The Business of Social Work Practice

Over the last decade, certainly in Australia, funding for human services organisations has undergone significant change.  The days of filling out an annual evaluation report and expecting to be automatically re-funded are gone. Simply ensuring you meet the objectives of last year’s funding is not enough. A competitive tendering process is now a harsh reality in the realm of community services. What implications does this have for social work practice?

CompetitionFirst of all, we need to get comfortable with the notion of “competition”. It’s a word that doesn’t seem to feel comfortable with most social workers.  And yet, in the tender process, that is exactly what we face.  May the “best” organisation win. No matter what your values and passions may be as a social worker, no matter how much you abhor the thought of competing with another well-meaning, non-profit agency, no matter how much you talk about collaboration and partnerships, the bottom line is that you have to provide evidence that your organisation deserves a portion of limited funding more than another.

Secondly, we need to become acquainted with the word “business”. Traditionally, funding in community organisations is prioritized to the grass-roots workers – those who deliver service to the client group. The rest of the “business” is expected to be run by volunteers. Or the coordinator of the service works double the paid hours to ensure everything is running smoothly at a business level. At times a small portion of funding is reluctantly allocated to a bookkeeper or administrative assistant or allocated to the social workers who are already overloaded meeting client needs. Besides being an unrealistic addition to workload, most social workers do not have an effective skills set in business practice.

This reluctance to allocate funds to the business side of the organisation exists because traditionally, community organisations are “supposed to” spend allocated money on client service delivery. This has been perceived to mean “direct service”.  But tell this story to any small business, or a corporate organisation and they’ll ask “how does your organisation (business) run effectively and professionally without business and marketing expertise? “ Every business knows, to compete effectively in the market place, you need people with both business and marketing skills. Private businesses are born in a tough, competitive market place so this notion is simply accepted as part of business life. Community services however, were born in a “charitable, gentle, cooperative” market place.

Time to wake up – things have changed. As many of the larger community organisations have proven, allocating funds to the “business” side of an organisation enables growth. These large community organisations have whole departments allocated to “operations”, “marketing and communications” and “fundraising”. Those employed to deliver client service are able to focus on just that – their clients. The business side of the organisation is fine-tuned by those with specific skills in those areas. The ultimate result for those organisations is that they’re highly competitive in the tender process. And the more tenders they win – the more their client needs are met.

So how would a small community organisation start the process of being competitive in a business sense when funding is so limited? First of all do what you’ve been taught to do as social workers: look at the big picture.  Empowering your clients is not just about casework and running groups. The stronger your organisation is, the more chance you have of gaining the funds you need to initiate or expand service provision. Then question the status quo. Just because it’s always been done this way, doesn’t mean that’s what works best.

Perhaps the well-meaning volunteer, or the overworked caseworker are not the best people to be focussing on business operations or communications strategies. Where there really is no funding to employ more people, start placing some priority on business practice. Think of ways existing staff and volunteers can be up-skilled so that they understand and possibly assist in strategic planning, fundraising, marketing and business operations. Talk to some of the larger organisations and ask them how they raised the funds to break away from the traditional charitable approach to a solid business approach. They also started out small.

Then ask yourself these questions: How many social workers know how to write up a business plan? Or understand that a marketing plan is an integral part of a business plan? How many social workers understand that innovation and creative thinking are essential elements of any successful and sustainable business?  Or at a smaller level, how many social workers understand how to promote their services to their client base?

Social workers traditionally are not business oriented. Social workers want to see all human services as affordable. But in a world where values change, where government priorities become unpredictable and outcomes are consistently measured according to standards set by external assessors, isn’t it time social workers took on some business sense?  We’re not the traditional “do-gooders” anymore. We’re agents of change. It’s time to look inward at our profession and take some responsibility for the lack of funding to critical operations funding in our organisations.

After all, we continue to accept and work under the premise that our organisations should only allocate funding to direct service, not to administration. Ironically we do this because we’re used to another kind of tender – being gentle.  Ultimately, this quiet acceptance significantly reduces the chances of community organisations gaining momentum and successfully competing for effective client services.  Which tender are you aiming for in your social work practice?

Who is Worthy of Rescue at Sea?

The recent tragedy of the MH370 flight has triggered an unprecedented international search. The world’s thoughts are with the passengers and their relatives at such a dreadful time made harder by lack of answers. It is not my intention to take away from the legitimacy of the response to this tragedy, but it does raise questions about which humans are worthy of rescue. Certainly in Australia, it is not everyone.

rescuePeople who seek asylum in Australia have committed no crime, yet they are locked up in what can only be described as concentration camps, a step worse than prison, which includes men, women and children. Mind you. we detain Aboriginal people with disabilities without convictions in prison. People seeking asylum have no hope and with indefinite detention no future.

These are the same people who are desperate and fearful enough to risk their lives and that of their families to arrive by boat, and no one does this lightly. Privileged Australians, like our politicians, have little chance of understanding this kind of desperation. At least some people did arrive.

According to ABC Australia,

A spokesman for the Indonesian government has confirmed it is investigating reports Australia has begun turning asylum seeker boats back to Indonesian waters. Asylum seekers from two boats that washed up on islands on Indonesia’s far-east coast told the ABC earlier this month they were forced back by the Australian Navy. One boat was allegedly left without sufficient fuel and drifted for days. Read Full Article

We have let adults and children drown and have claimed we don’t have the resources to retrieve the bodies. The current government feels validated because we now tow back the boats or leave people on leaky ones. Yet, we routinely rescue sailors at sea and put a lot of resources into rescuing millionaires who find themselves in trouble. It is pretty clear to me who we deem worthy of rescue. Despite claims to the contrary, Australia does not take many refugees.

Rather than approaches that don’t work, alternatives such as facilitating rather than preventing relative reunions, increasing intake and creating improved, fair and transparent processing would respect human rights. Australia’s population is built on convicts, immigrants and displaced people. Many like the Vietnamese in the 1970s have arrived by boat and contributed economically, intellectually, and culturally. There is no reason why today’s refugees would not do the same provided we treat them with dignity and focused on inclusion.

Emergency Services: Strengthening Bonds and Improving Resilience

The BrotHERhood in Emergency Services

kristy barg rural fire brigade (2)

It’s summer in Australia, and as usual that means hard work for emergency services. The last few months have been particularly demanding Down Under, with catastrophic fires affecting property and lives in most States across the country. Firefighters, police and ambulance personnel spend long hard days dealing with situations most of us never have to deal with.

We call them our ‘heroes’. The reality is that our heroes are human too. The stresses they experience are unique and if unchecked, those stresses can lead to more serious mental health issues. In a bid to increase awareness of those stresses, provide some strategies to build resilience and improve support networks, Behind The Seen was launched in May last year. No it’s not a spelling error, the name relates to what emergency services “see” that the public don’t.

Whilst emergency services have unique stresses, they also have some very unique strengths. This article focuses on just one of those strengths – the culture of “brotHERhood”.  Yes, those letters are in caps for a reason, we have many women in the services now, but the term “brotherhood” seems too historically significant to replace, hence the caps to signify gender equality. When a person joins one of the emergency services as a career move or as a volunteer, there is an underlying  assumption that they become part of a “select community”, or as is it more often referred to internally, a “family”.

This informal process has no geographical boundaries – a firefighter in Australia is a “brother” to a firefighter in the USA. No introductions needed, the only commonality necessary for acceptance is the fact that they are both firefighters. This unique sense of camaraderie that can instantly connect strangers from across the globe has the potential to be an enormous source of strength in terms of support for first responders and their families.

As social workers we all know that effective support networks assist with early intervention of mental health issues, and can significantly enhance recovery processes. The notion of brotherhood then is vital when assessing how we can increase resilience in emergency service responders and their family members.

If a bond can be established in an instant with a total stranger in another country, it would be easy to presume that in local terms at station level, crew members who work together have an even stronger connection, one that far exceeds any standard “working relationship”.  Certainly this can be the case in some stations, but ask any of the older firefighters about the brotherhood and they’ll tell you “it’s not like it used to be”. Somehow that old feeling of being consistently “supported” is losing its impact.

Whilst a number of reasons are suggested for this, the bottom line is that things have changed. If those changes have somehow reduced the supportive connections that used to exist, then it’s time to look at how to adapt to those changes in order to revive and strengthen the notion of brotherhood. How can this be done? The following experience illustrates that sometimes a simple project with a common goal can bring new connections and a revived awareness and trust in support networks available.

By what some might call a “twist of fate”, a painting created to raise funds for “Behind The Seen” in September of last year had an unexpected side effect. The process of transporting the painting from its place of origin to point of sale raised awareness that the brotHERhood is alive and well. It encouraged connections, and furthermore highlighted that in time of need, that sense of community, of belonging and what some call second family is still very real.

A relay was organised online by both career and volunteer firefighters from different stations to transport the painting. Ironically the day before the painting’s planned departure, the artist who is also a volunteer firefighter was asked to evacuate her home in the midst of some of the worst bushfires seen in years. In another strange coincidence, the delivery point a hundreds of kilometres away was also affected by some of the worst fires seen in years.

But nothing would stop the plan – exhausted but determined, firefighters took the time out to ensure the painting would make it to its destination.  The painting had a dozen stops, and at each stop a photo was taken of the handover and posted on facebook, to keep everyone up to date. Utilizing social media in this way assisted in engaging those who could not physically take part, allowing them to feel a part of the process as well.  The painting ended up being purchased by a headquarters brigade, a fitting result considering the heart warming story of determination and collaboration in the midst of two fire emergencies. Here are just a few of the comments of those who took part:

It was a great way to meet some of you, and I’m pretty proud to have had a small hand in one heck of a “painting relay” to get Kristy’s amazing artwork safely into the hands of Behind The Seen, amongst the pandemonium of the bushfire crisis. The BrotHERhood can do amazing things!

It’s not just a painting anymore. That canvas is a part of NSW fire history having travelled from one fireground to another via the men and women fighting said fires during Red October, and it’s a canvas of fire fighters in the heat of battle that went from one fire emergency to another.

It represents 2 services, united for one cause, Behind The Seen. I was honoured to be one of the two that took the painting to its final home.I joined the Rural Fire Service some 23yrs ago to help the community, by assisting with this project I feel that I have also helped to contribute to my fellow emergency service workers by raising awareness of the stresses we all face at times. Would I do it again, hell yes! The fires looked like they might put a bit of a dent in the relay taking place, but in fact I think they actually served to make the whole thing even more meaningful.

This experience illustrates how a simple call for help inspired the brotherhood into action. Perhaps that’s all that is needed. The occasional reminder that this support network, with no geographical boundaries, with people from a variety of backgrounds, socio-economic statuses, religions and cultures can and will be there for each other in times of need.  The common bond is that every one of those people is committed to a job that assists their communities to stay safe. In keeping the brotherhood alive, they are looking after their own and their families’ wellbeing.

For social workers, particularly those who work with groups in the community, there are a few lessons in this story:

1)      Support networks aren’t always “obvious” to everyone. Sometimes a little education or finding a way to remind people about their support networks needs to be arranged.

2)      Sometimes “time” changes the way things work – look for innovative ways to revive interest and commitment to participation in support networks, especially where generational differences come into play

3)      Remember to utilize social media as a connector when geographical boundaries place obstacles in the way of participation.

4)      In every instance of community work, be open to new possibilities and think beyond the original goal. The original outcome we sought was to raise some funds. We could have just sold the painting online, then posted it to the winning bidder – but would have missed significant outcomes.

5)      Expect the unexpected – and go with the flow. Sometimes the unexpected is precisely the thing that will make your project meaningful.

For more information about Behind The Seen go to

When Processes Become Part of Outcomes: Collaboration, Creativity, Community

As social workers involved in community development, we all know and understand that funding bodies, sponsors and management committees wish to see “objectives and outcomes”, but how much valuable information gets lost when these are the only areas of focus for reporting? And how much do we restrict ourselves when planning programs purely based on stated initial objectives and outcomes?

A recent experience highlights the need to be flexible in the planning and implementation of projects as well as in the final evaluation phase. Had the focus for this particular project remained inflexibly on the initial “objectives and planned outcomes”, we may well have missed valuable opportunities and failed to report valid information in the outcomes section of any final evaluation.

The key is to spend a little bit of time thinking about the impact of “processes”. You may be pleasantly surprised that processes can actually add to the outcomes.

The Canopy Family Community Exhibition

The Canopy at Cameron Park Community Centre is a community organisation (in NSW Australia) that provides services to families, children and communities.  To celebrate 25 years of supporting families it was decided to hold an event that involved other organisations who provide family services.

The objectives of the Canopy Family Community Exhibition were to:

  • Give local groups and/or agencies the opportunity to promote what they are doing in the community to support families
  • Spread awareness of services to the local community
  • Provide an opportunity for networking
  • Provide a forum to positively model relationships and family

With objectives such as this, it would be all too easy to simply send out an invitation to participate, and wait for the bookings to roll in. The end result would be similar to a kind of “expo” where organisations have a stall with various pamphlets and information.

The trouble with that concept is that it’s been done before. Not too much thought or preparation needs to go into the event. In other words, the process for staff and/or volunteers from each agency would simply be to nominate one person to gather promotional items from the agency’s cupboards and set up a standard table of information.

How do we expand on this concept?

  • What processes could we set in motion to encourage communication around the meaning of “family”?
  • How could we engage clients of some of these services into a process that ultimately portrays and promotes the function of the service?
  • How can we take some of the projected outcomes beyond just the planned “one day” of exhibits?
  • How do we foster collaborative efforts?
  • How do we encourage agencies to do something innovative so that others are inspired by their presentations? (yes this means encouraging people to move out of their comfort zone)

What we came up with was to ask agencies to submit a creative representation of “family” as it related to their group. Creative representations allow participation from all ages, backgrounds and skills levels.  Each agency was asked to enter a collaborative effort involving staff, volunteers and if possible, clients of the service. They were asked to explain their “creation” and also provide information about their service. For those who felt stuck for ideas and/or time, we offered consultation and assistance with brainstorming and/or assistance with the creation.

The results were 17 entries, all depicting “family” from their agency/group perspective, with an explanation of the services that their agency provides to the community. The making of each entry had become a “mini” project with outcomes of its own. Subsequent conversations between agencies revolved around the process of making their creation. Who took part, how they made decisions, sharing stories about what “family” meant to them, which contributions were made by staff, volunteers and clients of the service, and the feeling of teamwork the process inspired.

The following statements from agencies involved explain this:

Our communities are from various cultural backgrounds coming together to develop new relationships that redefine family in Australia, after their loss through migration of close loved ones. This project has been very important as a way for  parents, children, siblings and community coming together as family. We have had over 20 participants inclusive of children involved + 5 staff and 4  volunteers.  ~Northern Settlement Services

We started out with the idea of having a hat stand…to represent where the family members ‘hang their hat’….So…one of the ladies from the craft group who meet here on Tuesdays said she had an old plant hanger which may suffice as a hat stand. When I picked it up and brought it into my office the staff, volunteers and visitors all started contributing ideas and somehow it turned into a family tree instead of a hat stand. It ‘grew’ from there…at one stage it was going to have photos of our various ‘family members’ hanging from it but then the leaves seemed to work better.  ~ Woodrising Neighbourhood Rising

A lot of our tiles came from donations of staff and families old tiles which also added a special element of family and  togetherness. Many wonderful conversations and reminiscing came with our “labour of love”, family and friends and times gone by. ~Domain Macquarie Place

Would these results have eventuated if we only implement a cookie cutter approach? Next time, you’re involved in planning a community project, don’t lock in the goals. Don’t restrict yourself to preconceived outcomes. Remain flexible, get out of your comfort zone, and try a little innovation! Check out some of the photos on


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