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Why Social Workers Make Great Nonprofit Leaders!


Every bookstore has endless shelves filled with volumes on effective leadership and management, usually focused on the corporate world and usually located in the “business” section of the store. Yet, as far as I have been able to determine, the common and compelling theme that seems to distinguish success in leadership is the ability to understand, motivate and communicate to the people who make up your workforce.  It’s the people, stupid!

Isn’t that pretty much what every effective social worker knows how to do?

Based on my experience over the last 25 years as a nonprofit Executive Director, I believe the basic skills that underpin effective leadership, whether in a nonprofit, governmental or corporate setting are:

  • Active listening
  • Respect
  • Appreciation of difference and diversity
  • Ability to build relationships with all stakeholders
  • Passion about mission
  • Integrity
  • Consensus-building
  • Perseverance
  • Advocacy

Guess what? These skills and attributes most typically associated with clinical social work with individuals and groups, are the very same skills that apply equally to organizational leadership.   So why wouldn’t social workers make terrific leaders?

Yes, Executive Directors of today’s complicated nonprofit organizations need to know how to interpret a balance sheet, prepare a budget and negotiation employee health insurance premiums and government contracts. But I would argue that a credible and respected leader must have more than these managerial skills.

They must embody values and ethics as well, and it is in this area that a social work education excels. Far more than in most professional schools, social work stresses not only the importance of achieving results, but HOW those results are achieved. As I think we’ve all observed from the recent meltdown of the financial services industry in the Great Recession, approaching work through an ethical lens DOES indeed matter.

Leading organizations means leading people. Modeling ethical behavior, treating employees with respect and fairness, making decisions through consensual rather than authoritarian means… these approaches reflect both good management and an important statement about values too.

For example, most organizations and companies and universities, especially in New York City today, are comprised of a workforce that is made up of people from incredibly different backgrounds, varying in age, gender, ethnicity, national origin and sexual orientation. Respect and appreciation for difference is one of the key values that are taught in social work schools and I would argue that the ability to translate and interpret those values in the workplace contributes directly to leadership and organizational effectiveness.

I emphatically believe that it is possible to be both an ethical leader and a good manager. In fact, I think the best leaders bring a sense of morality and integrity to the job.

I hope you will come to the Fordham University Graduate School of Social Service Forum on Social Work Leadership on March 18th at 5:30 pm (registration below), to hear from our distinguished panel of five social workers who also are nonprofit Executive Directors. I think you will see how a social work education provides the right preparation for leadership… and how these leaders use their social work skills every day to help their organizations and staff succeed.

Register for “Strengthening Communities Through Social Work Leadership for 100 Years.”

Nancy Wackstein, MSW
Director of Community Engagement & Partnerships
Fordham University
Graduate School of Social Service
113 West 60th Street
New York, NY 10023


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