Winter 1991 // Volume 29 // Number 4 // Feature Articles // 4FEA4

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Telephone Hotline Programming

Because of its knowledge of existing resources around the state and because of the trust Rural Concern Hotline has been built up, this telephone service stands ready to help in rural emergencies. In the Summer 1988 drought, the hotline linked people who needed hay with those who could provide it...During Operation Desert Storm, the hotline answered calls from family members of military requesting information about local support groups. And so, while the hotline continues to handle calls from farm families in severe financial difficulties, the purpose and future direction have expanded to include new services.

Virginia K. Molgaard
Assistant Professor and Family Life Specialist
Cooperative Extension, Iowa State University-Ames

Fran Phillips
Former Director
Rural Concern Hotline
Des Moines, Iowa

As Extension addresses emerging state and national issues, we're called on to identify innovative methods for reaching both traditional and new clientele. A telephone hotline offers several advantages over more tried-and-true ways of providing education and support for individuals, families, and businesses.

When a significant problem or concern arises, often there isn't time to follow the usual channels of preparing publications and program materials, providing inservice training for staff, and gearing up the whole system for response. What's needed is rapid, up-to-the-minute, accurate information and support. When a drought hits and a farmer runs out of water or when news breaks about a potentially dangerous food safety issue, Extension clientele need information immediately. Specialists have a quick and effective channel for providing research-based facts to hotline operators who've been trained to relay information appropriately and make referrals when necessary. Especially in rural areas with fewer sources of information and support, a statewide hotline can be one answer for addressing problems.

Advantages of a Hotline

A telephone hotline can help clients probe deeply into a complex problem to move toward a decision. Hotline operators trained in process and facilitation skills can encourage clients to look beneath the surface of problems, sort out priorities, and deal with feelings. In addition, potential clients may find it easier to seek and accept information and support from a hotline than through our traditional delivery methods. A hotline is an excellent way to offer not only indepth, but anonymous, support. A person who wouldn't attend a meeting or visit an Extension office might more easily and confidentially make contact and receive help from a telephone hotline.

Also, a hotline can capitalize on Extension's skill and experience in effective networking with other agencies-acting as a clearinghouse for services offered by a variety of state and local groups. Particularly in rural areas where clients may be less aware of available services, a call to the hotline can put the individuals in touch with the nearest support system.

Extension staff, as well as clientele, can use the hotline as an immediate source of knowledge and help. County staff can receive information to pass on locally and, in turn, the hotline can refer individuals who haven't been involved with Extension to the services of the county office. Specialists can also benefit. Summaries of the content of calls over a period of weeks or months can help specialists put a "finger on the pulse" of problems facing clientele.

A hotline, therefore, can be an effective method for Extension to use either in ongoing programming or to meet special needs in identified priority issues. The hotline described in this article was initially developed to address concerns of individuals and rural communities during the recent farm crisis. In the past two years, its mission has broadened to address other concerns.

A Hotline Example

In late 1984, both public and private groups recognized that farm families needed immediate help in coping with their rapidly escalating problems. Even though many families needed financial counseling, legal advice, and emotional support, few people knew where to go. After consulting with leaders of state and local organizations, the governor of Iowa issued an executive order calling for a statewide telephone hotline for farm families. Iowa State University Cooperative Extension was enlisted to form the Rural Concern Hotline. Initial funding came from donations given by state and local farm organizations and commodity groups. In addition, state government provided money as a line item in its budget.

Interdisciplinary Approach

An interdisciplinary perspective was used from the beginning of the hotline. Early in the farm crisis, county Extension agents had become aware that concerns over farm finances typically involved emotional reactions of the whole family. Until family stress was acknowledged and dealt with, farmers often were unable to listen or accept help. Therefore, hotline operators were trained to respond to a wide variety of needs in callers, including conflict between family members and emotional stress. Operators reported they were able to listen "between the lines" and offer referrals for family concerns and personal issues.

Implementation of the Hotline

Work was started immediately on the development of a statewide directory. County Extension staff were asked to compile lists of resources, description of services, telephone numbers, and names of contact people. This was expanded through contacts with state agencies. In addition, surveys were sent to ministerial associations throughout the state and a telephone survey was conducted with all the community and private colleges to add to the list of services and resources.1

The hotline staff was chosen for their knowledge and understanding of farming and the rural crisis. The majority of Rural Concern Hotline operators had been farmers themselves. Twelve part-time paraprofessionals were hired as telephone operators. An attorney, program coordinator, and secretary completed the staff.

Training of the hotline operators began with a two-week series of classes on the economic and legal situation of the farm crisis, typical reactions of individuals and families, process skills in listening, and responding to callers. A community telephone counseling service provided specific training in appropriate listening and helping skills for phone counseling. The telephone operators practiced addressing human concerns with role plays and learned appropriate responses in ongoing training sessions. During the first 18 months of the hotline, telephone operators received additional on-site training weekly, both informally as well as in classes. Continuing group processing of difficult calls, especially those in which callers exhibited severe stress, helped the operators gain confidence and skills.

The list of agencies and groups involved in training included Legal Aid, Job Service of Iowa, Iowa Department of Substance Abuse, the Family Violence Center, and Iowa Farmer Creditor Mediation Service. Representatives of more than 40 groups and organizations have taken part in the training of operators. Extension specialists in agriculture, community resource development, and human development played an important role in the training, as well as providing ongoing consultation for the hotline.

The initial marketing plan was successful largely because of the interest, support, and activity of top officials from state government, agribusiness, and both local and state farm organizations. Word about the hotline was spread initially through personal contacts of these officials and business leaders, as well as through the media service at Iowa State University Extension. Brochures and business cards were distributed by local Extension staff at banks, cooperatives, mental health clinics, churches, and Department of Human Services offices. Table tents, made from heavy paper folded to form small "pup" tents, had information about the hotline, and were distributed at restaurants and counters of local businesses. Bumper stickers with the hotline number were another way of spreading the word. The Extension news service also sent out newspaper articles and radio spots for staff to use in local communities.

Nature of Calls

From the beginning of the hotline's operation in February 1985, operators have recorded confidential information about each call including the nature of the call, the credit problem, the farmer's current financial position, the help needed, and the referral made. This documentation has been invaluable in getting funding for the hotline, as well as providing information on the needs of farm families.

Since Rural Concern Hotline began receiving calls, nearly 47,000 call-ins have been recorded. About 60% of the callers are male and 40% female. A content analysis of the calls from log books is shown in Table 1. The majority of the calls have been requests for help and information about financial issues, although that percentage has continued to decline since 1987. These calls range from questions on options for refinancing the farming operation to how to secure complete financial help and ways of improving farm income. A major shift has taken place in the number and percentage of callers asking for legal advice. By 1987, 75% were asking for legal help, including how to select a competent lawyer, borrower rights, and implications for liability. In response, the Rural Concern's attorney was moved from part-time to full-time.

Callers have typically voiced more than one concern. This explains why the figures in each column of Table 1 add up to more than 100%. Over the seven-year period of hotline operation, there has been an increase in the percentage of calls in which individuals exhibit emotional problems and ask for help in dealing with emotional issues for themselves or family members. These calls about family issues include intergenerational conflict, marital problems, spouse abuse, and lack of communication between family members.

Operators used the following description to identify emotional stress calls: (1) mild stress, in which the person's story contains many stress factors, but he or she appears to be coping well; (2) moderate stress, in which there are many stress factors, but less ability to cope; and (3) severe stress, in which callers are crying or verbalizing extreme anger, violence, or suicide.2 The numbers exhibiting moderate to high levels of stress has remained high (see Table 1).

Table 1. Types of call by year and percentage.
1985 1986 1987 1988 1989 1990
Total calls 8,456 12,932 7,475 5,730 4,168 3,711
Nature of calls
Financial 83% 89% 87% 65% 62% 53%
Legal 49 74 75 51 47 46
Family 6 13 19 20 21 20
Basic human need 8 6 8 5 5 8
Education/employment 6 7 9 8 9 8
Emotional stress-mild 6 14 15 11 4 6
Emotional stress-moderate 11 14 28 33 38 29
Emotional stress-severe 3 5 6 6 6 5

New Directions for the Hotline

The improved state of the economy and the lower number of crisis calls has led to new directions in the purpose, funding, and type of referrals of the hotline. After the first year, in which money for the hotline came primarily from donations of farm organizations and the agricultural service industry, funding for the next four years was provided both by the state legislature and Extension. Presently, the hotline is funded entirely by Extension because it's seen as an ongoing means of service delivery. Still a 24-hour service, Extension cooperates with the Red Cross, which takes calls in the evening hours. Questions of callers reflect a basic shift in how farmers are viewing present possibilities in agriculture. A greater stability in agriculture and the need for diversification have led to questions about new enterprises, ways of reducing chemical inputs, and the best use of existing resources. Calls within the last year reflect the need to lessen cost of production and become more efficient.

Operators continue to refer callers to local resources, especially county Extension offices. This type of information and referral service supports county and area Extension efforts. Rather than taking the place of the local agent, the hotline puts farmers who may not have used Extension in touch with the county office for information and help. A new emphasis of the hotline is reflected in Telelink, a service by which farmers call to get information on local upcoming programs and clinics. In addition to referrals to the local Extension Service, a comprehensive directory is continually updated to include other agencies, support groups, and job training programs.


Because of its knowledge of existing resources around the state and because of the trust Rural Concern Hotline has been built up, this telephone service stands ready to help in rural emergencies. In the Summer 1988 drought, the hotline linked people who needed hay with those who could provide it, as well as those who could transport the hay. In addition, the hotline staff was able to suggest possible resources for farmers experiencing a water shortage. During Operation Desert Storm, the hotline answered calls from family members of military requesting information about local support groups. And so, while the hotline continues to handle calls from farm families in severe financial difficulties, the purpose and future direction have expanded to include new services.


1. Fran Phillips, Crisis Intervention Plan and Evaluation Framework (Paper prepared for Stress and Family Crisis Intervention, Family Environment Department, Iowa State University, Ames, 1987).

2. Paul Lasley and Fran Phillips, Responding to the Social Problems Created by the Farm Crisis (Paper presented at the 1987 Midwest Sociological Society Meetings, Chicago, Illinois, 1988).