Top tips on how to start a crisis helpline

Top tips on how to start a crisis helpline

15th July 2021

By Dani Lowe

In spring 2021, in the space of just three weeks, one UK charity raised more than £4 million in an emergency appeal to provide oxygen to Covid-19 patients in India.

Was it Oxfam? Save the Children? No. It was the far smaller British Asian Trust.

Sometimes, smallness equals agility – absolutely crucial in a crisis situation. Think David and Goliath!

I’ve got oodles of experience of setting up helplines, and I’d like to let you in on my secrets. Here are four key areas you should think about before kick-off.

1. Responding rapidly

Of course, the Oxygen for India appeal was a fundraising effort, not a helpline. But I believe you can learn from its principles when learning how to set up a hotline.

I was gobsmacked by how quick off the mark it was, striking while the iron was hot. People had seen the shocking news reports from Indian hospitals and were desperate to help, giving the appeal cut-through in a crowded fundraising market.

And it got backing from high-profile players: the Prince of Wales and celebrities from the Indian diaspora.

If you can take a similar reactive approach, you’ll be off to a flying start. And for many people in crisis, targeted support in those bewildering early days can make all the difference.

2. Getting the tech in place

To act fast, you need to have the technology ready to roll. That means using an existing contact centre infrastructure.

In 2021, the NSPCC was commissioned by the Department for Education to set up a Report Abuse in Education helpline, in response to testimonials submitted to the Everyone’s Invited website.

A few years earlier, the charity set up a football abuse helpline after a former professional player revealed he had been abused as a trainee. That was backed by the Football Association.

In both cases, within weeks of the news breaking, these helplines were answering hundreds of calls from people whose own painful memories had been stirred up by the reports.

3. Helping your helpers

Tech that runs like a well-oiled machine is essential. But that tech will help nobody without skilled and resilient advisors

Your frontline staff will need to be compassionate, patient individuals with a desire to help. They should also be professionally trained in call handling skills such as active listening and conflict resolution.

Then you may  need to give them specialist training in the highly sensitive topics related to your helpline, whether it’s about alcohol abuse, a natural disaster, or suicide.

But training is only the starting point. Supporting vulnerable callers in crisis is a tough and draining job. You’ve got to help the helpers, too.

Crisis lines come with emotional/sensitive topics, high call volumes and sometimes being subject to verbal abuse from service users. That means support structures are essential to prevent an advisor from becoming emotionally overloaded. Debriefing chats with a qualified mental health first aider or counsellor and follow-up sessions are crucial.

It could also mean things as varied as offering flexible working hours, or providing counselling via an Employee Assistance Programme.

4. Scaling up fast

Usually, you can make a rough forecast of call volumes. Sometimes, though, a charity appeal or launch of a crisis helpline can gain too much public interest too quickly.

A smaller charity might be overwhelmed by a sudden deluge of calls. That can lead to desperate callers being left on hold, or giving up entirely. And it can cause burnout in your advisors too.

So, it’s essential that right from the off, you’ve got a plan for rapid scaling up.

At Connect Assist, we’ve got loads of expertise in helping charities and agencies run crisis helplines, such as the NHS 111 line during the Covid-19 pandemic. We’re confident that our advisors and the support structures that surround them are the very best in the business. So, please get in touch to learn more about our call centre services and how we can support you in setting up a helpline. 

We’d be delighted to partner with your charity on your crisis helpline, either running it on your behalf or providing overflow services out-of-hours or at times of peak demand. Just give me a ring for a chat.

Because, when a crisis strikes, nobody can go it alone. 


If you need our help in developing more effective, meaningful connections with customers, get in touch today.