The Silver Line, officially launched in November 2013, is the UK’s only free 24-hour helpline for older people. It also offers companionship for older people via prearranged outbound calls, and has more recently expanded into a letter-based service, Silver Letters. As it grows, the charity is branching out into other services in-line with its core offering.
But the young charity is taking care to stay close to its USP. Sophie Andrews is Silver Line’s chief executive and was its first employee, and says the charity exists to complement not compete with other charities.
“When we first started we piloted our idea to see if anybody would actually call us,” Andrews says. “We didn’t want to start a new charity that might be duplicating what’s already there. We were very prepared if we were duplicating what was there or if we weren’t needed to pack up and go away.”
The Silver Line was set up by veteran BBC journalist and ChildLine founder Dame Esther Rantzen.
Although there are many services available for older people, it became evident that there may be a gap in anytime provision of support in the form of information, friendship, and advice.
“Samaritans are 24 hours for people in distress who may be suicidal or depressed, but for older people it might be quite difficult to ring an organisation like that because they might feel it’s not a critical emergency situation,” Andrews says. “Perhaps older people don’t want to be a burden so wouldn’t necessarily ring a helpline if they thought they were blocking the line. We wanted to make it very easy for people, so we say: ‘if you think it’s for you, it’s for you’.”
Andrews herself could hardly have a more appropriate CV for the role of chief executive of the young charity.
After a career in blue chip call centres, including as a call centre manager for Marks & Spencer, Andrews moved into social care managing residential care homes for the elderly. Meanwhile, she became a volunteer for Samaritans.
Andrews worked her way through various roles in the organisation, to become national chair in 2008. A role as head of volunteering at NSPCC brought Andrews into regular contact with Rantzen, who approached her to help in the set-up of what would become Silver Line.
“It was a scary challenge but a brilliant opportunity to set something up from scratch. A bit daunting!”
Along with the challenges in front of any new organisation, Silver Line’s very purpose means it faces an uphill task, aiming as it does to provide services to those who are isolated and hard to reach.
A pilot study, carried out over November 2012, saw a nascent Silver Line work with Manchester City Council and explore ways of reaching older people who may be experiencing loneliness or isolation.
Silver Line had to pursue innovative approaches in order to reach those that existing services were not getting to.
“The key for us was to work with pharmacies, so where people might have a home delivery of their prescription, putting little cards in with their home deliveries. Thinking about people who maybe receive meals on wheels, or have carers visiting. In most cases it’s someone actually recommending us,” Andrews says.
The pilot proved there was a place for the offering, and as the charity has developed and grown it has taken advantage of other avenues. Media coverage has contributed to increased awareness, and Andrews says having such a high profile founder has helped the charity grow quickly.
“It’s the ‘Esther factor’ – and I mean that in the most affectionate way. Esther has been our greatest asset and certainly she’s opened doors.”
The charity’s famous founder, instrumental in the launch of ChildLine almost 20 years earlier, also helped in securing the funding required to get Silver Line off the ground.
The Department of Health provided around £50,000 of initial funding to get the ball rolling, before Comic Relief provided further funds to get the charity through the first few months of operation and fund Andrews’ salary.
But there was a step change in Silver Line’s scale when the charity secured a £5 million grant from the Big Lottery Fund, spread over the first two years of the charity’s operation.
With a famous founder and an enviable balance sheet, Silver Line was under way. But Andrews says that in those early days it was still very much a small charity despite its resources and rising profile.
“With the funding came the perception that we had everything sorted and we were bigger than what we were. Almost from day one that’s been a big challenge. In the early days people used to ring up and ask to speak to the FD and I’d say: ‘speaking’. Can I speak to HR – ‘speaking’, can I speak to comms ‘speaking’. It was really smoke and mirrors in those first few months, we were really punching above our weight with a very, very small team.”
Silver Line recently received another two-year, £5 million Big Lottery grant, and Andrews says the charity’s income for the last financial year will be around £4 million. About £1.5 million of that was provided by foundations and corporate partners, who both have been important funders in the charity’s early days.
Individual giving will in future represent an increasingly important part of the funding mix, Andrews says, but the chief executive acknowledges the challenges involved in public fundraising. Legacy income will likely be important given the nature of the charity, but Andrews accepts that this is not guaranteed.
“For us it’s about partnerships. I’m very keen that we work with national charities and put bids in together, so we can get some statutory funding and work together with others. It is about collaboration rather than going to the door of the same funders and trying to compete with each other.”
Collaborate, not compete
Andrews frequently returns to the idea that Silver Line has been established to fill a niche, and complement existing charities. Given the uncertain funding environment incumbents could quite understandably be frustrated that a new charity is launching to further crowd the space.
“We’re clear that we’re here to offer information, friendship and advice. We’re fundamentally a phone service with letters now added on. It would be easy to creep into face-to-face services, but actually there are lots of other people doing that. I think it’s very important we don’t duplicate what’s there already. Our USP is 24-hour service, and that’s what we should really be majoring on. That’s where we provide the important service when others aren’t there.”
And Andrews says the signs are good so far that Silver Line can in fact connect existing services with individuals who may benefit from assistance, but due to their personal circumstances were previously too hard to reach. Over half of Silver Line callers are referred to other organisations and community groups.
There is also evidence the charity is meeting its objective to help older people who are at risk of or suffering abuse. Five per cent of callers have shared details of historic or current abuse. Silver Line is also working with the care sector towards ensuring those living in care settings are aware of the service.
“We’re working in partnership with care homes, and talking to people at Care Quality Commission and saying that a good care provider will have no problem giving these leaflets out and giving access to a telephone. It would be great if they could make that part of their inspection regime – that individuals in their homes could have access to our confidential number.”
Silver Line works in partnership with the Samaritans and a range of other charities and networks towards ensuring the support offered and available to older people is appropriate to their needs.
At two and a half years’ old, Silver Line’s reach is already vast. The helpline fields around 1,500 calls a day, and is on track to take its millionth call in the third quarter of this year. The Silver Line Friends service makes about 3,000 calls per week, and another 1,000 calls are made to older people waiting to be matched with a Silver Line Friend. The relatively new Silver Letters service sees around 200 volunteers writing letters every fortnight.
Significant human resources are required to deliver such a large service. The helpline is currently run by paid staff, but Andrews says volunteers will be integrated into this part of the offering over time.
Volunteers have not so far been hard to come by, but the matching process is carefully managed to maximise the chance of the older person and the volunteer making a connection. Silver Line looks for volunteers with empathy, and seeks to match Silver Line Friends with common interests.
“It’s quite an easy ask to be honest because it’s not a traditional counselling role,” Andrews says. “We’re looking for people who are prepared to talk a bit about themselves, and it’s not been too hard finding people that are happy to give half an hour/45 minutes a week to make a call from their own home.”
Silver Line is also generating its own volunteers. The charity set a target early on that 5 per cent of those who use the service would become Silver Line Friends themselves, which, if successful, will provide a significant pool of volunteers into the future.
“If over time the confidence of people receiving calls grows to a point where we can say to them ‘you’re great to talk to, would you like to talk to someone else?’ and they then become volunteers then that’s a big measure of our success.”
Andrews says the future will see the charity develop hubs across the UK, providing opportunities for people who wish to volunteer time outside of their own homes work out of regular locations and supplement the charity’s paid staff.
There has also been international interest in the service, Andrews says, but taking the charity overseas is not on the agenda. However, she says the charity is mulling how the model may be exported, possibly via a membership organisation or umbrella approach.
First and foremost though, Silver Line is seeking to establish a financial bedrock. Statutory funding will hopefully play a part in this, Andrews says, as the charity seeks to generate income from the savings it provides Government through reducing the numbers presenting to ambulance or A&E services, for example.
“Our biggest challenge now - and it will continue to be - will be raising funds and remaining sustainable,” Andrews says. “We don’t want to be the greatest idea that pops up and goes away again, we want to make sure we’re sustainable for the very long term.”