The volunteers helping solve Southampton folks’ money worries

The volunteers helping solve Southampton folks’ money worries

By Megan Streb.

On a typical Wednesday morning, a handful of volunteers gather at St Albans Church in Swaythling. They are there to help resolve Southampton residents’ financial problems, one at a time. 

“It’s all about the client – how they are, how they are affected by having debt. I feel that having compassion for them is what really matters,” said Sandra. “It’s all very well that I like numbers and that I’ve worked in offices, but it’s really about making that connection with the client. Letting them know that I’m there for them, and I’m treating them as an individual.” 

In Southampton as in the rest of the UK, the cost of living crisis has hit many households harder than others. Joseph Rowntree Foundation report that nationally a fifth of low-income families (an estimated 2.3 million households) have taken on new lending to pay for basics like rent and energy. Often this is on top of existing borrowing. This debt can include credit cards, bank loans, overdraft, borrowing from a credit union, doorstep lender, or payday lender. 

Last year the Swaythling Frontline Debt Advice volunteers managed over £1.5 million of debt for 178 households in Southampton, and successfully got over £100,000 of debt written off for individuals. 

The volunteers don’t talk about the big numbers, though. They focus on the differences to individual clients. The sense of relief that clients experience is mentioned over and over.

“She knows that if anything changes and if she’s struggling, she can come back to us and we’ll come up with a new plan,” said Eddie, another volunteer, about a recent client. Sandra mentioned how powerful small changes can make, such as getting a client onto a payment plan to pay back a utility company.

“It’s actually only a little thing, but when you’re emotionally involved you can’t face calling the company and sorting it. But it’s a small thing that I can do.” 

It can be hard to get people willing to take the first step. “In a first meeting, people will come but may still be unsure about whether they are ready to work with us, as they may have some assumptions about what we do. And sometimes people make an appointment but don’t turn up,” said Eddie. 

Dominic, the CEO of Frontline Debt Advice is committed to providing high quality debt advice. Frontline is regulated and authorised by the Financial Conduct Authority, but he emphasised that they don’t refer to themselves as ‘professionals’ to set themselves apart from the authorities who are sending the bills and collection notices. The whole ethos is to work alongside clients. 

During the initial meeting, a volunteer and client will start work on a budget. The volunteer will also start looking at any paperwork brought in. This can include letters from creditors that haven’t been opened yet because they have felt too anxious, or aren’t sure what the letters mean. 

After the first meeting, volunteers are dogged administrators and researchers. “Volunteering can involve a lot of hanging on the phone or e-mailing creditors. Until you get replies it’s a lot of admin, but that can be done whatever time suits you,” said Sandra. On occasion they need to research topics, such as parking fines, that haven’t come up before, or to make sure the advice hasn’t changed, such as on bailiffs.

“Recently we got a £4,000 water bill written off because there was a leak. It took ages to sort it out, with regular meter readings and contacting them regularly, but we got there!” exclaimed Eddie.   

This work often isn’t quick – volunteers are assigned a number of clients and will work with them throughout their process. This may take weeks or months, but they will keep working with people as long as it takes. “We never close a file–people can always come back for support,” Eddie explains. 

Although it can be time consuming, volunteers say that it’s not difficult. Volunteers are provided with an Excel spreadsheet with formulas to do calculations for them, as well as template letters that can be customised. Volunteers receive training when they start, and throughout, as well as checks and support from other volunteers and from the CEO. Earlier this year they had training from Southern Water on vulnerable clients, and recently received training on loan sharks. Both Eddie and Sandra talked about the value of learning as you go. “The initial training was quite straightforward, but it’s not until you actually do it that it comes into reality,” explained Sandra.

Now the group is looking to recruit additional volunteers. As they are a small organisation, they can only train one volunteer at a time. The ideal candidate would be available on a Wednesday daytime for at least part of the day, but many of the volunteers do their admin and home visits at other points in the week. 

Eddie gave advice to would-be volunteers: “It’s more important to be good with people than to be good with numbers. You need tolerance; we often work with people who have loads going on that we haven’t experienced.” 

Not all the current volunteers have a financial background, but the feedback they’ve received from clients emphasises Eddie’s point about being good with people.

One said: “very kind. Didn’t make me feel inadequate or silly for asking for help with my debt.” Another said, “Very understanding and patient, I wouldn’t be so settled without the fantastic work Frontline do to help”. Another client talked about the support now their circumstances have changed and they are a carer for a partner with dementia.“I needed help to apply for an Attendance Allowance for my husband who has dementia. The incredibly helpful adviser ensured all questions on the form were answered appropriately. This took a long time but she was patient and encouraging.” 

Eddie refers to these good experiences with clients as “golden nuggets” that help her keep going when ringing a call centre or if someone doesn’t come to that first meeting. Sandra agreed, “It’s exhilarating and positive when you do a small thing for someone.” 

If you’re interested in volunteering, and can give approximately one day a week of your time–whether that’s all on a Wednesday or split across the week– e-mail Dominic at or you can call 02380 552866 or 07977 175949. 

If you would like to access support from Frontline Debt Advice, you can e-mail or ring on the numbers above to make an initial appointment. It’s a confidential and non-judgemental service, and there’s no income threshold. 

More information on Frontline Debt Advice can be found at their website


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