Pure Genius

Q&A: When LOL becomes HELP

Q&A: When LOL becomes HELP

Posting in Technology | From Issue 14 March 24 & 31, 2014

Nancy Lublin, the creative force behind Dress for Success and DoSomething.org, has a new venture: crisis counseling teens via text message.

It's not unusual for Nancy Lublin and her team at DoSomething.org, a large nonprofit that encourages teens to take action on social causes, to get a few messages back when they send a mass text to 1.5 million teens around the country. Sometimes the replies are flippant and silly; other times they're earnest and weighty: I'm being bullied and I don't want to go to school tomorrow or I'm cutting and I can't stop.

But there was one text message in August 2011 that stopped Lublin and her team in their tracks. He won't stop raping me, it said. He told me not to tell anyone. It's my dad. Are you there?

"This was such a shock," Lublin says now. "It was so horrifying that it just grabbed us by the heart and the gut. I couldn't sleep. We sent her a hotline number but we just felt like it wasn't enough. Clearly, our young people were telling us that they needed a new service, and that someone needed to build it for them. So we did."

Lublin went to work creating Crisis Text Line. Two years and $4 million in fundraising later, the new service launched in August 2013. While it functions much like a traditional crisis hotline, there's one big difference: all communication occurs via text message.

We spoke with Lublin to find out how things are going six months in, the trends she's noticing, and why the data she's collecting has value even beyond helping individuals.

It's been exactly six months since you launched Crisis Text Line. How many kids have you helped so far?

We crossed the one-million-message mark yesterday at 8 a.m. If we were a for-profit company, we'd be collecting money on Sand Hill Road right now. This would be venture-backed and people would be super excited about it. But it's a not-for-profit, so, nope. We've helped more than 21,000 kids in just six months, and we have done no marketing. It's really just been word of mouth.

With that many messages processed, are you starting to see trends emerge?

Here's one: self-harm. When does it happen most? People assume weekends or late at night at home. It turns out it happens as much during the school day as it does at home. People hadn't thought of this before as a school-based issue. This is something schools absolutely need to wrestle with.

Or when do you think we get text messages about eating disorders? Most people say during the week, lunchtime, and it turns out it's really a Sunday/Monday/Tuesday thing. We get almost no text messages during the rest of the week about eating disorders.

Why is that?

We're not a think tank. Our hope is to just put the information out there so that everyone from public-health organizations to schools and school boards to foundations to journalists can do that thinking and policy work. At least now they'll have the information. We're going to make data available to the public in real-time starting in the summer. Obviously, all of the personally identifiable information will be stripped.

How are you going to share the data?

It's going to be a live dashboard on our website. You'll be able to search an issue, a time of day and a zip code and see what's going on. There hasn't been a good, comprehensive mental-health study on young people since 1997. I'm pretty excited to see, for example, the relationship between bullying and eating disorders. I'm excited to break down silos and walls between organizations and issues. I'm also excited about the massive amount of data that we will have in real-time across the board. Right now, it's all these longitudinal studies and it's very slow.

What's the most common issue kids are texting in about?

Sadly it's depression and anxiety.

And who is answering these texts?

We've outsourced to crisis hotline centers that right now are largely using phone. This is just another thing in their arsenal now. We started with three call centers but we've had such demand that we quickly had to add three more.

What do you see as the biggest advantages to crisis counseling via text?

Let's say you get a spike in volume and your hotline works by phone. You need to add more bodies because one person can only counsel one kid at a time. What's great about text is the kid is texting on a phone but the counselor is looking at this on a computer screen. Each counselor can handle three or four kids at time. That's pretty terrific for capacity.

By the third message, we pretty much know it all. They're spilling their deepest, darkest secrets. On the phone, you get crying, hyperventilating and the word 'like.' By text, you get objective information and clarity. It turns out to be pretty fantastic for counseling. This doesn't mean that phone lines should go away. I think every means should be available to people in need. We just want people to be able to get help the way they want it.

Let's say you had unlimited funds for CTL. What would you do first?

It would definitely be more crisis centers. The product really works, kids really love it -- now it's time to grow it. The reason we're holding back on marketing and pushing this in a big way nationally is because we want to make sure that we have enough counselors to be able to respond. In the world, 83 percent of text messages are returned within 14 minutes. We'd like to be much faster than that, but we always want to be sure that we have the capacity. That's where we're at right now: we'd like to raise another round of money so that we can have the capacity in place and go gangbusters.

Between CTL and DoSomething.org, you seem to have discovered the secret to reaching teens. Is it all about using the right technology?

I think it's bigger than that. It's about loving your target market and starting with that. It's not, 'Oh, there's this technology, what should we do with it?' but rather, 'Oh, there are these people we work with and love, what can we make for them that they actually like?" If you genuinely love your target market, you're going to make things that make sense for them. I genuinely love teens. I live like them. I could name all the members of One Direction, I'm wearing sneakers right now, I live in my jeans, pizza is a food group to me. I'm incredibly immature and that makes me great at my job.

DoSomething.org has a big presence on social media and even has its own app. Any apps or technology you're especially into right now?

I'm actually the one who tweets for DoSomething. I'm a big believer in CEOs running their corporate accounts if possible. I think there's something really authentic about that. Next week we're planning a whole crazy thing with Snapchat, and we had a brief meeting this morning to talk about Thumb and Secret.

What else is on your mind these days?

All kinds of stuff. On the DoSomething front, the big news is that last year we ran 26 campaigns. On March 3 alone, we're going to launch 75 campaigns. We should run about 250 campaigns by the end of the year. The new brand promise is 'any cause, any time, anywhere.' If you walk down the street and see something that really frustrates you, you'll be able to do something about it immediately.

The fundamental belief here is that we don't think that young people are larvae. They're not just the future. We think they're pretty awesome now. That's what I mean by loving your target market. We think they're super creative and high-energy and interesting and wired.

Photo from Everyday Heroes: 50 Americans Changing the World One Nonprofit at a Time by Katrina Fried and Paul Mobley. Photographs © 2012 Paul Mobley. www.welcomebooks.com/everydayheroes

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Molly Petrilla

Contributing Writer

Molly Petrilla is a freelance writer based in New Jersey. She has written for The Pennsylvania Gazette, Philadelphia magazine, Cleveland Magazine, The History Channel Magazine and The Princeton Packet. She holds a degree from the University of Pennsylvania. Follow her on Twitter. Disclosure