This All-Virtual Volunteer Group Is Revolutionizing the Way We Respond to Crisis

Crisis Text Line engages all virtual volunteers

Crisis Text Line got its start when a young woman texted DoSomething.org with a heartbreaking cry for help. When encouraged to reach out to a crisis hotline, the woman indicated she was too afraid to make the phone call.

DoSomething.org responded by launching a nationwide text line for people experiencing pain and trauma. Since its inception in 2013, Crisis Text Line has exchanged nearly 35 million text messages between counselors and those seeking help.

In order to sustain the sheer volume of messages they handle, the organization relies on its volunteer base. Their volunteer program is inherently a unique one, however. While many nonprofits either recruit volunteers to help in a physical location — like packing food at a soup kitchen or conversing with seniors in a nursing home — or offer a mix between physical and virtual opportunities, Crisis Text Line recruits volunteers virtually only.

By switching to an all-virtual volunteer model in fall 2015, they wanted to test whether they could improve the consistency of their service and provide crisis intervention at scale.

Prior to the switch to virtual, Crisis Text Line operated much like a traditional phone hotline. The Crisis Counselors were all staff and volunteers of 11 existing crisis centers, and took conversations for Crisis Text Line from those physical crisis centers – none of the volunteers were virtual!

“A virtual volunteer program allowed for Crisis Counselors to pass through the same virtual training, standardizing the service that texters interact with,” says Jared Wolf, Media Manager at Crisis Text Line. “That has essentially allowed anyone, anywhere in the country, to apply for training and work virtually, making the opportunity accessible to even more people.”

What they enjoy most about this shift in their strategy is seeing the increase in diverse applicants from the community. They’ve recruited volunteers from all walks of life, anywhere between age 18 to 79. They’ve welcomed a cohort of Deaf and hard-of-hearing volunteers, as well as students, military veterans, single parents, and retirees who all share a passion for the organization’s mission.

While the team behind Crisis Text Line is proud of the community of volunteers they’ve built, they’ve endured some challenges in maintaining close-knit relationships, particularly within such a large group. Ensuring that each Crisis Counselor receives the individual feedback they need is tricky, so they worked to automate the feedback process and create opportunities to debrief with a supervisor.

In short, how has going all-virtual helped? “Our hypothesis was spot-on,” says Jared. “We saw texter satisfaction become more consistent and higher across the board after moving to recruiting virtual volunteers — a jump of over 10 percentage points! Serving our texters in crisis is the most important thing we do, so this was a huge accomplishment.”

They were right about being able to scale better, too. Crisis Text Line now actively engages 3,100 and counting of their own Crisis Counselor volunteers — they no longer need to “borrow” volunteers from existing crisis centers.

Has your volunteer program undergone a large-scale strategy shift? How has that worked for you? Please share your thoughts in the comments section below.

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