3-5 The Phone Line

Really reaching out

The hard work starts here

Yup! The hardest thing you may have to do, is to pick up the phone and talk to the human being on the other end of the line. This is about being authentic, and in the moment. This is the tangible face of compassion, beyond the ideas, beyond the format, beyond what's supposed to happen - this is real and happening right now! Listening to and attempting to understand the words, and the meaning and issue often hidden behind the words, and responding appropriately, is HARD WORK. After all, counsellors get paid to do this - we're volunteers. It can be a tremendous emotional drain of energy. Its not simply about finding the time, it is also about finding the energy.

How to respond…

Your phone line people will appreciate at the least some guidance on how to respond to different types of calls. Some of the calls may come from individuals in distress. Consider crisis-line training/guideline for your staff/volunteers. Your local crisis-line agency/centre may offer such training. Otherwise - consider a standard response for consistency across the 'team' of volunteers. What types of calls will be re-directed to directors etc.? How to respond to abusive callers?


Consider a 'debriefing process', whereby your phone person can call someone else nominated as 'debriefer' to discuss a call or issue that arose during a call. This can be helpful, and supports the person doing the support, who now doesn't feel all alone. It can be particularly helpful after a difficult call, and assists in bringing 'closure' to a situation as they in turn can talk about their reaction, their feelings, something it may not have been appropriate to do during the original call. The person nominated as 'debriefer' should have phone line experience themselves, the more the better.

Response time

The phone line is the most direct way your clientèle (and potential members) will reach you. If it's handled well it will boost your growth/membership and give your organization a professional look. If it's handled poorly it will do the opposite. Many self-help organizations struggle to find the volunteers to work the phone line, and messages are often left unanswered for extended periods. Consider your response time, what target do you want to set for yourself? - how will you share the load of phone line duties? How will you monitor phone line performance?

Types of call

These will vary; from individuals looking for support - some will want referrals - some will be curious -some will want to join/be active - some will want to make a donation - some will be from 'opponents' (people who question your motives/intentions) - some will be media or other agents wanting information - some will be from the lost/lonely/disturbed. A volunteer agency is not equipped to deal with some issues that will reach you across the phone line, the best you can do is refer such callers to professional counsellors/therapists. 'Peer Group Support' does not mean you suddenly know all the answers to everyone's issues.


Consider having appropriate materials available for your phone person so they can refer callers to other local agencies - counsellors etc. There may be a local directory available, put out by a self-help group like you, or you may have to do your own research. Do you endorse particular therapies/therapists? Why? Do you tell people to avoid others? Why? What standard do you hold yourself to? Accountability?

The mechanics…

It is often easiest to set up an automated phone line system which takes messages. The greeting/message can also promote current events. The messages are then picked up on a regular basis by a designated individual or team. If you are funded and have staff to immediately respond to calls, so much the better. It is probably a good idea to avoid having one of your directors/volunteers using their own line as the message line; calls can interfere with other family/personal activities. It may lay too high a burden on one person. People move and change their numbers - it's a good idea to keep the same number for your organization over an extended period. Automated message systems are not very expensive to set-up, and your phone company may give non-profit societies a deal. Plus members of a team may easily dial in to pick up messages on an ongoing/rotational basis.


It is of course a given that any publications (flyers/newsletters) you produce should have your phone number and other information on it (mailing address - box number?). Make sure it's correct! Don't laugh - the British post office once had a postal code promotion, and printed their own post code incorrectly on thousands of flyers! Circulate your promotional material to appropriate places - social agencies - referral centres - media outlets - community centres - libraries - doctors offices…

Phone Log

Keep a neat organized log of every call you receive - date - time - name/number/organization - type of call -time/name of person who called back. Consider confidentiality issues; last names are not always required -callers will assume confidentiality, information should not be divulged elsewhere, even with other members of your organization - RESPECT CONFIDENTIALITY. What statistics do you want to draw from your log? What categories do you want to set up for types of call? e.g. referrals, support, support groups…

PLUS - If/when you grow and seek funding from govt./foundations, they will be keenly focused on your 'relevance' - i.e. size of membership, and also phone line activity. Obviously an agency that receives 100 calls a week is more deserving of funding/support than one getting 10 calls a week. They will want to look at your phone log as proof of relevancy. Unfortunately they may not take us at our word that this is an important project/social issue. We promote our future prospects by maintaining a well organized phone log today.