NASW Foundation at 20: Pioneer Program Honors Contributions to Social Work

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By Paul R. Pace

The NASW Foundation was created to support NASW’s educational and charitable initiatives through a wide range of programs and projects. In 2021, the Foundation marks its 20th anniversary.

One of its most popular programs is the NASW Social Work Pioneers® which is administered through the Foundation and honors members of the profession who have contributed to the evolution and enrichment of social work. Being elected as a Pioneer by one’s peers is one of the profession’s highest honors.

Since its launch in 1994, the Pioneer program has inducted nearly 800 individuals. A collection of their stories can be found in the Pioneer Biography Index at

Social Work Pioneer Betsy Schaefer Vourlekis, PhD, ACSW, co-chairs the NASW Social Work Pioneer® Steering Committee along with Social Work Pioneer Jesse Harris, PhD, ACSW, co-chair emeritus.

Vourlekis said she volunteered for the role because of her deep respect and affection for NASW Social Work Pioneers® Ruth Knee and Mark Battle, who were the founding co-chairs of the Pioneer Steering Committee. Knee and Battle brainstormed the creation of the program to recognize social workers who blazed trails in their fields and in the process improved the lives of millions.

“Ruth and Mark were convinced that for us to move ahead, we needed to know where we had been,” Vourlekis said at the 25th anniversary celebration and 15th Annual Program and Luncheon in 2019.
“When Ruth died, I was honored to be asked to co-chair with Mark,” Vourlekis said today.

Because Vourlekis was a history major in college, the mission of the Pioneer program to promote and capture the history of NASW and the social work profession also appealed to her. “I recognized that no other entity within the organization existed to achieve this. Knowing our history shows us who/what we are in the fullest possible way.”

Vourlekis became a Pioneer in 1998, and has since volunteered her time with the program in various ways.
Pioneer recognition has become a highly sought and appreciated distinction for its recipients, but also a collective demonstration of the breadth and depth of the profession’s contributions, Vourlekis noted. “Beyond the Pioneer program, the Foundation’s many scholarships and awards—achieved through tireless fundraising—provide opportunities for young social workers entering the field.”

The many grant-funded programs administered, and in some cases staffed by the Foundation, provide a flexible and timely program entity as well as critical resources, she said. “I only wish our social work membership, and the many social work nonmembers, better understood the reality of the Foundation’s contributions.”

The Pioneer Honor

Robert P. Connolly has been a volunteer member of the NASW Pioneer Steering Committee since he became a Pioneer in 2010, and he serves on the Nominations Subcommittee—reviewing all new Pioneer nominations.

Social Work Pioneers are impactful and resourceful change agents, advocates and researchers improving the lives of their patients/clients, students attending schools of social work, their teams, their communities, our society and the world, Connolly pointed out.

“During my long social work career working in public welfare, hospitals, and health policy at the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services, social workers were often team members and unsung heroes on interdisciplinary teams,” he said.

The NASW Pioneer awards program each year highlights social workers’ significant contributions and outcomes while honoring the profession of social work’s unique and varied skills, knowledge, ingenuity, advocacy, teaching, research, program planning and more, Connolly said.

“I am also inspired to read the biographies on the NASW Pioneer website that span from Jane Addams and Mary Richmond to current inductees,” he said. “I have attended 10 inspiring annual Pioneer awards ceremonies, which are coordinated by the NASW Foundation in Washington, D.C. Each awardee is individually honored for her/his unique pioneering achievements in a dignified and professional manner with family members, colleagues current Pioneers and NASW staff.”

The meaning of the Pioneer award was brought home to Connolly by two awardees during the 2019 Pioneer awards ceremony. “First, I sat at a table with the family of Patrick Tyrell, former executive director of the NASW-New Mexico Chapter, and was moved (by) his posthumous award announcement for his lifetime accomplishments by observing his spouse and four brothers standing in for him with pride and tears in their eyes.”

“Secondly, when I congratulated Dr. Rosalie Kane for her Pioneer award for her amazing long-term care quality of care and quality of life research, she told me that the Pioneer award was special to her because she was honored by the social work profession in such a dignified and wonderful way,” he said.

“Her statement surprised me because I was aware of her previously receiving multiple prestigious gerontological national and international research awards,” Connolly said. “These experiences demonstrated to me that social workers being honored as NASW Pioneers by their peers and their national social work professional organization means a lot.”

In honor of its 20th year, Connolly said the NASW Foundation is a tremendous social work resource in the promotion and expansion of the Pioneer program and in managing national social work awards, grants and scholarships.

Look for additional articles about NASW Foundation programs in upcoming issues of Social Work Advocates as the Foundation celebrates its 20 years this year. For more information, visit:

Foundation Donations

The NASW Foundation extends its thanks to all NASW members and friends who lend their financial support, with special thanks to the following for their contributions of $100 or more through Feb. 17. All donors are listed at

NASW Foundation General Fund
Robert Carter Arnold, Richard Barth, Elaine Congress, Molly Corbin, Rhoda Ferat, Carol Fields, Barbara Graham, The Hansan Family Foundation-Ethel Hansan and Family, Richard “Rick” Harris, Daniel Heuer, Anthony Hill, Karla Miley, Jeffrey Miller, Julie Oliveira-Payton, Tina Peterson, Elizabeth Rogers, Diana Stroud, Joanne Cruz Tenery (monthly), Gail Woods-Waller

NASW Memorial and Tribute Fund
Andrew O’Neill in memory of NASW member Jane Blair McShea, MSW

Planned Giving (to Foundation General Fund)
Barbara L. Chuko via Gryphon Financial Partners, Mit Joyner via the Curtis and Mit Joyner SEI Giving Fund of the Renaissance Charitable Foundation Inc.

A Virtual Night at the Awards, A Night to Remember
Patricia Martin-O’Meally in honor of Patricia Martin-O’Meally

Social Work Disaster Assistance Fund
Deborah Reutter, Janlee Wong

NASW Public Education Campaign
Richard Barth, Carol Fields, Jill Gerson, Ray Johnston, Karla Miley, Elizabeth Rogers, Joanne Cruz Tenery (monthly), Gail Woods-Waller

NASW Legacy Project
Grace Lebow in honor of Joan O. Weiss

NASW Social Work Pioneers® Fund
Anthony Hill

NASW CA Chapter—Diana Ming Chan Scholarship Fund
Harrison Leong

NASW NJ Chapter—Harriet Bloomfield Scholarship Fund
Jeffery Dickert

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