Understanding IRS Form 990

Introduction

Nonprofit organizations in the US are required to file Form 990 with the Internal Revenue Service (IRS). This is a tax document that the IRS requires, that can help you understand more about a nonprofit that you are evaluating or are interested in working with. If you don’t have accounting training, or haven’t served on a nonprofit Board of Directors, you may be unfamiliar with this vital document.

This document is not intended to be professional accounting advice or replace the services of a qualified accountant. Always seek professional assistance to make sure you fill out this form correctly.

Finding The 990

There are a number of resources you can use to find an organization’s Form 990. Many nonprofits post their 990 publicly. For example, the Red Cross For example, the Red Cross includes a comprehensive list of financial statements on its website, including their Annual Report, their Form 990 and their Audited Financial Statements.

Additionally, there are several organizations that maintain databases of Form 990s:

Finally, the IRS includes a Tax Exempt Organization Search which can help you find an organization’s EIN (). This number can be searched to find the Form 990 and other documents.

Sections of the 990

The IRS provides blank copies of the Form 990, but it’s generally easier to look at a completed one to get a sense of the different type of information. There are 12 sections (called Parts) and 15 sections (lettered A through O) that can make up the Form 990.

Part I through XII

  • Part I. Summary
  • Part II. Signature Block
  • Part III. Statement of Program Service Accomplishments
  • Part IV. Checklist of Required Schedules
  • Part V. Statements Regarding Other IRS Filings and Tax Compliance
  • Part VI. Governance, Management, and Disclosure
  • Part VII. Compensation of Officers, Directors, Trustees, Key Employees, Highest Compensated Employees, and
    Independent Contractors
  • Part VIII. Statement of Revenue.
  • Part IX. Statement of Functional Expenses
  • Part X. Balance Sheet
  • Part XI. Reconciliation of Net Assets
  • Part XII. Financial Statements and Reporting

Schedule A through O

These links take you to the IRS information on this schedule.

Form 990, United Way of Central Iowa

Let’s review an actual Form 990. I picked the United Way of Central Iowa, an organization with about 30 million in assets.

Introduction

From the very top of the document, we can see the organization’s name, address and phone number along with the Employer Identification Number (EIN). We see the first date the corporation was incorporated (1918!), the website, and the specific section of the Tax Code that the organization gets its tax-exempt status (501c(3)).

Part I, Summary

In the summary section we see the mission of the organization, “Improve lives by uniting the caring power of community.” We see the organization brought in just under $28 million in 2017, $27,528,063 was from donations, while the organization generated $391,675 in program service revenue, and $72,916 in investment income.

From that amount, the United Way paid out $22 million in grants to other organizations. Line 18 shows the total expenses of the organization, and Line 19 indicates that the organization had a loss of revenue less expenses of $651,210. Even though the organization had less revenue come in than they had expenses go out, the Net Assets or Fund Balances section shows the organization actually finished the year with more money than they had before: they started the year with 33,322,892 and ended the year with $33,624,994 – an increase of $302,102. This difference is made up of line 21 (Total Liabilities) which went down by $76,977 – meaning the organization owes less money, and an increase in assets from $36,596,559 to 36,821,684 (an increase of $225,125.)

$225,125 + 76,977 = 302,102. For this reason, it is unwise to simply look at the excess of revenue over expenses, as collecting a debt or increasing an asset (such as a Temporarily Restricted Contribution becoming “current” or usable) will not necessarily show up as revenue.

Part II, Signature Block

The Signature Block includes a section for the Treasurer or other Officer to indicate that they have reviewed the Form 990 and other documents – and also a space to indicate if there is an Accountant or other paid preparer who may be consulted in lieu of the Treasurer.

Part III. Statement of Program Service Accomplishments

Part III includes a short description of the organization’s mission, followed by an explanation of the 3 programs with the highest amount of expenses, and summarizing total program expenses.  The United Way of Central Iowa has chosen to include their 3 focus areas of Education, Health and Income as their 3 largest programs along with Community Impact Services (which include the 211 helpline and other programs run directly by the United Way.)

Part IV. Checklist of Required Schedules

Part IV includes a checklist. For each box that is checked, you will need to complete the associated Schedules of the Form 990. For example, for the United Way of Central Iowa, they must complete:

  • Schedule A
  • Schedule B
  • Schedule C Part II
  • Schedule D Part IV, V, X, IX, XI, XII
  • Schedule G Part III
  • Schedule I Part I, 2, and 3
  • Schedule J
  • Schedule M
  • Schedule O

Different organizations will have different requirements.

Part V. Statements Regarding Other IRS Filings and Tax Compliance

In Part V, you indicate information that helps the IRS understand your other IRS filings. For example, line 1a notes that they filed 60 forms in total for their tax compliance, while 2a indicates the organization had 84 employees. The other sections include information on income, other financial accounts (like those in foreign countries) and different types of contributions they’ve received.

Part VI. Governance, Management, and Disclosure

In Part VI, you provide information on the size of your Board of Directors (31), and questions about the organization’s finances, governing policies like Conflict of Interest or Whistleblower policies and where financial statements (like the 990) are made available.

Part VII. Compensation of Officers, Directors, Trustees, Key Employees, Highest Compensated Employees, and
Independent Contractors

Part VII describes the Board of Directors, and the compensation information for key employees. Most nonprofit Boards of Directors are uncompensated, but may receive honorariums for travel or other expenses. We can see the Chief Operating Officer Sarah Roy receives $181,000 a year in salary, while Elizabeth Buck makes $158,000 a year.

Highly paid independent contractors are also listed here, if they made more than $100,000 in a year.

Part VIII. Statement of Revenue

The Statement of Revenue indicates in more detail the sources of revenue in the organization. We can see that government grants totalling $178,535 were given to the organization, while other donations included $27,349,528 and non-cash contributions (such as advertising) added up to $334,395. Other forms of revenue (beyond donations) are provided.

Part IX. Statement of Functional Expenses

The Statement of Functional Expenses includes salaries paid to employees, employee benefits, grants (the core of the United Way’s model), expenses used to provide services, and other standard line items like Legal fees, Accounting , Office Expenses and Information Technology.

Part X. Balance Sheet

The Balance Sheet is a statement that includes the amount of assets the organization holds (including cash, savings, Accounts Receivable – people who owe you), and other assets. Liabilities including Accounts Payable are the debts that the organization owes.

At the bottom of this section is Temporarily Restricted Net Assets and Permanently Restricted Net Assets. Temporarily restricted net assets are those that are restricted for a period of time. For example, you may receive a $100,000 donation with the stipulation that it not be spent for 10 years. Once the 10 years are up, it will return to general net assets. You can invest Temporarily Restricted Net Assets and spend the interest generated, but not the capital.

Permanently Restricted Net Assets are those that can never be spent. This means that even if your organization ceases to function, the Secretary of State (or similar official) of your State, will give that money to another organization serving a similar purpose.

Part XI. Reconciliation of Net Assets

The Reconciliation of Net Assets shows the total revenue and expenses along with the changes in the assets detailed above. This is how we wind up at our final total of assets, to know whether the organization is worth more (made more money) during the year than they lost – because the asset values are higher than they were at the beginning.

Part XII. Financial Statements and Reporting

Financial Statements and Reporting tells you whether the organization uses Cash Accounting or Accrual Accounting. In cash accounting, you take into account current cash balances on an immediate basis. If you spend $50 your assets go down, if you receive $100 your assets go up. Accrual accounting takes into account that you may receive revenue today that you can’t spend until next month, and you may receive bills today that are not due until next month – and takes those things into account.

Accrual accounting is the most common form of accounting in the business world and the nonprofit world, but small organizations will likely use Cash Accounting because it is simpler.

Schedules

The different Schedules included on the Form 990 are linked to with instructions at the top of the page. These instructions will help you better understand the information required for each one.

Professional Development

There are a variety of professional development opportunities for those who want to learn more about nonprofit accounting.

Conclusion

The Form 990 is an important form used in nonprofit tax compliance, but also has the opportunity to provide you valuable information on a nonprofit that you are considering working for or are evaluating. I hope this has been a helpful post. Please let me know if you have any questions.

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Develop a Fee-for-Service Program to Diversify Revenue

Introduction

Does your organization have a fee-for-service program? I recently had the opportunity to sit down with a local United Way chapter that was looking to hire a new executive. Some of the things that we discussed included:

  • A review of their financial statements
  • Importance of development of a planned giving/endowment program
  • Improving the organization’s messaging

Additionally – and the purpose of this post – I made sure to discuss the importance of fee-for-service programs in an effort to diversify fundraising. Since its founding, the United Way’s primary fundraising strategy has been workplace campaigns, but in the era of direct donations online right to funded agencies, donations from youth and other tech-savvy individuals to the United Way have been falling.

This is where fee-for-service programs can come in handy. These training sessions and services provide value to the nonprofits while also diversifying the United Way’s fundraising.

Types of Training

As the Director of Online Support at Distress Centre Durham, I led training sessions in topics including:

  • Creating an Online Text and Chat Program
  • Providing Crisis Intervention via Text and Chat
  • DCIB/CPR Suicide Risk Assessment
  • Using the Spousal Assault Risk Assessment
  • Youth Suicide Prevention

These sessions ranged in length from 45 minute “Lunch and Learns” up to full day training sessions designed to Train the Trainer who would go back to their own organization and train volunteers or other staff. Your organization will obviously tailor the types of training that you provide depending on your service.

For example, an organization that works with women fleeing intimate partner violence might offer training sessions like:

  • Working with Abused Women
  • Running a Shelter
  • Providing Intimate Partner/Domestic Violence (IPV/DV) Services via the Phone
  • Intimate Partner Violence Assessment

These trainings may be prepared for other service providers, for individuals in the community like therapists and counsellors, or even over the internet via e-learning. E-learning is an under-utilized form of training in the nonprofit world, and once the course is developed the majority of your organization’s time is spent updating and revising the material yearly.

Board Training

If your organization is a cornerstone in the community like the United Way is, developing a comprehensive Board of Directors Training can be a lucrative revenue source. Even small communities have several organizations, while larger ones will have dozens of Boards. Board Training improves those organization’s capacity to govern their organization while generating revenue for your organization. As Boards naturally have turnover, this can represent a recurring revenue source.

Providing Services to Other Nonprofits

Services are also an option for a nonprofit to expand. For example, I’ve prepared Social Return on Investment (SROI) Reports that demonstrate the value your organization gives over and above the mere dollar donated can be significant in demonstrating your value proposition. A dollar donated to the United Way or another organization that is at the center of the nonprofit ecosystem can go much further than if it is donated directly to the partner agencies.

Here is a one slide from the SROI Analysis that I conducted for Distress Centre Durham’s helpline program:

Other opportunities abound depending on your specific skills and training.

For example, I directed the Evaluation Program for our Basic Helpline Training at Distress Centre Durham. This involved pre-and-post knowledge and attitude surveys that were examined. I built automated tools in Excel to sharply reduce the labor required (so that any student or intern could plug in the numbers and it would spit out the evaluation.) When certain questions were not being answered correctly, the training was adjusted.

You can help organizations develop these kind of tools and to build their own evaluation programs to give them the data that they need.

Train-the-Trainer

Some organizations specifically provide T4T (Train the Trainer) programs. Completing these programs entitle you to lead the training programs. Leaning on my work in suicide prevention, there are several options that you can use to bring Suicide Awareness or Assessment/Intervention Training to your community.

The QPR Institute provides QPR Suicide Gatekeeper Instructor Training for $500. QPR Certified Instructors (who can take an e-learning course in order to get certified) may charge $20 per participant for 2 hours of suicide awareness training.

A similar program is offered by LivingWorks and called safeTALK. safeTALK costs $1000 for the 1-day training program, and the instructors may charge $50-100 per participant for the 3-hour training program.

Finally, Applied Suicide Intervention Skills Training (ASIST) is a 2-day suicide risk assessment and intervention program. The LivingWorks ASIST Instructor program costs $2500 for the 5 days of training, and participants are charged $100-300.

Case Study: The United Way

The United Way has opportunities to reinvent themselves as a critical source of support – and not just financially – for all nonprofits in their community. Going beyond the traditional workplace campaign and volunteer resource center, United Way can become essential. For example, a nonprofit decides they need to improve their fundraising and strategic direction and they contact their local United Way.

The United Way provides them with free Board of Directors e-learning, which helps the Directors learn the importance of a strong outcome and evaluation program. They decide to pay for an SROI Analysis to be conducted on their most valuable program; that evaluation indicates that for every $1 invested in their program, $4 is generated in social value to the community.

Armed with that knowledge, they approach a new funder and get funding for a youth mentoring program. In order to make sure that all their Mentors are equipped the best they can, the nonprofit notes in their application that all staff and volunteers working with youth will receive QPR Suicide Awareness Training.

The United Way generates revenue from the SROI Analysis and the QPR Training, while the nonprofit improves their fundraising by better telling their story. As the Board of Directors naturally changes in composition, those individuals may take their knowledge of Board training to their new organization – increasing your reach.

Conclusion

Does your nonprofit generate revenue with fee-for-service programs? Would you like to? Share below. As well, if you’re looking for information on outcomes or evaluations feel free to contact me.

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Mobile Giving for Your Crisis Line

Introduction

Hi all, after a summer hiatus, I’m back! Mobile giving is all-the-rage these days, especially after natural disasters. We’ve all seen advertisements that say “Text HAITI to 90999” in order to donate $5 to the Red Cross. (That’s a real number.) You might be wondering how you can leverage this concept for your own crisis line or organization.

How Mobile Giving Works

Mobile giving, or donate-by-phone is an easier way to engage your donors. They simply text an SMS short-code from their cell phones, and a pre-determined amount of money is added to their bill. It’s a snap for you and individuals who, in order to donate previously, would have had to sign up with organizations like CanadaHelps, PayPal, or deal with the administrative burden of trying to give you cash or cheques directly.

Advantages

As already stated, mobile giving is easy. Most donors have SMS-capable cell phones and can take the 10 seconds to fire off a text message. In Canada, a mobile giving campaign can be set up that, after the payment of flat service fees, runs automatically. 100% of the money raised is given to your organization.

Mobile giving fundraising messaging is effortless. It can be distributed across social media like Facebook or Twitter, sent in a fundraising letter, or even included on a digital sign. This makes it ideal for almost any time of year, and any type of fundraising.

Disadvantages

There are some disadvantages to mobile giving: namely, if your intended audience does not use a cell phone or does not use SMS texting, they may be more apprehensive. This means that organizations that traditionally solicit funds from an older adult or elderly clientele may prefer fundraising letters or other tangible ways of donating.

Secondly, you have less information provided to you by your fundraising clients. For example, in the simplest mobile giving campaign, you have only the individual’s phone number. This means that giving tax receipts or following up on fundraising is more difficult.

Implementing Mobile Giving At Your Crisis Line

This guide is based on my experience implementing mobile giving at Distress Centre Durham. We elected to run a short, 3-month campaign starting on World Suicide Prevention Day (September 9, 2017). In Canada, all Mobile Giving is managed by the Mobile Giving Foundation (MGF) of Canada, a project of the Canadian Wireless Telecommunications Association (CWTA).

The Mobile Giving Foundation has agreements with each of the major telecoms in Canada so that 100% of the money donated is given to the charities.

After going to the Mobile Giving Foundation website (http://mobilegiving.ca), we navigated to the “For Registered Charities” section of the website. There, we see the MGF Standards of Participation. These requirements which include being a registered charity, being in good standing with the CRA, operating for more than one year, and having a donor privacy policy, are required to ensure that the MGF only runs campaigns with reputable charities.

There is a short questionnaire in order to receive approval by the MGF to submit a more comprehensive campaign application. After submitting the campaign application, we were emailed the application.

In addition to the organizational information, we also had a few choices to make:

  • Donation amount
  • Which short-code
  • Length of campaign
  • Use of widgets
  • Use of MGF built-in technology or an ASP

These will be explored below.

Donation Amount

We had the choice of $5, $10, or $25 per text. We decided to go with $10 as that is a small enough that most individuals would be willing to make that donation without much thought, but large enough that a short campaign would still be effective. You can run multiple campaigns with different dollar amounts.

For example, you could have donors text SPRITE 5 to donate $5 or SPRITE 10 to have them donate $10. This is achieved through the use of keywords and sub-keywords.

Choosing a Short-Code

We had the choice of 5 short-codes to choose from. We decided to go with 41010, each of the short-codes is a similar 5 digit number (e.g. 21212 or 101010). In a campaign like this, your short-code should be memorable and not easily confused with another organization, if there are others fundraising in the same geographical area.

Choosing a Campaign Length

The MGF allows you to choose a 3-month, 6-month, or 12-month campaign. The service fees (which includes a $350 application fee and then small additional monthly fees for each additional keyword/sub-keyword or widget you use) will be based on the length of your campaign. Many of the add-ons are free with a 12-month campaign which makes this very economical.

Using Widgets

Widgets are follow-ups that you may add to your campaign after the individual texts in to donate. For instance, you might text them back with a Thank You that directs them to a contact page, or to another page on your website. Another widget allows your donors to opt-in to receiving up to 3 follow-up messages.

For the Distress Centre Durham campaign we elected not to use any widgets, preferring to keep the campaign simple.

Using MGF Technology or an Application Service Provider (ASP)

An ASP or Application Service Provider is an organization that can help you manage your campaign. They provide additional tools that allow you to track or manage your campaign more easily, for a fee. Distress Centre Durham elected not to use any ASP when running our first campaign as we wanted to see what was possible with the MGF technology. It turns out their built-in features are more than enough for our needs.

Choosing Keywords and Sub Keywords

A Keyword is the word that an organization texts to donate to you. For example, someone could text SPRITE to 21212 to donate $5 to your fundraising campaign. You might decide that if they text PEPSI to 21212 that they will donate $10, and you could establish these as two separate keywords for your 12-month campaign.

A sub keyword is an additional word that is added onto your keyword in order for you to more granularly manage fundraising. For example, while Distress Centre Durham decided on “SUPPORT” as our keyword, we added the sub keyword DURHAM for fundraising we ran within the Region. Since we have other Online Text and Chat (ONTX) community partners participating, they each have their own sub keyword for their area.

Cost of Campaign

The cost of a mobile campaign is minimal. After your questionnaire is approved, the MGF sends you a price list. Most of the add-ons are free when running a 12-month campaign, with the largest fee simply being the $350 application fee. This makes mobile giving an ideal fundraising campaign for even a very small charity.

I would recommend for a 12 month campaign using one keyword, that you set aside $1,000 for the application fee, and other administrative costs (including getting information like audited financial statements or others available) and paying for advertising to promote your campaign.

Conclusion

Did I miss anything? Do you have any other questions? Please let me know. If you’d like to support Canada’s Online Text and Chat (ONTX) Program or Distress Centre Durham you may text SUPPORT DURHAM to 41010.

Cite this article as: MacDonald, D.K., (2017), "Mobile Giving for Your Crisis Line," retrieved on November 12, 2018 from http://dustinkmacdonald.com/mobile-giving-crisis-line/.
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Carver Model of Policy Governance

Introduction

Nonprofits and registered charities, like other incorporated entities, are required to have a Board of Directors to perform governance and oversight. Boards review the financial situation of the organization, write policies and perform risk management, among other duties.

There are a number of theories on the most effective form of Board Governance. Boards are generally separated into 3 types, with some overlap:

  • Working Board: This is a Board that participates heavily in the day-to-day operations of the organization. This might be the case at a very small or very new organization where a “Steering Committee” who helped build the organization moves into the role of the Board
  • Hybrid Board: This is a Board that performs some operational work (such as writing grants) but ideally spends the majority of their time performing governance and policy tasks
  • Policy (or Governance) Board: A Policy Board or a Governance Board is one that spends no time performing operational duties and strictly works on Governance and Policy

There are pros and cons to each approach, but most large organizations have Policy Boards to ensure that the operational tasks are appropriately handled by the paid staff, while the Board acts as the stewards of the organization. One model of policy governance (arguably the model that popularized policy governance) is nicknamed the Carver Model, after its creator John Carver.

The Policy Governance Model is a registered trademark of John Carver, all rights reserved.

John Carver

John Carver earned a Bachelor’s degree in Business and Economics, a Masters in Educational Psychology and a PhD in Clinical Psychology from Emory University in 1968. (Carver, 2006) He has published five books and 13 monographs and authored over 200 journal articles. (Policy Governance Model, 2016)

10 Principles of Policy Governance

The ten principles of policy governance are as follows (BoardWorks, 2005):

  1. The Trust in Trusteeship. This means the Board should be a steward or trustee of the organization – not just financially or for those who have a legal stake in the organization but all stakeholders, including clients or others to whom the Board has a moral responsibility to.
  2. The Board speaks with ‘one voice’ or not at all. A Board should never be fragmented. Reaching a collective decision ensures that the Board will be able to carry out their mission effectively and consistently. A single voice provides true leadership and avoids politics.
  3. Board Decisions should predominantly be policy decisions. Rather than intervening in operational or day-to-day decisions, the Board should restrict itself to making decisions in the form of written policies. The Carver Model actually sets out four types of policies (Carver & Carver, 2001) that the Board should concern themselves with :
    1. Governance Process. These policies set out the actions of the Board like its responsibility to perform visioning and accountability
    2. Board-Staff Linkage. These policies govern the relationship between the Board and the Executive. Examples of these policies include how the staff are monitored by the Board and who is responsible for making what decisions (operational vs governance.)
    3. Executive Limitations. These policies set out what the executive (e.g. the Executive Director or CEO) cannot do. For instance, in some organizations the disposal of real estate may only be with the consent of the Board – this could be codified in an Executive Limitations policy
    4. Ends Policies. Ends Policies set out the goal of the organization – the reason for its existence. This may be codified in a mission or visions statement in addition to an Ends policy.
  4. Boards should formulate policy by determining the broadest values before progressing to the more narrow ones. This means that policies should be developed from the broad (such as a policy statement that sets out the need for evaluation) down to the narrow (the policy surrounding the use of Key Performance Indicators.) The result is that policy flows logically from very large to very small.
  5. A board should define and delegate rather than react and ratify. This principle means that the Board should create policies that delegate tasks to the CEO and then respect the delegation. If situations are covered in existing policies, when something new comes up those policies will kick into effect, rather than the Board writing new policies.
  6. Ends determination is the pivotal duty of governance. The Board should always keep in mind the outcomes of the organization. Their goal should be to monitor outcomes and delegate the achievement of those outcomes to the CEO or Executive Director. The Board should remain strategic.
  7. The board’s best control over staff means is to limit, not prescribe. This means that the Board should indicate (as in principle 3, Executive Limitations) what an Executive is not permitted to do. They should not be telling the Executive what they should do. This subtle difference gives the Executive Director the freedom to achieve the goals set out by the Board.
  8. A board must explicitly design its own products and services. This means the Board should write their own policies rather than merely adopting policy templates that may not be relevant for their specific needs.
  9. A board must forge a linkage with management that is both empowering and safe. The CEO must feel that the Board will honour its commitment to policy governance while the Board has trust in the CEO or Executive’s ability to manage. If this trust breaks down, leadership will falter.
  10. Performance of the CEO must monitored rigorously, but only against policy criteria. Objective measurement criteria for the Executive is important – but this must be measured in relation to the Ends policies.

Advantages and Disadvantages of Policy Governance

Broadbent (1999) in his landmark report, Building on Strength: Improving Governance and Accountability in Canada’s Voluntary Sector (also called the Broadbent Report) reviewed the Carver Model among other elements and identified a number of advantages and disadvantages.

Strengths of the Carver Model include emphasizing the role of the Board as trustees of the organization and highlighting the importance of moral ownership, not just legal ownership. Additionally, the focus on policies and a rejection of operational decision-making avoids micromanagement of the Executive and prevents rubber-stamping of policies or decisions.

Finally, the focus on the “Ends” – the visioning and the measurement of the Executive against those outcomes rather than the methods to achieve them, produces a future-focused Board.

Disadvantages of the Carver Model include a lack of focus on operational priorities. Although the goal of the Board is to help set the strategic priorities, a Carver Board is not involved in the implementation of those policies which can lead to them becoming corrupted.

Additionally, some activities that are performed by working or hybrid boards like fundraising are not performed by a true Carver Board. This means that it may be unsuitable for some small organizations where the Board holds the responsibility for major fundraising in the organization.

Finally, because many decisions are made by the CEO rather than the Board this can lead to weakened information flow and a lack of transparency as decision are made by the CEO out of view of the Board. (Coyne, n.d.)

Conclusion

The Carver Model represents one way of governance that has become increasingly popular in Canada and the US. Implementing the Carver Model may allow you to make a more effective Board despite the potential drawbacks and criticisms that have been levied at the model.

References

BoardWorks. (2005) “Why is it that the Carver Policy Governance Principles can seem so hard to Honour?” Retrieved on June 30, 2017 from http://www.hospice.org.nz/cms_show_download.php?id=317

Carver, J. & Carver, M. (2001) Le modèle Policy Governance et les organismes sans but lucratif [The Policy Governance Model and non-profit organizations]. Gouvernance. 2(1). 30-48. Retrieved on July 2, 2017 from http://www.policygovernance.com/pg-np.htm

Carver, J. (2006). Boards that make a difference: A new design for leadership in nonprofit and public organizations. San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.

Coyne, T. (n.d.) The Many Failings of the Carver Governance Model. Retrieved on July 2, 2017 from http://www.k12accountability.org/resources/Accountability-Committees/Carver_Governance_Model_Failings.pdf

Policy Governance Model. (2016). “The Policy Governance(R) Model – Publications”. Retrieved on July 2, 2017 from http://www.policygovernance.com/pubs.htm

Cite this article as: MacDonald, D.K., (2017), "Carver Model of Policy Governance," retrieved on November 12, 2018 from http://dustinkmacdonald.com/carver-model-policy-governance/.
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Ultimate Guide to Starting a Crisis Line

Introduction

Following up on my previous post Starting a Crisis Line or Hotline, I had some reader commentary asking about some more specific nuts and bolts for someone who is passionate and interested in starting a crisis line, hotline or helpline but doesn’t really know where to begin. Obviously, while it is best to bring in experienced individuals sometimes they simply aren’t available. For the purpose of this guide, I will describe the steps to create a fictional crisis line, the Southeast Iowa Crisis Center (SEICC), or “Seek.”

Throughout this article, I use “crisis line”, “helpline” and other terms interchangeably, except in the section “Deciding on Type of Service Provided” where I distinguish between the two.

Staffing a Steering Committee

The first step will be to decide on and form a Steering Committee. This will be a group of individuals who will be responsible for helping to bring your vision of a crisis line to life. Too few people and you may feel overwhelmed. Too many and you risk decision paralysis – not being able to make decisions because of too many disagreements. Perhaps 4-6 people is the optimal size for a Steering Committee.

If (or when) you form a nonprofit, you’ll need a Board of Directors. The members of your Steering Committee often make a suitable Board. Their tasks will include all of the items discussed below.

Choosing a Population and Coverage Area

You likely know this information before you begin, but it’s important to clearly define your population and coverage (or catchment) area as you work on your crisis line. You might choose to create your crisis line based on a specific age range (such as the Kids Help Phone for those 0-25), subject area (like the Rape, Abuse and Incest National Network [RAINN]), geographic region (like Tennessee Statewide Mental Health Crisis Line) or job status such as the Veterans Crisis Line.

Some funders will only fund certain populations or programs but it’s important that you not get into the business of chasing funding by going against your mission – this could lead to you losing your nonprofit status or losing trust among your supporters.

Identifying Mission and Vision

The next step to starting a nonprofit or a new product is to define what you wish to create. An organization’s mission statement is short and punchy, describing what they do. This can be a tagline or slogan, but doesn’t have to be. Distress Centre Durham‘s mission statement is “Helping people in distress to cope.”

Vision is more long-term and describes an outcome. An example vision statement for Habitat for Humanity is “A world where everyone has a decent place to live.” You don’t necessarily have to publicize your visioning statement but your mission and vision will determine whether activities that you pursue are within your organization’s purview.

SEICC’s mission will be “Keeping Iowans safe with 24/7 emotional support”, while the vision will be “Nobody suffers alone.”

Parkinson’s Law of Triviality

There is a concept in management called Parkinson’s Law of Triviality. Essentially it states that organizations spend disproportionate amounts of time on easy-to-grasp issues while neglecting more important but more difficult ones. This is an important trap to avoid when considering things like your organization’s logo, or other elements that are pretty minor in the grand scheme of things.

Picking a Staffing Model

At this stage, you have identified a group of individuals that are going to help you build your crisis line. You’ve also decided on a mission and a vision. You need to decide whether you will use a model of volunteers supported by paid staff, a blended model, or all paid staff. There are pros and cons to each approach.

Volunteers, Staff Supported

Advantages of the volunteers-supported-by-staff model include it is easy to start and individuals can self-select as one or the other (either applying for a staff position in administration or a volunteer position providing direct service.) One downside to this model is that initially your administrative staff will probably have to cover shifts on the helpline until you all get experienced, and that it can be hard to ensure 100% coverage if your service gets popular.

Blended Model

A blended model involves a mix of paid staff and volunteers. This is a more common model in the United States than in Canada, which tends to use purely volunteers. The advantages are that you can attract a more credentialed staff who might hold multiple roles (e.g. a helpline manager might be responsible for 20 hours of helpline work and 20 hours of administration.)

The downsides are that this can make your volunteers uncomfortable, and increase the expenses you need to get your crisis line off the ground.

All Paid Staff

Using all paid staff is an emerging crisis line model. Some helplines like the Veteran’s Crisis Line have used this model for many years. With this model, you can ensure 100% coverage (because your staff are paid to be in the chair), but this will be very expensive. Although research shows that paying crisis line workers does not diminish their importance, it may make it harder for your callers to trust that they’re really interested in listening.

This can also increase the rate of burnout because paid workers are providing many more hours of support each week or month versus a volunteer.

Deciding on Type of Support Provided

It’s important to decide if you’re going to be a distress line, a crisis line, or both. Some organizations will break their services into two distinct phone numbers and lines, with specific caller concerns, while many others (like Distress Centre Durham) will provide all forms of support.

Despite the use of the name “distress line” or “crisis line”, an organization may take all types of calls. You’ll need to read the explanation of the service provided before making a decision about whether or not an agency really does limit or parcel out their support.

Distress Line

A distress line focuses on individuals who are struggling and need to talk to someone but who can still cope. Someone in distress can still think about potential solutions to their problem, is not struggling with high-risk suicide thoughts, and does not need safety planning.

Crisis Line

A crisis line provides support to individuals who are struggling with high-risk suicide, crisis situations (where they can’t think of what to do), or who are otherwise unsafe. Many crisis lines have access to mobile crisis units, may call ambulances to take callers to hospitals or otherwise access more intensive support.

Hours of Operation

Deciding on the hours of operations for a crisis line is an important element. Many crisis lines started as 4-hours a day, 7 days a week operations before moving to 12 or 24 hours. Other organizations started immediately with 24 hours.

Staffing Volume

You’ll need to calculate the amount of staff you need for your crisis line (whether paid or unpaid) once you’ve decided on your hours of operation. One way to do this is the Erlang C formulas that are used to staff call centres (which you can fill with dummy data based on crisis lines in other regions.)

If you’re paying your staff, this will be easier. It might be easier to start small and then build up as your service gets more well known and well supported.

Choosing a Location

Choosing a location for a new crisis line (or any nonprofit really) will depend most commonly on your finances. Many organizations get cheap or free space in an organization like a church starting off, before moving to an office. If you’re really tight on space you might even be able to set up in a large office in someone’s home.

The keys to choosing a location will include availability, security, convenience, and price. While price is obvious, I’ll speak about the others.

One advantage of a stand-alone building is you have 24/7 access to it. If you’re in another type of location you may find it difficult or impossible to access after-hours, which can complicate things. Security is also a factor, in that if you’re not advertising your crisis line location it shouldn’t be obvious where you’re located. While a far-away location might seem to be ideal for security, it complicates accessibility (distance travelled) for your volunteers and limits convenience.

Forming a Nonprofit (or not)

Choosing whether to incorporate is a challenging decision to make. Incorporation provides you with benefits like protection of your assets, tax exempt status (once you’re registered as a charity) and the ability to pursue formal funding. The downsides are that it takes work to form and maintain the nonprofit status.

Finding Sources of Funding

Initial sources of funding may come from your Steering Committee but eventually you’ll need to explore outside sources. When your crisis line has operated for 1-2 years you’ll likely be eligible to apply for formal funding grants such as those at the local, state and federal levels.

Other sources include corporate sponsorship, fundraising events and direct donations.

Developing Policies and Procedures

Policies and procedures are important for ensuring that your volunteers respond in a consistent way. Examples of policies and procedures that you may wish to develop:

  • Call Trace and Intervention
  • Callers as Volunteers
  • Confidentiality
  • Recruitment (Criminal Record Check)
  • Victims of Abuse (Reporting Child Abuse)

Call Trace and Intervention

A Call Trace and Intervention policy will describe under what circumstances you will initiate call trace (to try and find an individual’s address or other identifying information) and under what circumstances you will call police/911 for Active Rescue. Some crisis lines will never initiate Active Rescue, for instance the UK Samaritans, unless the caller requests it. Many crisis lines will always err on the side of caution.

Call Trace will depend on the technology available to your crisis line but may include use of 411 (for non-blocked numbers) or contacting 911 directly to pass available information to them.

Helplines will often describe their intervention policy on the lines as something to the effect of, “We only intervene in cases of imminent homicide, suicide, or disclose of child abuse.”

Callers as Volunteers

Callers to your helpline will usually result in the creation of a call report or other record of that conversation. If you recruit volunteers from the same area that you take calls from, it’s possible that someone who has previously called your line may become a volunteer – and therefore be able to read their call report.

For that reason, you may require that volunteers to your helpline must have not used your service in the amount of time that records are retained. For instance, at Distress Centre Durham call reports are retained for one year so volunteers must not have used the service in that time in order to be eligible.

Confidentiality

Confidentiality is at the core of emotional support. Creating a safe environment is key to helping callers discuss their issues openly. Confidentiality means that volunteers who disclose information about callers outside of the crisis line or make contact with them outside of the line can be dismissed.

Examples of violations of confidentiality:

  • Talking about callers to your friends or family
  • Posting information about callers on social media
  • Giving information from the crisis line to another agency without that caller’s permission

It’s important to establish a very high degree of confidentiality or else callers will quickly lose trust in the helpline.

Data Destruction

A data destruction policy includes information on when and how you’ll destroy data that you’ve collected, such as via call reports or caller profiles. The most important element is to include a timeline for how frequently you’ll destroy data – such as on a quarterly basis for data that is more than 12 months old.

Recruitment (Criminal Record Check)

A Criminal Record Check (CRC), known by other names like a Police Record Check (PRC) or a Disclosure and Barring Service (DBS) Check describes a person’s record of criminal offenses. Many jursidictions include an option specifically for crimes against vulnerable individuals like children or seniors.

Many crisis lines will limit their volunteers only to those who have no criminal record, while some will allow – with approval – individuals who have certain types of non-violent offenses from many years ago.

Victims of Abuse

Nonprofit organizations are often legally required to report abuse, like child abuse or elder abuse. A policy explaining this will help callers better understand when they disclose child abuse, what the volunteer will do. In many crisis lines this means calling Child Protective Services (CPS) or a similar agency (like Children’s Aid Society in Ontario.)

You may also wish to include a statement about how your helpline takes a non-judgemental stance on abuse – not encouraging individuals to leave unless they’re ready to leave on their own.

Volunteers in Counselling or Therapy

Helpline work can be demanding and burnout can be a challenge. For this reason, it’s important to know when your volunteers are undergoing counselling or therapy. One way in which to do this is to have volunteers self-identify if they are receiving counselling or therapy and then giving them a letter to give to their therapist. That clinician will simply sign asserting that the work will not be harmful, and that can be filed away.

Volunteer Recruitment

Recruiting volunteers will depend on your local community. In some communities, United Way may operate a volunteer board online that you can submit your crisis line to. Universities or colleges may allow you to post flyers or distribute information to the students.

A good training class will be between 5 and 20 individuals, but recruiting throughout the year will be important for ensuring consistent service delivery.

Volunteer Screening

Screening involves determining if individuals possess the appropriate attitudes to be successful in helpline training. The American Association of Suicidology Crisis Center Certification identifies these attitudinal outcomes that individuals should experience by the conclusion of training:

  • Acceptance of persons different from oneself, and a non-judgmental response toward sensitive issues (e.g. not discussing suicidal ideation or abortion with a client in terms of its moral rightness or wrongness)
  • Balanced and realistic attitude toward self in the helper role (e.g. not expecting to “save” all potential suicides by one’s own single effort, or to solve all the problems of the distressed person)
  • A realistic and humane approach to death, dying, self-destructive behavior and other human issues
  • Coming to terms with one’s own feelings about death and dying insofar as these feelings might deter one from helping others.

Volunteer screening may include an application form that asks questions about the caller like:

  • Are there situations or topics (such as abuse or abortion) that may place you in a moral or ethical dillema?
  • What are your beliefs on suicide?
  • How do you feel you would talk to someone who is different from yourself?

The screening process does not have to rule out anyone yet, but may be helpful for prepping you on the interview.

Volunteer Interviewing

See also: Interviewing on a Suicide Hotline

The process of the volunteer interview will be to collect more information on the potential volunteer to make sure there is compatibility with your service. For instance, some individuals may only want to work with children or may not want to work with suicide – and your desires for your line may not align with that.

The interview is also an opportunity to see how someone is on the phone, and to help answer more of their questions about what the process looks like.

Volunteer Training

See also: Crisis Hotline Training Curriculum

Volunteer training is the process of teaching a volunteer the core skills that they need to be prepared for the helpline. Rather than reproducing material I’ve written about elsewhere, see the link above. From there you can find posts across my blog that will be useful for building a training program.

Training should run approximately 40 hours, with at least 24 hours of classroom training and 16 hours of supervised “on the phone” training being mentored by a shift supervisor or experienced volunteer before the newly trained volunteer is able to take shifts on their own.

You may find it helpful to bring on a therapist or counsellor to help you develop your initial helpline curriculum, or use a crisis line trainer from an area near you that doesn’t overlap with your catchment area.

Identifying Caller Issues

Caller Issues are the specific issues prevalent in your community that may lead you to develop training modules on them to prepare your volunteers. One example is in college towns where concerns over sexual assault or alcohol and drug abuse may be more prevalent.

The easiest way to do this is with effective helpline management software (see the next section.) With a detailed call report you will be able to pull statistics on exactly what your callers are discussing and this will help you fine-tune your training. Generally, the core elements of emotional support and crisis intervention will be exactly the same.

Helpline Management Software

In order to run a helpline you’ll need some form of helpline management software. I recommend iCarol, which my crisis line has used for several years. iCarol provides all the features you’d expect online helpline software to provide:

  • Shift Calendar so volunteers can sign up for shifts
  • Call Reports so volunteers can record details about their conversations
  • Chatboard for facilitating communication between staff and volunteers
  • Events Calendar
  • News

And a variety of other features, all designed with confidential helplines in mind.

Outcomes Measurement and Evaluation

See also: Methods of Evaluating Helplines and Hotlines

Outcomes Measurement and Evaluation describes the things that you will need to do in order to prove that your helpline is effective. One way in which to do this starts with your Basic Training program. Have your volunteers complete a pre and post training survey that includes questions about the perceived value of the training, their ability to display empathy and their understanding of crisis and suicide risk assessment. You’ll see their scores increase, demonstrating the knowledge transfer.

Another way to evaluate a Basic Training program is with a tool like the Suicide Intervention Response Inventory, which has volunteers rate how effective a series of statements are in providing emotional support. Their scores will change throughout training, indicating their increased skill.

On the phone calls themselves, your call reports can include space for Outcomes Measurement. This can include things like, “Callers says they feel better”, “Decreased distress and anxiety”, “Reduced isolation and loneliness.” These outcomes can be used to show what changes your callers experience throughout the call.

Joining Professional Associations

Finally you may wish to join professional associations like the Association of Crisis Workers or Crisis Lines in your area, or other professional groups that provide support to nonprofits. This will help you network, fundraise and attract volunteers to your organization.

Conclusion

As you can see, a lot goes into developing a crisis line – but it is not unmanageable. If you’ve decided to launch a crisis line, let me know in the comments! And please continue to ask questions if you’d like.

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