‘Grow and Compete’

Richard JonesRichard Jones, CEO of Metropolitan Family Services: "We have to work hard to maintain our leadership role in an ever-changing world."

A significant portion of the social work workforce is comprised of small-business owners — mostly mental health social workers who run a private practice — and administrators who lead for-profit and not-for-profit social services agencies. Despite their numbers, many have little or no formal business management education.

Acknowledging that some social workers lack the necessary business, financial and technical skills to build and grow small businesses, secure new funding sources for programs and lead organizations, participants of the 2010 Social Work Congress approved the following imperative: “Infuse models of sustainable business and management practice in social work education and practice.”

If that sets off some nerves, Richard Jones isn’t surprised. “It is a challenge to social workers’ value system,” the president and CEO of Metropolitan Family Services in Chicago told NASW News. “But in order to survive, our profession has to adopt certain business practices so that it can continue to grow and compete.”

In addition to the very survival of the profession, University of Southern California School of Social Work Dean Marilyn Flynn argues that if social workers wish to see organizations reflect social work values, they need to take on mid-level and senior management positions. Flynn also is president of the National Network of Social Work Managers and served as content expert for the “business of social work” breakout session during the congress.

Jones, who co-facilitated the breakout session, is not just talking about competing for dollars. “We have to work hard to maintain our leadership role in an ever-changing world.”

Today’s social workers must compete in a marketplace where other professions are diversifying their skill sets. Many services traditionally carried out by social workers are now being provided by other professionals. For example, increasingly more nurses are engaging in therapeutic counseling.

Jones also says social workers need to help society appreciate the integral role they play in maintaining the safety net for vulnerable citizens. “We are living in a time where there is an expectation that you pull yourself up with your own bootstraps, that there’s no need for social work-related services, that people are expected to function and function well with little or no supports.”

It’s all about being business savvy, according to Jones, who uses phrases like “budget analysis” and “contracting levels” — words you don’t always hear coming out of the mouths of social workers. Jones is responsible for all the business decisions of Metropolitan Family Services, a $32 million-a-year operation.

No doubt Jones got plenty of on-the-job training and picked up a few things here and there over the course of his career, but it’s his formal education he credits for being an effective leader. He earned a master’s and doctoral degree in social work administration from the Mandel School of Applied Social Sciences of Case Western Reserve University and continues to bolster his credentials through continuing education.

Jones believes, though, that social workers’ basic education does not adequately prepare them for making decisions for an organization. “Curricula need to be modified in schools of social work so that the coursework exposes students to business processes and practices,” he said.

Flynn told NASW News that not incorporating business management concepts into a social worker’s education “works to our disadvantage and can make us less viable as managers and leaders.”

Not only that, but in the current economic climate it behooves social workers to be cross-trained in other disciplines so that they can find employment in other sectors of the economy or emerging markets if they should find themselves out of work.

“One of the things that is really empowering about learning business administration and understanding cost constraints is that people learn how to deal with economic contraction, reduction and retrenchment,” said Flynn. “While one sector is cutting back, another elsewhere is always growing.”

She said the predominant means of incorporating business management into a student’s education — joint degree programs where students can earn a master’s in social work and, say, a master’s in business administration — is extremely effective. But typically few students participate.

“USC is developing nontraditional internships to expose social work students to settings such as banks and other private sector environments to get them beyond their comfort zone,” Flynn said.

And just as nurses are redefining the services they can offer, there are jobs traditionally held by nurses that social workers can do equally well, Flynn pointed out. For example, social workers, with their psychosocial assessment abilities, would be well suited to help insurance agencies evaluate worker’s compensation benefit applicants.

Flynn said to expect more and more emphasis on evidence-based management. “Evidence-based practice is well established, but applying it to management is newer and has the same implications,” she said. “What we teach in schools of social work and what we apply as managers and administrators to improve organizational effectiveness and efficiency is increasingly based on current studies of organizational behavior and human psychology.”