The following is a conversation between Dena Trujillo, CEO of Crisis Text Line, and Denver Frederick, the Host of The Business of Giving.

Denver: Crisis Text Line provides free 24/7, high-quality, text-based mental health support by empowering a community of trained volunteers. Recently, they released a comprehensive study analyzing some of the 9 million text conversations spanning the last decade, revealing powerful insights into youth mental health trends, the effectiveness of their services across demographics, and the positive impact on both texters and volunteers.

Here to discuss these findings and Crisis Text Line’s innovative model is Dena Trujillo, their CEO. Welcome back to The Business of Giving, Dena.

Dena Trujillo, CEO of Crisis Text Line

Dena: Thank you, Denver. It’s great to be here.

“…people come to us in their moments of pain, and that’s everything from anxiety, to eating disorders, to bullying, to suicidal ideation or even homicide.

And when they come to us, our job is to help meet them with a caring volunteer.

Denver: The Decade of Impact report– What lessons and critical insights has the organization drawn from this extensive experience in crisis intervention over the past 10 years?

Dena: Yeah. Well, you know, having this 10-year anniversary was such a great opportunity to dive in and ask ourselves this question, and we’ve really found that we’re having impact at three levels. One is crisis intervention, two is connection and belonging, which is really about our volunteers, and three is really about behavioral health or public health systems.

And so, the first is: every year, we put out the United in Empathy Report, and we talk about what we see in the conversations that we have. And so, this is that people come to us in their moments of pain, and that’s everything from anxiety, to eating disorders, to bullying, to suicidal ideation or even homicide.

And when they come to us, our job is to help meet them with a caring volunteer. And so, what we’ve really found is that the impact that we’re having in those 9 million conversations is that one, we are giving those texters resources and tools for their wellbeing to help make them stronger, find strength in themselves and their communities. And we’re deescalating one person every 30 minutes.

Denver: Wow.

Dena: So, about 20% of who comes to us comes to us with imminent risk of self-harm or harming someone else. And we’re very good at deescalating them. And so, think about that impact over 10 years– 9 million conversations, one person every 30 minutes is being deescalated.

That is thousands of families a year that are not having to deal with a significant and avoidable tragedy… that still have their loved ones with them. And it’s hundreds of thousands of people a year that have resources for their own wellbeing. So, that’s issue number one, crisis intervention.

The second area of impact, which I have to say is my favorite… and we didn’t actually know this before this report. We decided to research volunteers and say, “Hey, what impact are we having?” Because at that point, we had trained over 65,000 volunteers and had 15,000 volunteers a year.

And what we found with our volunteers, they had been telling us for years, the skills helped them be better parents, helped to deescalate strangers in grocery stores or off bridges. Those were real stories, but we didn’t know how significant it was.

And this research we did helped us to see that two-thirds of our volunteers have improved their own mental health and wellbeing as a result of the training and volunteering with us. And 90% say that they bring skills like deescalation, active listening, empathy back to their families, their workplaces, and their communities.

So, now we know that we’re having at least twice as much impact outside of our direct texting service, where volunteers are going back and really helping to strengthen our communities. And the third area of impact is really about that system change for behavioral health, mental health. And one, we realize that we really helped set a standard.

So, before Crisis Text Line, text was not seen as a viable way of supporting each other. We have the years of experience, the external third party research, our own research that now shows how effective it is for everybody, but especially for young people.

So, now, text is becoming a norm, and that’s awesome. We showed that fast response times were possible. We’ve showed that data can be used for real-time insights. So, we’ve helped to move the field forward, which is really exciting.

Denver: That is a great framing of the conversation, and I’m going to dig into each one of those a little bit more.

But, first, I want to ask you, when you’ve come to this realization and appreciation of what you’re doing beyond the person texting, how does it impact the organization? And you as a CEO, how do you think about it in terms of letting people out there know the fullness of who you are while still keeping it pretty simple?

Dena: Yeah. So, at the end of the day, we’re still primarily a crisis service. Text HELP, text HELLO to 741741. And we partner with organizations everywhere, which I know we can talk more about that as well, to help make sure that people know they can get the help that they need.

But, as a strategy, finding out that the impact that we’re having with our volunteers is so significant means that we’ve really doubled down on our volunteer programs. So, we now have launched a whole new volunteer community so that we can better support our volunteers.

And, we’re doing more advertising. But really, we’re shifting to really center everything we do around our volunteers because they are truly the magic and the impact because the reality is the entire world does not have enough mental health workers.

Denver: Yeah.

Dena: And we cannot build them fast enough. We’re not going to be able to build them fast enough to meet the need of the mental health crisis that we’re in and the loneliness crisis that we’re in, and volunteering is a solution.

Volunteering, especially with us, is a solution both for workforce development because you’re putting skills into the community and preventing people from needing to call a crisis line in the first place. But also, about 40% of our volunteers are turning to mental health or support systems as a career.

So, we’re both helping the field, and we’re helping to prevent mental health or wellbeing challenges in the first place.

Denver: Nice having 65,000 ambassadors out there, and these are ambassadors who really are engaged, as opposed to just an ambassador. Let’s talk a little bit about the texters. What can you tell us, Dena, about the demographics of those who are reaching out to Crisis Text Line?

Dena: Yep. So, our texters, they’re any age, but they are primarily young. So, about 70% of our texters are under the age of 24, and 14% are under the age of 14. But we have texters up to any age that can use a phone text in to us.

From a demographic standpoint, we really do align with the census quite frankly from a racial and ethnic standpoint. From a gender standpoint, we really skew towards female. We don’t totally understand why, but about 70% of our texters identify as female, and about 50% identify as LGBTQ.

Denver: Have the conversations surrounding mental health evolved over the past 10 years, and what has been the impact of the pandemic and political unrest and things of that nature? What have you seen?

Dena: Yeah. Well, I mean, I think absolutely when Crisis Text Line was first created, we had to convince people that there was a problem, that we actually needed a crisis line. And I call it a crisis line because most other lines at the time were really focused on singular issues.

So, eating disorders, or suicide. What we really realized is that when people are in a moment of despair or need, they’re not necessarily going to be able to separate out what their issue is. Is it my sexual identity? Is it suicidal ideation? Is it eating disorder? Let’s go to one place and just have somebody listen to me.

Because there’s so many competing issues that can put somebody in that moment of distress. And so, that’s actually now, more and more people are seeing that, but 10 years ago, we had to talk about why crisis was important and convince people.

And now, unfortunately, the unfortunate reality of COVID is it has made everybody realize that mental health is a problem and that it is an epidemic. It was before, but people didn’t want to talk about it, and people didn’t want to see it.

And now, everybody either sees it in themselves or their loved ones or their folks at work. And so, they can’t really deny it. And so, it’s wonderful that there’s more funding and effort and collaboration, and discussion of the issues.

Denver: Yeah. And I love what you say about what causes it and their distress because we really can’t silo it in our brain. You know, it’s not like this is the category and this is why I’m upset. It’s a mishmash, you know, of a lot of different things. It’s not the way we live our lives. There are just a lot, a lot of things at play, and it is really complicated.

Dena: No, I was just going to add to that. There’s a lot of co-occurrence to that point. And when we think about our texters, you know, we just released our annual United in Empathy Report. And every year, we report out: What issues are texters experiencing?

And the top three issues really are always depression, anxiety, and relationships writ large. And, this year, what we’re really, really seeing is that there’s a lot more anxiety. The anxiety is the top issue and that we’re really seeing an increase in self-harm and bullying since COVID.

Denver: Yeah. Yeah. Wow. We were talking about 9 million conversations in this study, but I’d be curious, what percentage of the world’s population has access to these vital services that you offer, and what are your objectives in this regard?

Dena: Yeah. So, when we talk about these services, I’m really talking about all three because I personally… and we at Crisis Text Line are not interested in being a revolving door of a mental health emergency room… that we want to be part of the solution.

And so, we really do see that all three levels of service are needed. You have to have the broad-based crisis intervention. Text has to be a part of it. That’s one. You’ve got to have volunteers or non-clinically trained people at scale within your community learning these skills because it helps support texters, and then it helps to spread these skills into communities for increased resilience.

And then, you’ve got to have research– deep, deep research, that can help to adjust systems. And so, those three things are present really in four countries– the US, and then we partner with three other countries: Kids Help Phone in Canada, SHOUT in the UK, and SPUNOUT in Ireland. And so, the population, about 5% of the globe has access to these resources. And our goal is to get to 25%.

Denver: Oh wow.

Dena: So, in the next five years.

Denver: Okay. That’s going to take some partnerships.

Dena: Yes, it is.

…we just want everybody to have the help they need when they need it. Period. Full stop. We are going to continue to do whatever we can to make it accessible

Denver: Tell us a bit about what you’re thinking about in that regard.

Dena: I mean, I don’t think you can do any of this work without partnerships. And I will say, people will sometimes ask me, “Well, you know, are you worried about people copying you?” And we say, “Look, we just want everybody to have the help they need when they need it. Period. Full stop.” We are going to continue to do whatever we can to make it accessible. And that’s this 25%.

Partnerships, we can’t do this by ourselves. Like the mental health crisis is affecting all of us, and all of us have to work together to create a solution. So, in each country, we have hundreds of partners in the United States, non-profits, schools, for-profits, governments that we work together to spread the word and to guide people to our service.

And so then, we are going to have dozens of partners internationally. So, you can imagine every country or every region with hundreds of partners. And we’ve got dozens of partners around the country. So, as we expand internationally, we’re going to pick partners like, you know, Celina and team from Glasswing very well.

Denver: Wonderful organization.

Dena: Wonderful, amazing organization working in Central America. And we’re talking to them right now about how do they become our partner, and we’re still looking for funding so that we can make that happen. But that’s the kind of thing: How do we find these innovative partners in other countries such that we can bring all these tools I’ve talked about, and then they can help implement them in-country, and then together we learn faster.

We learn faster because we’re all using the tools to innovate. And I’ll give you an example. That volunteer research that I talked to you about, that requires having a method or research methodology and algorithms and natural language processing to be able to dive into details.

And so, now, we are working with our three other partners, so four countries total, and they’re all replicating research. They had their own ideas for research questions, brought their own experience together. This year, we’re doing a new research project, and we’re going to be launching that collectively. So, then, we’re going to be able to do that with every form of research that we have.

We have to have a shared purpose; we have to have a shared alignment. And then, secondly, relationship; then you have to build a personal relationship, and then we have to have the self-awareness as individuals to have the hard conversations.

Denver: So, what makes for a good partnership? Usually, egos get in the way as we well know. What’s your philosophy in terms of a good collaboration, a good partnership, and making it work for really the people we’re trying to help?

Dena: So, first of all, it’s purpose. We have to have a shared purpose; we have to have a shared alignment. And then, secondly, relationship; then you have to build a personal relationship, and then we have to have the self-awareness as individuals to have the hard conversations.

Because inevitably, as social sector organizations, we’re dealing with money. We don’t want to be competitive, but resources are slim. So, we have to find the ways of collaborating and having hard conversations.

But that does also require all of us to do our own work and have our egos in check and take a minute to reflect and say, Okay… That goes back to what I had said earlier. What’s more important– that Crisis Text Line is providing all the support, or that everybody’s getting the support that they need when they need it? And so, we have to have the self-awareness to have those conversations.

Denver: Yeah. A term I have always loved is “movement generosity.”

Dena: Oh, I love that. I’m going to steal it.

Denver: Yes. Take it. Because it’s when the movement supersedes your own organization. And when you have that in mind, in terms of what we’re trying to accomplish together, it just changes the way you think… and it’s the way that people think differently, and you can call them out on it. This is not movement generosity. This is your own organizational ego getting in the way.

You know, in looking at your report, I saw the wealth of data that you’ve been able to collect. How does the organization leverage that data to inform its practices and identify trends and contribute to research and the whole field of mental health?

Dena: Yeah. So, we have a dedicated research and impact team, and then we also have machine-learning scientists and data analysts on our technology team so that all of our data ends up being anonymized.

But we dive into that data to help us make operational decisions to balance quality and our ability to be more efficient so we can support more people. But that was really in the last couple years; our research and impact team, we’ve made a big investment there.

Because we know in this day and age, one, we have to be able to prove our impact… we’re 10 years old. But two, not many organizations have this type of real crisis conversations in the moment.

We have an obligation to really learn and share. So, you know, one example is when you look at quality. Right now, looking at crisis intervention, the standard in the market is that 1% of conversations, somebody reviews a transcript, and they hand-code it to see if people followed training.

That doesn’t actually have anything to do with quality. It just has to do with: Are you following training? Our team is diving in to understand quality. One example is genuine concern. So, 87% of people say that our conversations are helpful; they’re satisfied with those conversations.

So, we have clinicians and data scientists diving in, and they are now presenting at an industry conference… today actually… on genuine concern and our findings, because genuine concern is a major, major indicator of quality.

If a texter believes a volunteer cares about them, that’s genuine concern; they are 10 times more likely to say that a conversation was helpful, and they are five times more likely to say that their suicidal ideation has decreased.

Denver: Wow. Yeah.

Dena: And so, it’s of critical importance, but how do you know a genuine concern? Well, our team is presenting a paper right now on how you create genuine concern and what that looks like, and we’re sharing it with the field at conferences, in writing, in blogs, you know, working with government agencies. However we can spread the word, we are.

Denver: Movement generosity at work. And I can see why public health systems would be so interested in what you’re collecting because you’re really on the front lines.

And, you know, I’ve always had this opinion that polls… and getting people’s opinions about issues are almost worthless because people, they don’t even know, or they tell you a lie or whatever. You can really only judge by people’s behavior because that’s what they’re really doing. And there, you’re right there looking at people’s behavior.

So, this is not what somebody said to a survey, this is actually their life. And you’re collecting that data. And I would imagine for a public health system, knowing not only what’s happening, but what’s coming is just invaluable information to have.

Dena: Yeah. Thank you for saying that, Denver, because that really is so true. Our data is unique. We are not depending on surveys, and we’re not depending on, you know, hand-coded, 2-year-old records. This is people in their moment of crisis.

And it’s so valuable to be able to dive into those anonymized conversations and understand what helped them, what helps them. How do we deescalate? How do we get them to a place of safety? That allows us to also come up with solutions.

One of the research papers that we just released on community resilience was looking at 87,000 conversations. Where, in the process of deescalation young people are asked or anybody is asked, what has helped them before? What things help them to feel good, to overcome these challenging moments?

And they shared with us, and we have a report then on the six things that they need that they can’t provide for themselves.

Denver: Yeah.

Dena: You know, things like theater and art programs, visual arts, music programs, things like outdoor spaces, things like, you know, sports and exercise. They can’t provide those for themselves. We, as a community, have to.

And now, with our new data systems, we can partner with third party data sets, and we dove in and realized that most communities,  funding has decreased for these things– for community efforts, for arts programs. Those things got defunded in most communities in the financial crisis over a decade ago, and most of them have not recovered.

And though everybody is talking about social media right now… and that’s important and we should… but let’s also look at solutions, and those are the kinds of things… We can look at the problems, we can look at quality, we can look at solutions. And our data set is just really uniquely suited to do that.

Denver: And as far as that solution’s concerned, you’ve challenged the corporate community to step up and do something in their own community, correct?

Dena: Well, I would say we absolutely do. We work with a lot of corporate partners to give them solutions. So, people come to corporations, both their employees and their customers, and in distress. And so, they can do something about it by partnering with us.

We have co-branded keywords that we can provide them, everybody from Major League Baseball, the MLB, to 741741, to TikTok… text TikTok, to, you know, Xbox. We have partners all over the place.

And they are able to help their community by knowing more about what distresses their community, and we’re able to help them see that so we can better support everybody in our communities together.

Denver: Absolutely. Dena, tell us a little bit about your funding and sustainability model, some of the challenges you’ve had and some of the successes you’ve enjoyed.

Dena: Yeah. So, this organization was primarily funded through large philanthropic growth capital gifts at the beginning. And that’s beautiful, but we need sustaining revenue. And so, corporations are a large part of that. About 20% of our revenue comes from helping corporations to support their employees and their customers.

And then, we also partner with government. We are one of the providers for 988, for example. We also have government contracts for research, so we do a lot with the government, but this is how we can help to make sure that they’re providing direct service and research.

And then, of course, we have philanthropy, and philanthropy is both our individual givers and foundations and large-growth capital. And as we expand, we’ll have license fees from our international affiliates as well.

And time and again, what I found was where real change happens is when you empower people, when you believe in their strength to support themselves and others. And that’s really what our whole system is based on.

Denver: My goodness. You’ve got a lot going on. As CEO, how has your leadership approach influenced Crisis Text Line’s mission and strategies, particularly in adapting to this evolving landscape of mental health advocacy?

Dena: Well, one thing is, I think, I used to work on the philanthropy side, Denver. For 17 years, I had the honor of working for Pierre and Pam Omidyar. Pierre was the founder of eBay. And for most of that time, I was at Omidyar Network.

And so, I can’t help but come at the problem with a system level view. So, I love Crisis Text Line. We are an absolutely, incredibly important part of the solution for mental health, loneliness, and belonging, but we can’t do it by ourselves.

And so, I would say, the two biggest changes with my leadership are really focusing on partnerships because we can’t do it alone, and that’s really how we create system change. And, really, the other is focusing on volunteers… because I worked all over the world— Africa, India, Latin America, the US… from a philanthropy standpoint.

And time and again, what I found was where real change happens is when you empower people, when you believe in their strength to support themselves and others. And that’s really what our whole system is based on.

We believe texters can find strength in themselves and communities. And when we can’t, we’ll get them the support they need. And we believe that volunteers can help themselves and help others. And so then, how do we supercharge that? And I think that that’s really become a major part of our strategy.

I would also just say that as the world has evolved, putting front and center that ownership element, like we can’t have a singular service that helps the whole world. We have to partner with local partners, provide them the tools such that they can have the cultural relevance and the knowledge of the systems, so that they can have more impact. So, it gets back down to partnership.

Denver: Yeah.

Dena: And believing that people have the power to really create change, and we’re just here as an enabler.

Denver: Absolutely. You know, that is so well-stated because I think to believe that people have the answer inside themselves already, and whether it be an individual or a community, and go in there and try to expedite, facilitate unblock or whatever, they know the answer.

We don’t know the answer. And if you just allow that to happen, miracles will happen. And unfortunately, that really hasn’t been the model for philanthropy for many, many decades. And hopefully, it will become far more prevalent.

Dena: And that is exactly what I’m hoping. We have 10 years of technology development, 10 years of learning how to work with these data sets to create real insights, 10 years of learning how to empower volunteer networks and figure out how to have impact with local partnerships.

So, that’s not going to work everywhere, but we can bring this technology and we can bring these lessons learned to partners that then they can make their own, and then they’re going to have brilliant ideas that they’re going to bring back to us.

And we’re going to have so much more impact together, like a network of innovators. We’re going to have impact faster. Our job is to condense that knowledge faster, offer it, and then help to facilitate and unleash it. 

Denver: Wisdom of crowds. Dena, if a listener is interested in supporting Crisis Text Line either through donations or engagement, how can they learn more about the organization? And what’s your website, and what will they find on it?

Dena: So, please come to, or you can follow us on Instagram or X or, you know, TikTok or Pinterest; any of the social media platforms you can find us. And when you find us, follow us, and like our posts because that spreads the word and makes sure that people know that this resource is available.

Come to the website,, and what you’ll find there is you’ll find immediate resources. And if you’re in the United States, it will remind you that our number to text is 741741. If you are in other countries, it will help you find the right place for the resource available to you. We have resources available to help you deal with almost anything that you could possibly be struggling with.

Then you’re also going to find our research either at the top of the website or the bottom at Research Impact. Find that research. And then please, please, please sign up to be a volunteer, and have your friends and family sign up to be a volunteer.

It is the biggest gift you can give yourself, you can give your friends, and you can give your community. And then please, most importantly, if you are in the United States, please take out your phone, and put in your contact list 741741 for Crisis Text Line because you never know when somebody is going to need help.

I had a friend who came to me a couple weeks ago and thanked me for saving her life. In the middle of the night, she found herself with the means and the ideation, and she remembered the number. And texted us in. 

It is real. It affects people of all ages. And most importantly, we need our children to have those numbers. But please also come to Crisis Text Line and find the right numbers for your country, so that you can get the help that you need when you need it.

Denver: And I’ll add, just start talking about the organization because you never know where these conversations are going to lead. So, Dena, you always offer such valuable insights. I want to thank you so much for being here today. It was a real joy to have you on the show.

Dena: Thank you. Thank you. And, Denver, I forgot to say we are always accepting donations and supporters, and we have a beautiful empathy network of our monthly givers, so that’s another place you will find the ability to donate on our website.

And, Denver, I’m incredibly grateful for these conversations. I love your podcast. I love listening to the other kinds of non-profit luminaries, and hearing the wisdom of your podcast, and the other guests have helped Crisis Text Line to get better. So, please keep it up.

Denver: Well, thank you so much for saying that, and thank you again for being here.

Dena: Thank you.

Denver Frederick, Host of The Business of Giving serves as a Trusted Advisor and Executive Coach to Nonprofit Leaders. His Book, The Business of Giving: New Best Practices for Nonprofit and Philanthropic Leaders in an Uncertain World, is available now on Amazon and Barnes & Noble.

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