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Research Study: Improving Volunteer Retention at Child Helplines By Increasing Satisfaction on Interactions

Guest Blogger Josh Siegel is a PhD Candidate at the University of Amsterdam. His research focuses on service provider well-being. After earning a Bachelor’s degree from the University of Arizona, he moved to Amsterdam, where he obtained a Master’s degree.

Guest blogger views and opinions expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official position of CharityLogic/iCarol, or iCarol’s parent company, Harris Computer Systems.

Child helplines offer support and information to children for a wide variety of issues such as abuse and violence, bullying, sexuality, family, homelessness, health and discrimination. As such, child helplines fulfill the United Nations mandate that all children be heard. In 2017, child helplines in 146 countries received over 24 million contacts from children in need of care and protection, and these numbers are rising rapidly. To help meet this growing demand, helplines have introduced online chat as another method of communication. To perform well in this challenging and evolving context, helplines invest a substantial part of their budget into training volunteers extensively on how to provide social support to each child in the form of instrumental (e.g. advice) and emotional (e.g. empathy) support. Like many other non-governmental organizations, child helplines face the challenges of limited resources and volunteer turnover. Volunteers at child helplines play an important role in providing support for children, so keeping them satisfied during encounters is crucial to continue helping children. The purpose of our study was to understand how children’s perceptions of instrumental and emotional support influence volunteer encounter satisfaction, and whether this effect is moderated by a volunteer’s previous encounter experience and levels of interpersonal and service-offering adaptiveness.

Motivation:

From discussions with child helplines, I learned that volunteer turnover is a common concern. The goal of the research was learning how to retain volunteers by keeping them satisfied in their roles. The academic literature about helplines and counseling has found sources of volunteer satisfaction like personal development, and social support from colleagues. However, I was surprised to find that little academic research has explored how volunteers may derive satisfaction from their interactions with children. Since volunteers spend a majority of their shifts talking with children, it seemed like a good place to investigate.

Summary of findings:

When a volunteer feels dissatisfied after a chat with a child, how does this experience affect the volunteer’s next chat?

What was really interesting in this study, is that we were able to collect data from both the child and the volunteer after each chat that they had. This allowed us to understand how a child’s perceptions of the chat influenced the volunteer’s experience. Let me explain what we found.

When volunteers had a chat that they experienced as less satisfying, they felt more satisfied with the next chat, especially when they were able to provide the next child with information and referrals. In our study, we call this providing “instrumental support” and we asked the children the extent to which they felt they received this type of support from the helpline volunteer (children’s perceptions).

The other type of social support we looked into was emotional support. This is like active listening and just trying to help children feel better without directly trying to solve their problems. Unlike instrumental support, providing emotional support in the next chat did not improve volunteer satisfaction after a less satisfying chat.

We think that volunteers might provide instrumental support to feel better. When you’re feeling down, you can feel better by assisting someone because it feels good to help.

We also asked volunteers to rate their own “interpersonal adaptiveness.” It indicates how easy it is for volunteers to adjust how they communicate with each child. For instance, they might change their vocabulary to match a child’s or adjust their personality based on what they think the child needs. We found that those volunteers who feel they are good in interpersonal adaptiveness, were more satisfied when providing instrumental support. Another thing that volunteers do is adapt the support they provide to each child. For some volunteers, it is easier to customize the information or referrals to specifically fit each child’s situation. This is referred to as “service-offering adaptiveness” in our paper. We thought that this would mean some volunteers are better able to detect cues from children. And in doing so, their satisfaction would be more dependent on the cues they picked up from each child. However, we found the opposite. Our results showed that satisfaction for volunteers with higher “service-offering adaptiveness” was actually less affected by providing instrumental support.

Based on our findings, what can helplines do to help volunteers remain satisfied during their encounters with children?

    Finding: Volunteers are more satisfied when children believe they received lots of instrumental support.
    Suggested Action: Volunteers should have easy access to the helpline’s resources in order to provide the best information, advice, and referrals to children.

    Finding: It is important to be aware that a volunteer’s experience with one encounter influences the next encounter.
    Suggested Action: There should be sufficient support for volunteers after a less satisfying encounter. We recommend a feedback tool that would help volunteers to “cool off” after one of these chats or even allow a colleague or manager to help volunteers with the next chat.

    Finding: Since volunteer satisfaction increases when children are happy with the support provided, it is important that volunteers are able to detect children’s perceptions.
    Suggested Action: To help volunteers understand children’s perceptions throughout a chat, we propose that a monitoring system would be helpful. Such a system could highlight keywords in the chat that would signal whether the volunteer should provide more instrumental support and/or emotional support.

Further reading and sourcing: Siegel, J. and van Dolen, W. (2020), “Child helplines: exploring determinants and boundary conditions of volunteer encounter satisfaction”, Journal of Services Marketing, Vol. ahead-of-print No. ahead-of-print. https://doi.org/10.1108/JSM-05-2019-0200

Call for collaboration:

The project I am currently working on investigates how helpline counselors manage multiple live chats / SMS conversations simultaneously and how doing so can affect their wellbeing. My goal is to identify ways for enhancing counselor wellbeing by determining how and when it is best to handle more than one interaction simultaneously in order to prevent either feeling overloaded or bored.

I am looking for a helpline with a focus on serving youth and children that would be willing to help me collect data from volunteers and counselors about their experiences with each interaction. I would also like to talk with helpline managers and counselors about their experiences, concerns, and ideas to find out how else we can collaborate. In addition to an academic article as output of this research, I would write a management report for the helpline which discusses the findings and recommendations for helpline managers.

If you are interested in collaborating, please contact me at j.siegel@uva.nl

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Josh Siegel

Josh Siegel is a PhD Candidate at the University of Amsterdam. His research focuses on service provider well-being. After earning a Bachelor’s degree from the University of Arizona, he moved to Amsterdam, where he obtained a Master’s degree.

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