Volunteer-led helplines: pros and cons

Volunteer-led helplines: pros and cons

29th September 2021

By Dani Lowe

Getting volunteers to run your charity’s helplines can seem like the perfect solution. They gain transferable skills and personal fulfilment, your callers get prompt and empathic support, and your charity saves money.

But is that scenario too good to be true? 

At Connect Assist, we know how brilliant volunteers can be, and how devastated the charity sector would be without them. But we also understand the risks of over-reliance on unpaid workers for highly sensitive and responsible roles. 

So, let’s take a look at some of the pros and cons of staffing your helplines with volunteers. 

Why are volunteers important to a charity?

Almost half of England’s adult population volunteers at least once a month, contributing a total of two billion hours per year (pre-pandemic figures). That’s equivalent to 1.25 million full-time employees. 

And great volunteers are worth their weight in gold. 

The advantages of using volunteers

First of all, helpline volunteers can save you money. For cash-strapped charities – especially those knocked for six by the pandemic – that’s a real gift.

Furthermore, volunteers tend to be very flexible; they’re often easier to find at short notice than paid staff, and are happy to be deployed wherever they’re needed most. That makes them a top resource for charities looking to scale up or down.

Many volunteers also bring valuable skills and life experience to their roles, so they’re a natural fit for helpline advice work. 

And in return, they gain a wealth of essential skills ranging from boosted confidence to digital know-how. That could help helpline volunteers progress to paid work or further study, and might also fulfil another of your charitable objectives. 

The disadvantages of using volunteers

However, before you race out to snap up willing volunteers, take a moment to think things through. Volunteers are part of your workforce, so many of the usual employer responsibilities apply. 

For helpline work, where you’re often dealing with highly vulnerable callers, that means carrying out due diligence on each and every one of your volunteers. You need to be 100% sure of who they are, and what’s motivating them to help. 

You can’t skip on training either: it’s vital your service quality remains top notch. Likewise, you have to manage and monitor your volunteers’ work just as you would your paid staff. 

You also need to think about safeguarding your volunteers – If they’ll be handling distressing or even abusive calls, how do you prepare and support them?

With all of this in mind, while volunteers are the backbone of many charities, it’s inevitable that some have a different mindset from their paid counterparts.

They can feel that the fact they’re not being paid means they can commit less to the role, making them harder to manage than paid staff, and more liable to leave at a moment’s notice. That’s tough for your team leaders and managers, and means you must have robust contingency plans in place.

Of course, it’s understandable that volunteers want to give their time on their own terms –  but you simply can’t afford to let your service users suffer. 

In very rare cases, helpline volunteers could pose a risk to your charity’s callers and reputation. The Samaritans has been forced to introduce new safeguarding measures after male helpline volunteers exploited their positions to arrange meet-ups with vulnerable female callers – an awful scenario for those women, and for the charity itself.

Connect Assist: assured quality

Staffing and managing top quality helplines is a real headache for many charities. So, at Connect Assist, we want to make it simple for you. 

By outsourcing contact centre services to us, you are guaranteed reliable, highly trained staff who are dedicated to upholding service excellence, providing your callers with the services they need and deserve. 

Get in touch today to discuss working together.


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