Suing the hand that (doesn’t) feed them: Nonprofit organizations and human rights

Do you ever have the experience of finding that someone else has been thinking something along the very same lines that you have, and you get excited? And then you find out that they were kidding?

Um, me neither?

So here’s my basic idea: there’s this whole industry, the social service sector, that gains its legitimacy and, indeed, its very existence, on the backs of the people it serves, really. It may sound ugly to say that, but it’s true. People (foundations, governments, individual donors) give us money because of what we say we’re going to do on behalf of, and for, our clients.

And sometimes we do. And sometimes we don’t.

And so, I’ve wondered for a long time, what if clients could sue social service providers for failing to provide the services/benefits/impact that they promise, implicitly or explicitly, to both donors and the clients themselves?

Now, I know, an attorney reading this will immediately point out that there’s no ground for a suit…

but that’s my whole point.

When what we’re providing is charity, the message we’re essentially sending to our clients is that they’re lucky to get what they get, and, if they don’t get what they were supposed to (because we don’t have a really good theory of change, or our methods are outdated, or our workers aren’t well-trained, or we’re cutting corners to cut costs), then, well, “social work isn’t an exact science”, or something like that.

If we used a more rights-based approach, perhaps not in the touchy-feely human rights sense (because I think that there are some legitimate concerns about that, as raised in the posts linked above), then in a more contractual one, then there would be, at least, an implied right to legal redress.

Because, really, in a way, that’s what we have in the human service arena–a compact between service providers and funders and clients, where only the clients lack a right to legal action if they don’t receive what it is that they were promised.

Sure, they can (and should!) sue if there’s actual malfeasance, unethical behavior, or real harm.

But what about the ‘softer’ harm that is leveled against people every day, in many small ways? The programs that are poorly designed, and the ones that come with far too many restrictions and requirements for anyone to succeed; the inexperienced staff who were hired to save money, or because of nepotism; the bigotry that, while perhaps never crossing a legal line, permeates so many organizations; the squandered resources, the missed opportunities, the slowly lost dreams?

I, for one, would love to see a class action suit, or at least the threat of one, against social service organizations who, despite perhaps being well-intentioned, have, perhaps unconsciously, settled into a lull of believing that those same good intentions are sufficient. Who buy into the idea that they’re saving the world just by showing up. Who think that ‘good enough’ really is. I’d love to see real accountability mean not just answering to those who write the checks, but those against whose lives those checks are leveraged, those who make the whole enterprise possible. Those who would, in an ideal world, really call the shots.

And I am not kidding.

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10 responses to “Suing the hand that (doesn’t) feed them: Nonprofit organizations and human rights

  1. I believe the threat of a class action suit against these agencies would be warranted. I have worked in the social work sector for 7 years of my life. I have never, once, worked for an agency that had been able to back up the promises that they have to the people served. It does not matter what the population. I believe that a lot of the broken promises come from the state, however this does not excuse the problem. This is not only true of non-profit organizations. The state of Kansas has made broken promises to the population we serve on a greater level they like to call Kancare. The newest promise is eliminating the under-served list in the IDD sector. This sounds great but how they will do it? The agencies here in Wichita are at max capacity and many of those on the under-served list are waiting for residential placement. With smaller agencies folding under the weight of the recession, larger agencies are already full. Unfortunately, this promise looks like another broken one for out population and the state is setting themselves up for failure.

    • And, then, there can result a culture of promises that no one expects to be kept, which makes them not really promises at all, and erodes the accountability we all–clients, workers, organizations–have a right to expect. Is there a movement to take action around KanCare? What do you think should be done? What is the role for social work?

  2. It is very interesting that the though of a class action suit against social service agencies was raised because there are many social services agencies that do not do what they should when serving clients. However, I believe the chances of such a thing happening would be slim. A lot of the clients I work with fail to advocate for themselves when they suspect something is wrong and even when they know it is wrong, it tends to be easier for most to bypass those things because they have so many other stressors to worry about. For example, a lot of families have trouble with getting interpreter services at the hospital, so important information is missed because the hospital failed to provide proper services to serve that family. I have had many families complain about it, but have done nothing and do not plan to even make a complaint. I believe that the best thing we can do within social agencies ourselves it to make sure that we as individuals are doing the right thing to properly serve clients and be an example to others in the workplace. However if a class action suit is ever filled against some agencies, I believe it would be a rude awakening.

    • Great example about interpreters! One of the first things that I talk about with a lot of the organizations I work with is their grievance/appeals process, to make sure that clients know how to navigate their rights. And that also takes, I believe, empowering workers, so that they feel comfortable helping clients to advocate for themselves. Powerless social workers aren’t in a position to empower anyone!

      On Sun, Feb 23, 2014 at 12:47 PM, Classroom to Capitol wrote:


  3. Wow, you made a really good point! To think that if we don’t actually give what we are supposed to give under the social expectations could lead to a law suit is kind of scary but I do think that we would be more likely to own up to these expectations. I work with the mental health organization and I really try to “make a difference” in the lives of those I serve but ultimately, they are responsible to either apply my recommendations or not so we document these efforts. I would say it is about 50% of the families that truly follow thru. This is partly do to what I call social acceptance of what they feel is the right way to parent their child. Some parents do not understand how to apply new concepts of discipline such as discarding punishment to rewarding positive behaviors. If the parents decided to sue for my negligence, I could produce the documentation that shows that I did recommend different courses of actions that were not followed through. Many of these parents want someone to “fix” their children but I really try to empower them to incorporate different strategies in parenting. This sometimes gives them a feeling of making their own changes instead of me providing services. Thank goodness that your suggestion is not truly doable at this time. There would be more court cases that would cost more money and time that could be devoted to helping those in need.

    • I think, actually, Mary, that building a system that provided greater redress for grievances would improve work in nonprofit agencies–for clients, who might have a better chance of getting their needs met if workers felt that clients had recourse if not, and for workers, too, who would, I think, feel empowered to be part of a truly accountable system. The challenge is getting there, which would require culture shifts so that workers’ interests aren’t seen as in opposition to clients, and so that it’s not framed as adversarial, this idea of holding organizations accountable for delivering the outcomes they intend (which, I believe, would also result in greater attention to the environmental contexts that interfere with that success).

  4. I think a class action suit would be appropriate for agencies that try and take the “easy way out”! When organizations low ball, many are effected by not following through with the full extent, especially, when it comes to agencies that serve others/clients. So sure, they should be held accountable. I know there is more involved than good intentions. Often times funding or some kind of reimbursement is received because nothing is free. However, there are better more effective ways to save money and valuable resources when it comes to our clients and their rights! This is a touchy situation but I do feel that if we teach our clients to advocate well enough for them, we could very well see some suits in the feature regarding these little things. I really enjoyed this blog as it gives perspective and enlightens us and make us more aware and accountable for EVERY step we take when working with clients and making sure we document thoroughly and do everything to the tee when it comes to protecting ourselves (those that work in a social services agency) and our license.

    • Thanks so much for your comment, Jennie! Yes, I think it’s intended to be thought-provoking, more than anything–certainly lawsuits aren’t THE answer, but I want to see us shift the paradigm, so that we’re not falling into the trap of assuming that our clients should be ‘grateful’ for whatever we’re able to provide them, but instead setting high standards for what we can accomplish together! I really appreciate your comments.

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