Again this summer, I attended the United Community Services Human Services Summit here locally, a gathering of a couple hundred human services professionals, this time to talk about major trends in our communities that will impact the demand for and delivery of human services in the coming years.
I participated in a discussion about rising poverty in the suburbs, which was certainly interesting (and, of course, gave me an opportunity to do my usual “solving poverty is a question of political courage, not technical ability” speech, so that’s always welcomed!), but I found it notable that one of the trends offered as a choice to participants failed to garner enough interest to be one of the areas of discussion for the breakout groups: the rise of alternative organizational models in human services.
Now I am by no means one of the experts on social enterprises and other manifestations of these different approaches to organizational structure and governance in human services. But I have noticed the impact of this trend on my students, and, therefore, on my own thinking about organizational approaches to solving social problems, in a couple of significant ways:
It was in light of these developments, and the apparent lack of much interest in them by these local leaders in social services, that I read with interest the report by the Fourth Sector Network, The Aspen Institute, and the W.K. Kellogg Foundation–The Emerging Fourth Sector.
Here, they’re defining this fourth sector, and the organizations that comprise it, as a new class of organizations focused on sustainability–“lasting economic prosperity, social equity, and environment wellbeing”, incredibly diverse in their structures and areas of emphasis, but united by their pursuit of social goals/purposes through the method of engagement in business activities. They might be nonprofit social service organizations developing businesses in order to fund their mission work, or for-profit companies committed to democratic governance, fair compensation, transparency, and social/environmental responsibility, or some sort of hybrid in between.
As this report defines it (and this is what really caught my eye, given some of the discussion on this blog about what we should call the organizations where we do this great work), this fourth sector is the “for-benefit” sector, which holds a lot of appeal for me, since, after all, what organizations do (and achieve) should matter a lot more than what their tax status is.
So, what does this mean for social workers? There are two key pieces, I think:
At its heart, I think discussions like these, and like those I’ve been having with students and practitioners and (through social networks) “social enterprise thinkers” over the past several months, boil down to the truth that what we call ourselves, at the end of the day, doesn’t really matter.
All that matters, or should, is what we can call our work.
If that’s “good”, then the rest is just details.