Crisis Text Line finds a niche, and keeps growing

This piece is one of a series that looks at the Knight News Challenge winners, and their thoughts on future trends, on the occasion of the challenge’s 10th anniversary. 

There is no other way to say it: Growth at Crisis Text Line – an emergency service for people at wit’s end – is, sadly, explosive.

In October, the four-year-old service crossed a major milestone when it processed its 50 millionth text message. That is the number 50, followed by six zeroes.

If that doesn’t really capture the organization’s progress, try this number on for impact:

“If you look at our growth trajectory,” says founder Nancy Lublin, “it’s going to take us nine months to do the next 50 million. We’re growing really fast.”

She says there are two main reasons why Crisis Text Line, which won a 2014 Knight News Challenge and has received subsequent funding from the foundation, is seeing its numbers skyrocket.

“There’s the humble answer,” she says, “which is that there’s a lot of pain in America. And there is the other answer, which is that we’re providing a great service, and people are sharing it with their friends.”

This particular day, Lublin is especially inspired by what Crisis Text Line can accomplish, because early this morning, she experienced its reach first hand.

“I started on the platform at 4 a.m.,” she reveals. “I had an active rescue of someone who wanted to die, so I’m on fire. I feel great. It’s the best way to start my day.

“He had swallowed a cocktail of pills,” Lublin continues, “and the text messages were becoming increasingly incoherent and nonsensical, and he was saying he was tired, he was warm, he was throwing up, and he was dying. I got the police there in time. The last message that I got from him was, ‘They’re here.’ And so, you know, there’s a man alive today because of me. So I’m having a good day.”

The man, despite having ingested a toxic overload, reached out to Crisis Text Line because he likely didn’t want to die.

“Part of him wanted help and was scared. And so, they reach out for help,” Lublin said. “We won’t judge them. We’re here for moving you from that hot moment to a cool moment. We explore a bit about your history, and we will often ask, ‘Who else is in your life? Is there a neighbor, a friend, a therapist, a family member nearby, who you can talk to?’ We remind you to connect with other people, and that you have other resources. It’s our job to help you get from hot to cool. In the moment. Not forever in life. We’re not therapy. We’re not a long-term solution. We’re here for exactly what I did this morning.”

In the last 12 months, Crisis Text Line has grown from 50 to 70 full-time staffers, and from 20 to 30 supervisors. It also has more than 3,700 volunteer crisis counselors, responding to incoming texts at all hours of the day and night, offering advice, making referrals, and calling for emergency services as needed, just as Lublin did.

Despite this remarkable growth, Lublin hasn’t done any new fundraising in the past year.

“I’m not thinking about money,” she says. “I’m thinking about trying to stay a step ahead of this growth. I’ve run other companies before, but I’ve never run a rocket ship before. I’m hoping to steer it more than it steers me. I mean, this is truly exponential, organic growth. Unpredictable. These are high class problems. But these are our challenges. We spend nothing on marketing. There are no plans for any celebrity public service announcements. We don’t send out press releases or do campaigns. It’s like the restaurant that’s just really great, and everybody talks about it in town, and all of a sudden, there’s a line out the door.”

Crisis Text Line grew “like a rib” from – which Knight also supported and where Lublin served as CEO – and the Knight News Challenge provided some of the first funding it ever received., which activates young people to do good, is made up of 5.7 million members, mostly young people, who do a lot of texting. Some texted to the folks running DoSomething about their personal issues – including bullying, drug addiction and sexual abuse – when they had no one else. “We would triage those things by responding with a hotline number, or suggesting you talk to your principal, or maybe your mom, something like that,” Lublin recalled. “And then we got a message from a girl that said, ‘He won’t stop raping me. It’s my dad. He told me not to tell anyone.’ And the letters ‘R U there?’”

Someone at DoSomething texted the girl a phone number for RAINN, a rape and incest organization in Washington, DC.

“We didn’t hear back from her. I thought, they trust us. We should build something for them. So I had the idea for Crisis Text Line,” Lublin said.

For Lublin, looking back on the most significant developments of the internet over the past decade starts with the crowd.

“The notion of marketplaces that didn’t exist,” she explains. “That means the family of companies, such as Uber and Airbnb. Wikipedia was one of the first. It’s the idea that the product itself is driven by the crowd. So Etsy, Lyft, Kickstarter, and frankly, Crisis Text Line. We’re in that family also. Where you don’t control supply, and you don’t control demand, marketplaces were born. That’s a whole other type of internet company that blossomed in the last ten years. And that’s what we are.”

Bob Andelman is a Florida-based journalist.