The results of our 2017 charity helpline survey revealed

Charities are facing a challenging time, under pressure to offer more services with fewer resources while under increased scrutiny.

The expansion of communications channels has led many charities to consider how they reach their supporters and service users.

However, despite the aspiration to modernise and innovate, helplines remain at the hub of engagement for most.

Connect Assist recently conducted our second annual helpline survey to gauge how charities are using helplines, the ways in which their experiences could be improved and the challenges they face.

We surveyed 122 different charities with 21 questions for those running helplines and a simpler set of seven questions for those that did not.

The results revealed some useful insights into the use of charity helplines in 2017.

Increase in helplines

Out of the 122 charities surveyed, 85 per cent ran a dedicated helpline, a 4 per cent increase compared to 2016. Those charities that didn’t run a helpline provided a web-based enquiry form instead. While web-based communication provides a valuable form of support, we at Connect Assist believe that the personal touch of helplines is unparalleled when dealing with vulnerable individuals.

Helpline activity

There was an increase in the demand for helplines this year, with 82 per cent of respondents handling up to 5,000 calls a month and 18 per cent handling between 5,000 and 10,000 plus calls a month. The majority of charities (79 per cent) ran their own in-house helplines, with 14 per cent relying on volunteers.

There was a wider variety of opening hours in 2017; however only 39 per cent of charities offered a helpline from 9am to 5pm, a 13 per cent decrease from 2016.

The fact that only 4 per cent of helplines offered overnight services, a period of time when service users are often vulnerable, is a concern.

It is worth noting that 50 per cent of charities wanted to extend their helpline opening hours, with 33 per cent currently considering the prospect.

Main challenges in 2017

The main challenges in running a helpline in 2017 were noted in the following areas; staffing, technology and demand management.

Staffing

According to our survey, 69 per cent of charities did not find staffing easy with 31 per cent of participants finding it either quite or very difficult to recruit and train staff.

While 56 per cent of participants had three to five staff members on their helpline, only 19 per cent of charities had 10 or more full time equivalent staff members on their helplines. Meanwhile, 12 per cent had either one or two staff members on their helplines, which poses an issue as any helpline cannot run efficiently with less than two staff because there will always be a need to provide absence cover.

Technology and looking to the future

Technology remains a focal point when looking towards the future. Some 95 per cent of charities believe IT/technology to be a key factor in increasing the reach of their helplines and in assisting with demand management.

While technology appears to be the future, only 21 per cent of charities surveyed feel that artificial intelligence or chatbots will play a role in their helplines within the next five years.

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Areas for improvement

When asked which improvements are most necessary, just over half of the charities we spoke to wanted to see an increase in communication channels and improved customer-relationship management, two areas in which we at Connect Assist specialise in.

While 85 per cent of helplines had the relative information necessary when responding to contacts, 15 per cent did not, which reveals an area of concern. The survey also suggests there is a demand for advisory services with 36 per cent of respondents viewing the boundaries between information and advice as a challenge.

Respondents without helplines

Our 2017 sample revealed that 78 per cent of charities without helplines felt that there was no need for a helpline. It also revealed that finances were the primary reason preventing charities from setting up a helpline, with a lack of requirement being the secondary factor.

According to the survey, 79 per cent of charities expected their call volume expectations to increase over the next two to three years with the majority of respondents expecting a 5 – 10 per cent rise.

Conclusion

Connect Assist is in the unique position of being both a specialist helpline outsource provider and an observer of the changes taking place across the sector.

Our survey found that helplines remain at the hub of engagement with beneficiaries, supporters and enquirers.

Expansion into multi-channel helpline platforms sits firmly at the top of the charity ‘wish list’, but this is accompanied with a lack of understanding of the newer communication channels, concerns around cost and how to go about building them into an integrated helpline offering.

 

 

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