Cheryl Schuch, CEO, Family Promise Grand Rapids


Family Promise of Grand Rapids is a non-profit that provides emergency shelter and housing for families experiencing homelessness. Cunningham Communications donates our telephone answering services to Family Promise.


By Sue Cunningham-Milito

As a 24/7 telephone answering service, I had no idea what we could do as a community service to help Family Promise of Grand Rapids.

Let Cheryl Shuch explain:

“Family Promise was experiencing a huge demand for shelter for homeless families. Our phones were ringing off the hook. As a small non-profit we did not have a designated person to answer the calls.

We were spending more time answering the phone than we were helping the families that needed shelter with us.

So, the Cunningham people said: ‘this is our sweet spot, this is our business. How can we come along side you and help you?

As we started to imagine what that looked like, we were so thankful that they had a vision for it that was different than anything we had imagined.”

Like we do with all our clients, Cunningham Communications strives to understand how a telephone answering service can provide the best solution to serve their business or organization.

These are some of the questions we wanted to know when we met with Family Promise:

  • Who is calling you?
  • What kind of calls are you receiving?
  • What do your callers want from you?
  • How can our 24/7 telephone answering service handle requests directly?
  • What requests do we refer directly to dedicated staff members?
  • What kind of scripting and training can we develop for our operators?

Cheryl says:

“Cunningham asked some great questions.

They started us off on a place from which they were listening to us in a customer-centric way, to figure out what our needs were.

They wanted to know more than just what our staff needed, but who are the people we are serving at the other end of the phone?”

Cheryl explained to our team that Family Promise did not have a dedicated person to answer the phone.

“When a call came through, anyone available might answer the phone and we wanted to be as responsive as possible. But you might get a caseworker answering, or you might get me, or our development specialist. Whoever was available at the time.”

Cheryl says, “We were very focused on the guests we were serving in our shelter here at the time; those families in crisis.

It wasn’t just the time it was taking for us to answer the phone, but it is a really difficult job to do when every time you pick up the phone, there is somebody on the other end in a real crisis and they are crying and they are needing help.

It is just an emotionally exhausting place to be 24/7 for our Family Promise workers who are also trying to lift up the families in our shelter and find them housing while also taking the phone calls.”

Cheryl says our discovery process helped them realize that Family Promise “also receives calls from our partner organizations, our legislative representatives, our donors, kids wanting to do a school project about us, and students and professors looking to be engaged in projects.

We had people wanting to come in and help as volunteers; families and churches wanted to be engaged. The entire community was calling Family Promise.”

Cheryl told us that answering the phone for Family Promise “was going to be more than a transactional process. Cunningham Communications was going to be the front door, the face of our relationship with the community.

We needed this to be a partnership, to understand each other in a way to best present Family Promise authentically to the community when the phone rang every time.”

Cheryl says she appreciates “the way Cunningham is bringing a level of expertise to our organization that we didn’t have. Cunningham’s expertise is engaging with people in the community over the telephone.

They offered the telephone answering service and expertise in a way that was authentic and extremely professional.

Cunningham thought about problems and other things before they even happened. They anticipated what could help us become better at our jobs in serving families.”

Our 24/7 telephone answering service capability was a game changer for Family Promise.

Cheryl says, “Prior to our engagement we had an answering machine after hours. If somebody called in crisis, they got a message to contact an emergency worker we shared with another partner. It was not the same information people were looking for when calling Family Promise.”

As our Cunningham Communications operators participated in becoming oriented to Family Promise, Cheryl says she and her team noticed “they became highly connected to our mission.

People answering our phone calls have to have compassion, they have to have empathy. They have to be judgement free about who is on the other end of the line and to have patience.

Those are all personal characteristics about the culture at Cunningham that makes it work. The operators care that much and are mission driven about the person on the phone. That is the hard part that Cunningham gets right.

It is like the secret sauce for us.”

During a busy early summer season, when more families become homeless and seek shelter and Cunningham Communications was answering the calls, Cheryl says, “we noticed an immediate de-escalation of the stress level in our building.

Our phones were still ringing, but with the frontline calls that came through going to Cunningham, the calls we did get were calls that couldn’t be fixed quickly or easily and required our attention.

That helped us to focus. It helped us to put the right people in place. It helped us to be highly driven to our mission, to get to the point of actually ending homelessness instead of just answering the flow and the crisis that’s coming through the front door.”

Later, a brutally cold Polar Vortex winter overflowed shelter space for homeless families and even hotel space became unavailable.

Cheryl says, “it caused chaos on the ground, but Cunningham was taking those calls and getting people quickly to the right place so they could receive basic needs such as food and other things. That helped us connect to that person in crisis in just one step, exactly to the right place. It did not take the families being redirected to three, four or five places. That is so important to the family who is experiencing the crisis,”

Our operators feel like they have adopted Family Promise as their own unique charity. Staff have delivered gifts to the shelter, and reached out to family, friends, their church and community.

“Sue’s team has been great. I say they are connected to our mission from every fiber of their being. You can see it in the understanding they have gained in talking to our families on the phone when they call. The operators have empathy and concern.

We knew it was becoming special because the Cunningham operators were taking ownership of this work. They were organizing gift drives for our families over the holidays.

Cunningham’s operators were bringing us volunteers. They started engaging in outside community relations, like being our ambassadors.

The operators are telling their churches, their book groups and others to say, ‘this is what I know about what homelessness looks like in Grand Rapids.’

Cunningham’s operators have exponentially increased the voice we have in the community.”

The Family Promise team members “know how hard this work is that Cunningham Communications is doing for us answering the phones. We wanted to reciprocate. We bring them donuts and share letters we receive from the families.

We realize also that we hear the thanks all the times from the families, but the Cunningham operators often don’t. They are taking the very first call but not seeing what happens on the back end.

So, as we’ve done training and fun events and creating connections for the Cunningham with our team members, we are happy to share the end of the story when a family gets a home and what that really looks like.”

Cheryl says she “can’t put a price tag on the partnership we have. How do you put a monetary value on what we receive from Cunningham Communications? It is not just the staff time of their employees answering the phone.”

Cheryl describes our relationship as “transformational authentic corporate engagement.

Cunningham is giving us hundreds and hundreds of hours over the year answering the phones for Family Promise in a way that is meaningful to us.

It has to be an emotional drain for their staff having the same experiences we have talking to families in crisis.

They go through training and re-training, making a long-term commitment. Cunningham is doing it in a way that brings a solution. It is so trauma informed, so caring so customer focused, not just to us as a customer, but to the family in crisis.

How do you put a price tag on a partnership like we have with Cunningham Communications? It’s staff time if you put it in the context of their employees answering our phones. That’s one gift that Cunningham is giving us in kind.

That is what is really unique and impactful to us at Family Promise.”