Foundations Utilize Social Work Skills

Tree with large heart as root There are thousands of foundations in the U.S. Every year, these institutions decide where to donate billions of dollars to various charitable causes, research projects and scientific endeavors.

Being a leader or a board member of a foundation may not appear to be a typical career path for a social worker, but the social workers involved in philanthropy who spoke to the News said they found the job personally engaging and professionally rewarding. They also noted that more social workers need to consider being part of the charity sector.

According to the Foundation Center, a foundation is a nonprofit corporation or a charitable trust with the principal purpose of making grants to unrelated organizations or institutions. In some cases, the benefactors may be individuals who receive funds for scientific, educational, cultural, religious or other charitable purposes. Foundations may be either private or public entities. In a private foundation, the funds come from one source, whether it be a person, family or corporation. A public foundation, in contrast, usually receives its assets from multiple sources, which may include private foundations, individuals and government agencies. Moreover, a public foundation must continue to seek money from diverse sources in order to retain its public status.

NASW Executive Director Elizabeth J. Clark has been president of the NASW Foundation since 2001. She said social workers are a good match for foundation leadership because they understand the unmet needs of certain groups in society.

“I think it’s an excellent choice for social workers,” she said. “We provide a pragmatism to the bigger picture when looking at those who need help and we’re good at stretching funding to its maximum use.”

Clark said leading a foundation has been personally rewarding. After the Hurricane Katrina tragedy in the Gulf Coast community, the NASW Foundation distributed hundreds of grants to social workers in the area so they could get back on their feet in order to help others. “That was one of most important efforts we’ve supported so far,” Clark said.

Altman Foundation

Patricia Volland has been a board trustee for the Altman Foundation for eight years. Volland, senior vice president for strategy and business development at the New York Academy of Medicine, said Altman is a private foundation that — like others — by law donates around 5 percent of its principle investment annually. That equates to around $11-12 million per year to support causes in New York City.

“We focus our giving in four areas, which are education, health, strengthening communities and arts and culture,” Volland said.

“My social work background helps in the sense that I have a broader view of the community and I understand the world of health and community and how to build effective outcomes,” she said. As a board member, her knowledge complements the training and experience of other board members whose professional backgrounds vary.

“I’ve learned foundations really do have an important role to play in our society,” Volland said. “The people who serve on them take their responsibilities seriously. Most want to know that they are investing in good programs that will make a difference. As social workers, we need partners like foundations to make a difference for the better.”

Volland said philanthropy is a “huge business. And helping people on these boards know where to use their resources is just as important as advocating legislation that works to help people.”

She said there are as many grant-making foundations as there are areas of interest in helping people. Some may focus on mental health while others donate funds to agencies that address aging.

“It’s important that social workers lend themselves and their time to making sure social work stays part of the grant-making process,” she said.

Skillman Foundation

Carol Goss is president and CEO of the Skillman Foundation, a private foundation which has a mission to improve the lives of children in the metropolitan Detroit area by supporting their schools and neighborhoods.

Goss spent 18 years in the field of child welfare social work before she became involved in philanthropy. She said when the agency she was working for at the time branched into creating a foundation, she discovered many things about the sector.

“There’s a whole pie when you look at ways to make things better,” Goss said. “Philanthropy is one part of that pie. It’s about getting resources in a strategic way. Once I figured that out, I realized it was a good niche for me.”

Like many other private foundations, the Skillman Foundation was started from a family’s wish to give back to others. It donates around $27 million annually.

The foundation president said she take prides in its evaluation process for grantees, which ensures that structures are in place to help people. “Social workers are good at that — they are constantly thinking about how to perform better and how to serve people better,” Goss said. “My training has helped me understand the importance of using evaluations.”

Hogg Foundation. King Davis recently served as the executive director of the Hogg Foundation for Mental Health at the University of Texas at Austin. Davis, a Robert Lee Sutherland Chair in Mental Health and Social Policy in the University’s School of Social Work, noted that the Hogg Foundation is one of about five foundations in the country that focuses exclusively on improving mental health treatment. Grant totals vary between $3 million to $11 million annually, Davis said.

He said that the social work profession and social workers were well involved with philanthropy groups at the turn of the 20th century — so it makes sense that such a positive partnership continues today.

“Social workers are ideally suited for leading philanthropic organizations because of their combination of social justice and human interest and the desire for uplifting others,” King said. “That’s the essence of philanthropy.”

Bristol-Myers Squibb Foundation

Among the largest foundations in the U.S. is the Bristol-Myers Squibb Foundation, which works to help reduce health disparities by strengthening community based health care capacity, integrating medical care and community based support services and mobilizing communities in the fight against disease. The Bristol-Myers Squibb Foundation has a global perspective to reduce health disparities that targets issues in specific regions, said social worker and Bristol-Myers Squibb Foundation President John Damonti.

Like other social workers interviewed for this story, Damonti said he became involved in the philanthropy sector by chance. He was originally planning a career in employee assistance programs, but his college field placement study led him to work at a foundation. From that experience, Damonti said he realized he could have a greater influence as a social worker by working as an insider at a charity. “I realized I had the ability to impact thousands of lives rather than one at a time,” he said. “It’s very gratifying to be at this level and, in the end, I can still look around at what we’re doing and see how it impacts the individual.”

The Bristol-Myers Squibb Foundation donates around $60 million annually to support:

  • disease education and vaccination efforts in Asia to treat hepatitis;
  • the development of new approaches to improve access to cancer education, treatment and prevention in Central and Eastern Europe; and
  • improvements in serious mental health treatment in the United States.

The foundation’s landmark initiative, Secure the Future, created the first corporate investment of its scale and scope to respond to HIV/AIDS in Africa. The foundation started that initiative in 1999 and along with Bristol-Myers Squibb have so far donated $150 million to the effort.

The foundation and NASW teamed up to create the Cancer Awareness Training Series in 2007. A grant from the foundation enabled NASW and CancerCare to train social workers across the country about basic and advance cancer care counseling and intervention methods.

Damonti said social workers have the training and skills that can benefit a foundation’s efforts to help others. “Social workers have practical experience and one of the best training grounds for foundations,” he said. “I think social workers bring to the table the concept of helping the whole community and that’s a powerful concept. If you’re able to bring in the right partners to optimize the most impact you can have in addressing a problem, it can be a powerful tool.”

W.T. Grant Foundation. Paula Allen-Meares has been dean of the School of Social Work at the University of Michigan since 1993 and was the Norma Radin Collegiate Professor of Social Work and professor of education at that university. She was recently appointed Chancellor of the University of Illinois at Chicago. Allen-Meares served as a board trustee of the W.T. Grant Foundation, which supports research that furthers the understanding of human behavior and focuses primarily on improving the lives of people ages 8 to 25 in the U.S.

“The overriding mission of the W.T. Grant Foundation is important to me as both a social work researcher with a background in school social work, as well as a citizen,” Allen-Meares said. The mission of the W.T. Grant Foundation was consistent with the values and perspectives of social work, she added. “I appreciate their emphasis on and attention to youth services.

“I think the important part social workers can play in this is to share their concepts of how the social work perspective can benefit not only the foundation, but the end-user as well,” she said.

“I was pleased to have a part in shaping the future of the foundation and being one of many on a team that was also forward looking in this regard,” she said.

Social workers may find working in philanthropy a rewarding challenge, she noted.

“Foundations tend to be more nimble than federal funding sources,” Allen-Meares said. The people who serve on foundation boards and their staff tend to embrace new ways of thinking and inventing new intellectual opportunities, she said.