Public and academic discussion about the needs of people experiencing suicidality and psychological distress is focused on the improvement and expansion of clinical services. The potential of non-clinical, voluntary organisations providing comprehensive support is overlooked. This article reports findings from a realist evaluation of a charitable organisation in New Zealand that provides crisis respite. Two phases of data collection and analysis enabled the development of a programme theory explaining how respite supports people experiencing suicidality and distress. Data from interviews, participant observation, document analysis and a focus group were examined using thematic analysis. The study identified key outcomes of this respite service, along with the contextual factors and mechanisms that explain how these outcomes were generated. This study demonstrates the effectiveness of respite and the benefits of crisis services operating as charitable organisations. The apparent advantages of volunteerism are discussed in the context of a trend towards professionalisation in crisis intervention.