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SART Foundations: Breaking Down the Mystery of the MOU

The first time I heard the letters “MOU” tossed out in a SART meeting, I just smiled and nodded. After I left, I immediately pulled out my phone and fired up Google to help me. For those of you who are also unsure, an MOU is a Memorandum of Understanding. The first searches that show up are mostly legal jargon about parties and common action lines. In a nutshell, it’s a formal agreement that outlines who will be involved and what they will contribute as well as expectations for one another. Some folks call them inter-agency agreements. Regardless of the name, it’s generally considered a document for the SART and serves as a formal way to commit to one another and the work ahead.

I would say that about 99% of teams benefit from having a formal, written agreement in place. It serves as a reminder of what the team wants to do, who should be on the team, and what each agency intends to put forward as contributing members. There are many teams that have verbal agreements with no supporting documents. This can work for a long time. Usually, teams struggle when someone leaves an agency, and the new person doesn’t understand the mission/vision/effort/resources/staff time/etc. necessary for the team. This is why I generally advise teams put their commitments in writing.

You may be asking yourself, “How do I write an MOU? I’m not a legal expert.” The good news is that SARTs usually don’t need a legal expert! You only need to be able to put four parts together to write an MOU or an inter-agency agreement.

  1. A mission/purpose and brief history: providing some kind of introduction to the work of the team is a good way to orient your readers aka agencies. Providing a mission statement is critical, because it helps the signing agencies know the team’s purpose and goals. Additionally, you should expect include a few sentences about the team history. When was it established? What is the goal?
  2. Participating agency contributions and expectations: This section can be a short, bulleted list or can be written into full sentences. The most important things are to establish who an agency will send to meetings and how much time or resources the representative/agency will contribute. Another vital element of this section is establishing the expectation that a participating agency is willing to change individual practice, agency policy, and systems procedures as a result of the work of the team. <—-This might be the most important part.
  3. Team member roles/responsibilities: A section on the team member roles/responsibilities can serve as an outline for team norms. This is a great place to establish the role of communication between team, representative, and agency, member participation in team processes, or meeting attendance. Importantly, there should be some documentation about confidentiality obligations. SARTs cannot assume the rule of “what’s said here will stay here” or simply sign one single confidentiality agreement to cover all meetings. That mindset violates state statutes, funding requirements, and ethical obligations of several professions.
  4. Signature Section: the easiest part of the MOU! Make sure that you have signature lines for the head of each participating agency with a date and printed name section. My first MOU I looked at had no “print name” section, and I couldn’t read half of the signatures. I had no idea who had committed their agencies to the team. Make sure you set this up to be a clear section that anyone could pick up and understand.

Hopefully, breaking down the mystery of the MOU by demonstrating the four parts has made the process seem a little less overwhelming for you. I know that I would have benefitted from this post, and most of the people who ask me about MOU’s would have benefitted as well. Formal commitment through the MOU is a useful tool and hopefully, now you know how to go about making one happen.

Have any advice or experience with writing an MOU or Inter-agency agreement? Further questions? Leave them all in the comments.