Defining the Social Worker as Consultant (1st in the Social Work Consultant Series)

Social Workers are uniquely qualified to operate as consultants at all ecological systems levels. Our mandate of individual change and social change ensure that we are always mindful of the consequences of individual creativity and organizational innovation. Our ethical parameters provide a clear process for reviewing policy, corporate decision making, and behavior in the market. Social workers were seeking to operate within the social good well before it was called social entrepreneurship.

The series of blogs I am composing for will begin with a definition of and perspective on the social worker as a consultant. From that point, the series will address practical concerns to be considered as the social worker considers contracting as a consultant.

  1. Defining the Social Worker as Consultant
  2. Basic Skill Sets You Already Have
  3. Organizational Skills You May Need to Learn
  4. Managing Your Consulting Business
  5. Examples of 4 Consulting Contexts (Including “Life Coaching”)
  6. Consulting with Start-ups
  7. Ethics of the Social Worker as Consultant
  8. Social Work Education and Consulting
Defining the Social Worker as  Consultant

The primary difference between the social worker and other professionals is the requirement that social workers engage in individual change and social change. This informs the social worker as consultant. He/she must bring benefit to the organization that represents sustainability at all levels of ecology.

Social workers understand the Person in the Environment. The social worker as consultant understands the person within the organization within its environment. With this ecology in mind let us define the social worker as consultant in the context of leadership.

The Definition

If Edgar Schein, author of Organizational Culture and Leadership (2010) were to define the role of the consultant, he would likely say something like this:

“The consultant is a leader invited in from outside who manages organizational culture for internal integration and external adaptation. The consultant offers skills, technology, and knowledge not found in the organization enabling the organization to cope with new external environments.”

And what would he mean by that? First, as a consultant, you are an invited leader. Consider that consulting is akin to leadership with a negotiated level of authority. Enter leadership through clearly articulated principles. More than goals, these principles inform your ethical behaviors and help you to determine what actions are acceptable in attempting the goals.

The consultant manages organizational culture. This means that the consultant will have to be skilled in influencing culture.

More than training, you will be tasked at least to outline a change process and articulate a path to innovation with lasting impact even after completion of your contract term.

“Internal integration” suggests that you, as a consultant, must engage the employees and volunteers and harness the capacity that is present within the organization. You will start by assessing the capability of the organization, identifying where knowledge is created, and organizing it as a representation of organizational capacity—what the organization can do.

“External adaptation” suggests that you outline an innovation for the employees and volunteers that connects with the social vision of the organization, satisfies all stakeholders, and represents sustainable operations for the organization. You will begin this by reviewing competition, new information on business process and best practice, and talking with stakeholder, including community members and customers.

New External Environments

Coping with “new external environments” refers to your vigilance and attention to the time innovation requires and the economic, social, political, and technological environment your organization operates within. Environments change quickly. Economic pressures are usually present in nonprofit environments. Even in solvent environments, the pressure exists to remain solvent. You will need to communicate clear costs, benefits, success measures, and sustainability.

Social pressures include relationships among staff, turnover, morale, customer relationships, partner organization relationships, as well as relationships with the community at large. You will need to listen to key informants in communities you are not familiar with. Always, maintain transparency and clear lines of communication. Employ marketing as a tool with the dual purpose of information sharing and advertisement.

Political pressures can include zoning, governance hierarchies, licensure laws, bylaws, and a host of other concerns including relationships with the legislature or accrediting bodies. As a consultant, you will want to maintain an awareness of the connection between your suggestions and the political constraints. Also, be aware that political pressure can originate with individuals as well as policy.

Technological pressure relates to the tools available to implement the innovation you suggest. As an effective consultant, you must remain current with the latest and versed in the pros and cons of tools specific to the organizations you consult with. For a given organization, the tools can include computers and cellular technology, or it could be recyclable insulation materials and flame-retardant drywall. Know the tools that fit your expertise.

Negotiated Level of Authority

Your level of authority within the organization will vary with each consultation. Be sure to specify this in your written contract agreement.

Four levels of authority are typical and help to define the range of roles you will operate in as consultant.

Expert: Shares expertise in meetings or other live events. You will need the following skills: Communication, Systems Knowledge, and Visioning/Program Planning.

Evaluator: Research (compare/contrast/review) current systems and report on efficiency, satisficing, innovation. As an evaluator, you will need the following skills: Operational Research and Process Mapping/Flowcharting.

Sub-contractor: Manage a project and produce deliverables for the client. Social work consultants as Sub-contractor will need the following skills: Operational Efficiency (to meet deadlines), Capacity, and Customer Service.

Manager: Lead an organization through a start-up or innovation process. You will need the following skills as a manager: Leadership, Marketing, and Return on Investment Measurement.


Schein, E. (2010). Organizational culture and leadership. (4th ed.). San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.

Published by

Dr. Michael Wright

Dr. Michael Wright: Michael A. Wright, PhD, LAPSW is a Social Work Helper Contributor. He offers his expertise as an career coach, serial entrepreneur, and publisher through MAWMedia Group, LLC. Wright has maintained this macro practice consultancy since 1997. Wright lives in Reno, NV. View all posts by Dr. Michael Wright

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