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A Burning Bush
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A Burning Bush
Social Work Knowledge is a Powerful Tool in Agency Leadership

Martha Adams Sullivan, DSW; Executive Director, Fordham-Tremont Community Mental Health Center

April 2010


A Social Work Leader in Context

I am a social work administrator. There is no doubt that I lead as a social worker. Leading a human service organization, I have found, engages one’s whole self. The totality of my experiences continues to inform my actions and decisions as a leader as well as my daily interactions with others in the execution of my role. I am a Black woman from a working class/poor extended family with Black Catholic roots and these aspects of my background are also important parts of the context of my leadership. All of these aspects of who I am inform the values and beliefs which inspire me and that as a leader, help me to inspire others.

I presently serve as Executive Director of the Fordham-Tremont Community Mental Health Center in the Bronx, one of the largest out-patient providers of mental health care in New York City. Our community is felt to be one of the poorest in the nation and has a very high prevalence of behavioral health and health problems. It is also, increasingly, an ethnically-diverse community, rich in culture and values. It is a wonderful community.

My choice to become a social worker was born of growing up in a family and community in which I experienced and witnessed both a wealth of love and emotional and material support, and the knowledge of what it means to be without it. I chose social work to make a difference in the lives of those most in need and those who contend with stigma and discrimination. I remain fiercely passionate about that. I have never, in the thirty plus years of my career as a professional social worker, “burnt out” and I don’t expect to.

Administration Is Social Work

It would be presumptuous to assume that other leaders who are not social workers don’t also care about clients getting the best service. The difference for me is that I view my role as an executive as being a social worker and “doing social work.” Fortunately, my training required courses in administration that included finances and budgeting. Additional skill in managing budgets can be obtained on the job. I was trained to understand that there were different modalities of carrying out one’s role as a social worker,such as working with individuals, groups/families, communities, and that the agency is “an important tool for providing help.” (Weissman et al,, 1983, p. 1)

Social work is an organizational profession, and most clinical practice takes place in an organizational context.…For clients, this means that help can only be received when the social agency, as an organization, is responsive to their needs. Responsiveness entails offering the kind of service clients want, when it is needed and in sufficient amounts (Weissman et al, 1983, p. 9).

After so many years, this statement still holds true. I would add that an organizational imperative is to ensure that clients receive that care in an atmosphere of dignity and respect where the client’s needs are primary. If an organization serves its clients well, it will then be better positioned to take care of staff by providing adequate working conditions in the form of salary, environment, training and supervision. In order to perform their best, professionals need to balance their work in the therapy room with opportunities for growth such as continuing study, in-service training, and involvement in the life of the organization. These are important to achieve balance and to maintain a sense of professionalism, competence, and personal agency.

It is not true that social workers are unskilled in managing budgets and lack appreciation of finances. In fact, I would argue that this is a main area where a social work executive may be critical in a human service organization, particularly as we have to make increasingly difficult choices today to stay solvent. These choices can be made consistent with social work values. For example, consideration can be given to the criticality of need and centrality to mission as well as capacity to generate sufficient revenue. Other factors can also be considered such as demonstrated relevance and importance to the community. There can be a rationale to expend greater agency resources per client or spare a service from cuts that serves higher-need clients that is more central to the agency mission and is generating successful outcomes. Management strategies borrowed from the for-profit sector may view the ability to generate revenue as the only factor. Such strategies create conflict with staff who may come to view management as being concerned “only about the numbers.” This can become a polarizing force in the organization as the direct service staff begins to feel that they alone must be champions of caring for clients and administration digs in their heels managing the budget without input from providers of service. At Fordham-Tremont we are adopting a learning organization culture, part of which is bridging program and finance in budget development.

It is crucial to be able to demonstrate outcomes both qualitative and quantitative. Data-based management presents challenges in the management of human services partly for the reasons outlined above. What I refer to as the “age of accountability” is here to stay. Scarce resources should clearly be spent on programs that work. Programs need to be able to demonstrate their effectiveness. There are also built-in inequalities here as non-profit organizations do not all have the same ability to measure program effectiveness. Nevertheless, we all need to think in terms of what simple but meaningful outcomes we can measure.

Value of Direct Service Experience

As an experienced clinical social worker, I can evaluate plans for new program designs and guide decision-making regarding caseloads and staffing based upon a first-hand knowledge of clients and clinic operations having performed clinical, supervisory, and middle management roles. My understanding of the work, knowledge of human behavior, and the process of change allows me to communicate with staff on a different level. For example, in supporting staff through an organizational change, I can discuss the process in terms specific to their work. Of vital importance, I can articulate these issues in venues to attract resources and supporters to the organization.

Systems theory is consistent with my personal world view. It is useful in assessing both clinical and organizational dynamics and in guiding organizational interventions. A systemic view situates the agency in the context and is relevant across systems. My experience across multiple platforms—in mental health, chemical dependency, municipal services, government, and now the voluntary sector—has aided my development and adeptness at learning new systems, and this accumulated knowledge adds to my understanding of service delivery options, alternatives, and deficits.

Conditions for Best Services

I view my role as an Executive Director as that of creating the conditions that will offer the best services for clients and potential clients and doing so in a manner that is consistent with community priorities and in partnership with the community. It is about serving, being of service to clients, not “servicing” “consumers” or “recipients.” Leading an organization requires a leader who can inspire and motivate internally and externally. There is a direct connection between what I do as an Executive Director and what happens in the therapy room.

A social worker who possesses not only passion and a deep understanding of the joys, vicissitudes and challenges of serving clients, but also shared professional values, and who can articulate these externally, is better positioned to garner and manage resources to address client needs to lead the human service organization.

It is important for social workers in administrative roles to identify as social workers. When we seem unclear about our professional identity, we leave others confused or we invite them to define us. As a Black woman I’ve found it important not to let others define me.


Burghardt, S., Tolliver, W. (2010). Stories of Transformative Leadership in the Human Services. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage Publications.

Weissman, H., Epstein, I., Savage, A. (1983). Agency Based Social Work. Philadelphia: Temple University Press.

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