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Social Workers Carve Out Specialty in Administration

June 21, 2010

The beginning of June marked a quiet transition in the offices of the Waco Foundation: one social worker left and another one was hired. These were not clinical social workers, though; they were in administration, and they signal the emergence of a niche specialty for the Baylor School of Social Work.
Hardage/Vargas
Tihara Vargas, MSW/MDiv 2008, (right in photo) moved out of her position as the foundation's director of special projects to make way for Melissa Hardage, MSW 2010, (left in photo) who became coordinator of outreach and communication. Vargas, who is leaving Waco to be closer to her family, was Hardage's field supervisor during Hardage's recent internship at the foundation.

Vargas, Hardage and Hannah Kuhl, who interned this spring at the Freeman Center, have taken their passion for improving organizations' systems and merged it with their social work skills to carve out a niche for themselves in the School's Community Practice concentration. They have done it well, and local community leaders clearly like what they see.

Nonprofit execs take note

Dan Worley, executive director of the Freeman Center, an addiction rehabilitation facility, was so impressed with Kuhl that he created a new position in his agency for her, which she begins this summer. Kuhl helped prepare a request for proposal to the Department of State Health Services requesting $14.5 million over five years to help the nonprofit agency treat substance abuse disorder.

"I've never had anyone who could grasp the concepts and handle the details and critical thinking a task like this requires," Worley said. "I can't tell you how much help she has been to me."

Ashley Allison, executive director of the Waco Foundation, a nonprofit community foundation trust that allocates funding to other nonprofits throughout Waco and McLennan County, reconfigured Vargas's position to create the new one for Hardage. Allison imagines building an even stronger bond between nonprofits and the School of Social Work. It is a connection she calls a "pipeline to building a healthy nonprofit leadership pool" of graduates.

"I do think it makes sense for us to work very closely together," Allison said. "If you take a macro-oriented MSW graduate and immerse them in the nuts and bolts of running a nonprofit effectively and efficiently, that can directly impact the quality of our nonprofit community."

Holistic viewpoint

The difference is the unique blend of social work skills with business knowledge. "Social workers are very good at seeing the holistic picture and how everything affects something else," said Kuhl (photo below). "We're aware of the clients and their needs. We have those interpersonal skills. I really see the need in nonprofit management and administration for the social work viewpoint."
Hannah Kuhl

Curtis Mooney, president and chief executive officer of DePelchin Children's Center, Houston, agrees, suggesting the social worker in this role can advocate for the clients' interests. Human service organizations today are businesses with specific missions and "tremendous accountability," he said. The graduate social work degree "provides the basis of focusing on the mission of the organization," while the business degree "provides the knowledge and skills of running a business, which is demanded today."

"Strictly from a business view it is so easy to lose sight of the mission of the organization," said Mooney, a former member of the School of Social Work's Board of Advocates, a volunteer advisory group. "That mission may require putting together a myriad of funding streams to serve a population that is not necessarily seen as worthy of investment from a bottom-line perspective."

Joint degree being explored

The desirability of combining these skill sets in a degree program is not lost on Diana Garland, dean of the School of Social Work. As a result of the initiative of Dennis Myers, former associate dean for graduate studies, the School is in conversation with Baylor's Hankamer School of Business about developing a dual degree. The faculty at both schools are reviewing curriculum for the proposed graduate dual degree.

"I'm am so excited about the opportunity to prepare social workers who can combine social work and business knowledge and skills to provide leadership to human service organizations," Garland said. "For years, I have heard organizations asking social work schools to consider such a program, and I'm pleased that we are moving forward with the help and encouragement of our colleagues in the business school."

Helping nonprofits engage in best practices such as capacity building and networking will have a ripple effect throughout one's community, Hardage said. "By strengthening nonprofits, you're able to strengthen communities because you are better able to meet the needs of their clients."

Even if a social worker begins as a clinician, at some point in his or her career, Hardage said the social worker will need these business skills. "Basic accounting, internal controls, nonprofit fraud - it's important for social workers to know all that."

Vargas brought that mind-set to her work during the past two years, and now the Waco Foundation offers a Capacity Building Collaborative; a series of workshops for nonprofit leadership; a free review process for grant proposals being prepared by nonprofits; and Leader Circles, a networking initiative. The monthly workshops focus on different topics such as budgeting, diversifying financial streams, human resource issues, internal controls, accounting practices, nonprofit fraud, succession planning, and more.

"Foundations want measurable outcomes, not just anecdotes," Vargas said. "They'll award the funds to those who can show they're making measurable impact. You have to be able to express your mission beyond good intentions."

Nonprofits play a huge role in our nation and in our economy, Hardage said. "Because you are impacting so many people through the programs you devise, there is a great responsibility to be as effective as possible."