Knight Foundation recently issued a report with the Rita Allen Foundation on how civic tech startups are seeking sustainability. Knight Foundation’s Anusha Alikhan talked with Baylee Greenberg, former COO of Crisis Text Line, about its experience and growth.
1. Crisis Text Line has grown considerably since launching. What have been the keys to growth and the biggest challenges you’ve faced?
We have indeed experienced hockey stick growth. We launched quietly in Chicago and El Paso, Texas and within four months were receiving texts from all 295 area codes in the country. And our growth has been largely organic. We’re simply offering people a service they need. And, we’re doing so in a way that’s comfortable (over text) and human (through our trained volunteer crisis counselors). The team has done a fantastic job building for scale. From our online training program to our crisis counselor chat function, everything is built to handle scale. Frankly, our biggest challenge has been time. We work smart to strategically prioritize our focus in order to grow our crisis counselor community and serve texters across the country.
2. What core capacities have you invested in that have supported your growth?
Our core capacity, and priority are our Crisis Counselors. These are individuals who we’ve recruited, selected, trained and actively supervise while they support our texters. And, they’re the most kind, engaged community I’ve ever been a part of. It’s truly an army of empathy MVPs. We’ve also invested in a team that supports our technical and community infrastructure. We have in-house tech and product teams that not only crisis counsel themselves, but also interface directly with our community. What could be better than that?
3. You recently raised a large “round” of funding, a term you don’t often hear nonprofits use. What lessons would you share with other nonprofits interested in considering raising a “round” of their own?
We function without a development team and grant writing - and it’s great. Raising money in rounds means we can spend a concentrated amount of time fundraising, then be heads down for a lengthy period building and executing our service. It allows us to do what we’re here to do – to focus on supporting people in crisis.
4. The report makes a distinction between “builder” capital that supports growth and innovation and “buyer” revenue that covers program costs and is more repeatable and reliable. What forms of buyer revenue has Crisis Text Line developed and how has the approach to buyer revenue shifted over time?
Buyer revenue is generated through partnerships with apps and networks individuals use. Wherever there are people, there are people in crisis. Our approach: meet people where they are!
5. How have you weighed the benefits and drawbacks of being a nonprofit as opposed to pursuing your mission as a for-profit?
It’s pretty easy for us. We ask ourselves, should our bottom line be money, or lives? Lives wins, always. Supporting people through crises for cost just feels yucky. We’re here to help people feel their best. The last thing someone in crisis should have to think about is being able to afford support.
6. You’ve developed partnerships with some big names in tech and philanthropy and other sectors. How have these collaborations helped you grow?
Our partnerships have allowed us to reach people in crisis where they are, to intervene in that hot moment through a means of communication that’s most comfortable for them. Our partnerships have expanded our texter base as well as our knowledge. We’re starting to see trends about what mediums of communication users in crisis turn to base on data points like the issue and time of day. Ideally, these insights can lead to prevention of future crises.