How to Volunteer for Help Hotlines

If you care passionately about helping others, volunteering for a hotline offers you an opportunity to do so -- directly
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The woman's voice trembles. She whispers, as though she's afraid of being overheard. But she is saying perhaps the most important words of her life, "My husband just hit me. I think he's going to do it again. I need to get out of the house. I need help."

The person listening to her is a volunteer at a help hotline for domestic abuse. The operator has been trained in helping people in crisis situations, and she's connected to a network of other resources -- EMTs, ambulance services, shelters, safe houses, counselors, lawyers -- that, together, can help the woman get out of both the immediate danger and the long-term abusive situation.


Difficult times come to most everyone, and in many cases -- whether you know it or not -- a hotline is standing by to help. Most of these hotlines are offered by nonprofit organizations. Hotlines offer one of the fastest possible ways for an organization to get that most valuable of resources -- information -- to someone who needs it. In developing areas of the world, a hotline allows information to travel fast, sometimes circumventing official channels, where it may be hampered by censorship or political agendas [source: FOCUS]. Many of these hotlines are staffed by trained volunteers.

Hotline work can be difficult. It often involves being the only cool-headed person in a crisis. Though calling a hotline may be the beginning of the road to recovery, the caller often feels as though it's a last resort. Dealing with the caller's desperation can be tough.

At the same time, if you care passionately about helping others, volunteering for a hotline offers you an opportunity to do so -- directly. You'll receive training that will likely stand you in good stead for your entire life. You will know, without question, that you are making a difference.

In this article, we'll take a look at different hotlines that might need your help, as well as what will be asked of you as a hotline volunteer.


Help Hotline Causes

For almost every crisis you can imagine, there's a hotline to help. Some hotlines are for people suffering from psychological difficulties such as depression, bipolar disorder, alcohol abuse and suicidal thoughts. Some hotlines are for victims of recent trauma, whether the trauma is a rape or a house fire. Others help with ongoing problems -- people who need emotional support as they deal with chronic disease, or people who are coping with long-term issues of joblessness.

Some hotlines aren't for the actual victims, but they help the victims get help. You might be able to call such a hotline, for example, if you suspect elder abuse in the house down the street, or if you can tell your friend needs a way to quit drinking but you aren't sure how to approach the situation.


Hotlines can be especially important in situations where a social stigma might be attached to seeking help. The anonymity of a hotline can offer a safe way for people to obtain assistance [source: FOCUS]. The hotline makes the crucial difference between suffering in silence and taking active steps for positive change. Such hotlines can help people dealing with situations such as an unplanned pregnancy, drug abuse or an HIV diagnosis. One important set of hotlines is for gay and lesbian teens who are scared to come out to their family and friends. Research indicates that gay, lesbian and bisexual teens and young adults are at a high risk for suicide attempts, especially those who face rejection from their parents because of their sexual orientation [source: Shapiro].

There are also hotlines for a variety of less-scary reasons, such as offering recycling help, suggesting legal resources, providing homework assistance to struggling schoolchildren or supplying nonemergency medical information. These informational hotlines can be one of the easiest ways to turn your hobby -- or even your day job -- into volunteer work.

On the next page, we'll look at what it takes to help someone on a hotline.


Requirements to Volunteer for Help Hotlines

Staffing a help hotline is not a job to be taken lightly, and organizations don't entrust it to a volunteer without careful scrutiny and training. A help hotline volunteer may be subject to a background check.

Hotline volunteering may also involve an aptitude test or evaluation, similar to what you might encounter during any other employment process. The evaluation will likely look for such interpersonal skills as patience, empathy, sensitivity, the ability to think calmly in a crisis and the ability to recognize when a situation requires help that is beyond what you can provide [source: ABA]. The hotline may particularly seek volunteers who have endured traumas similar to what callers are experiencing, although people who are still working through their own psychological problems may face additional scrutiny at certain kinds of hotlines. People with a second language or with a background in psychology or counseling may find themselves particularly in demand.


If you're selected as a hotline volunteer, you'll have to go through considerable training, which may involve extensive background work on your cause of choice, as well as crisis management, conflict resolution and simulated emergencies. In some cases and at some organizations, the training will be enough to give you paraprofessional status [source: Help Hotline Crisis Center]. There may be further evaluations following this training. You may also need to go through a probationary period or an apprenticeship period before you're allowed to work on your own.

Because this is a lot of work for an organization to undertake on behalf of a volunteer, the organization typically asks for a minimum amount of work in return -- more than is often asked of other volunteers. Hotline volunteers must often pledge a one-year commitment or a minimum number of hours to their work. The organization needs to know that it -- and the people it helps -- can depend on these volunteers.

Bottom line: If you're not sure about your ability to volunteer, put in a Saturday or two at a local nonprofit and see how it feels. If you really care about a cause, volunteering for its help hotline is a wonderful way to support it.

To learn more, visit the links on the next page.


Lots More Information

Related HowStuffWorks Articles

  • American Bar Association. "Legal Hotlines: Staffing." ABA. (Accessed 5/14/09)
  • FOCUS on Young Adults. "Reaching Adolescents through Hotlines and Radio Call-In Programs." 1999. (Accessed 5/14/09)
  • Help Hotline Crisis Center. "Help Hotline Volunteer Opportunities." (Accessed 5/14/09)
  • Rape, Abuse, & Incest National Network. "Get Involved: Staff the Hotlines." RAINN. (Accessed 5/14/09)
  • Shapiro, Joseph. "Study: Tolerance Can Lower Gay Kids' Suicide Risk." NPR (Accessed 5/28/09)