Tag Archives: students

Jumping in with both feet: Nonprofit Board service for new social workers

New Board members for Kansas City Friends of Alvin Ailey (http://www.kcfaa.org/about/board-of-directors/)--pretty much all guaranteed to be cooler than I am, but wouldn't that be fun?

New Board members for Kansas City Friends of Alvin Ailey (http://www.kcfaa.org/about/board-of-directors/)--pretty much all guaranteed to be cooler than I am, but wouldn't that be fun?

There are a lot of resources out there for young professionals who are interested in serving on a nonprofit Board of Directors, but they are mostly written from the “make your life more meaningful by applying your skills to the heart-warming work of nonprofits” perspective. For social work students, recent graduates, and young professionals, that doesn’t make much sense. I mean, we spend our 9-5 (OK, 9-7? 9-9?) lives ‘giving back’–why in the world would we volunteer for ANOTHER nonprofit organization in our (limited) free time?

During the last several months, though, I’ve found myself making this suggestion to many of my students and former students: consider joining a nonprofit Board of Directors. And so I’ve done some thinking about why I think this makes sense for social workers, and also how I would suggest that a social worker and/or social work student get started. Some of the links above are still applicable, though, and could be helpful in preparing you for how some of your Board colleagues will approach their Board service, given that, for most nonprofit organizations, the majority of them will not be social workers!

“I’m a social worker. Why Board service?”
The rationale is unique to every Board member, and to every organization/member match, so you’ll have to find your particular reason for serving, but here are some that I have articulated in conversations with future, new, and relatively new social workers:

  • Get to know how Boards of Directors operate–this will help you as you approach your own agency’s Board as part of your organizational change strategies or as a social work executive within the organization. You’ll learn how Board meetings operate, how committees function, and what drives Board members’ decision-making. Obviously, each Board has its own nuances, but you’ll open the secret curtain and learn some insights that can guide your own work.
  • Build relationships with powerful figures in your community, which can also help you to leverage influence for your own causes. Obviously, you need to authentically care about the organization on whose Board you’re serving, not just be there to meet people who can help you with your full-time job, but the deep relationships that you can build on a Board of Directors can spill over into other work as well.
  • Build skills that will complement your social work skills–you can serve on personnel, finance, or fundraising committees (they’re, um, pretty much always looking for volunteers!). You’ll often serve alongside accountants, business people, managers–those who have some of the skills you may be looking to enhance. These skills can help you in your own work and/or professional advancement.
  • Relieve burnout by getting involved in a cause not directly related to your own work. I know that others might have a different idea of relaxation/recreation, but I find serving organizations that are doing valuable work that is not my own work lifts my spirits and recharges me for my daily commitments. When I was nearly drowning in immigration lobbying, for example, I volunteered at a domestic violence shelter, helping with an art therapy project (I know–art therapy, me? But it worked; all I had to do was manage the supplies and help with the promotion piece!). It centered me to be with clients and to be a bit outside my element. You can choose a Board that’s working on something close to your heart but not directly related to your main job.
  • Distinguish yourself from other candidates–here’s where you’re not so different from that business student looking to enhance his/her résumé. The job market is not good for social workers, especially in some fields/areas, and serving on a Board can set you a bit apart, help you make connections, and place you centerstage if that organization looks for permanent hires.

    “OK, so it might be a good idea. How do I get started? And how do I keep this from taking over my life?”

  • Start with organizations you admire and trust–maybe those with which you have served in coalition, or places you have referred a client and been pleased with the result? Every organization has its own conflict of interest policy for Board members, so you’ll need to be upfront about your affiliations with the organization, but you can usually find a way to make it work.
  • Find a good fit between the organization and what you want out of it–if you’re after skill enhancement, you probably want a smaller nonprofit where the Board is more hands-on; if you want to build relationships with powerful people, then a larger organization is probably for you. Ask about the time commitment, the committee structure, financial obligations, and other parameters. You want to know what you should expect!
  • Finally, be prepared to ‘sell’ your social work background to organizations. Because most nonprofits are much more familiar with social workers as employees rather than Board members, you will likely need to explain how your particular skill and knowledge set will be an asset to their organization’s leadership: your understanding of their client base, perhaps; your ability to represent some of the concerns of workers; your facilitation and conflict resolution experience; your data analysis or presentation skills; your understanding of grant guidelines or federal/state regulations…think about what you know, and what you can do, and how those abilities connect to what organizations need to accomplish.

    I’d love to hear from new social workers who serve on Boards of Directors–what benefits did I overlook? What have your experiences been as Board members? And what advice would you like to share? Do you have resources to help other social work Board members?

  • I should make “Facebook” part of your learning contract??

    If something sits on your desktop long enough, and it’s about social media, someone will come out with something new and you don’t have to worry about it! And then, of course, the new thing sits for quite awhile, too, and then you wait until you’ve got a nice, natural tie-in (to rationalize the delays!)?

    So here’s the thing. There’s a lot of talk these days about nonprofit organizations and social media and whether it’s all just a lot of hype or whether there’s real potential there, and how we’ll ever know because organizations aren’t tracking outcomes like they should, and because they don’t have the money to invest the way that they’d need to in order to get the outcomes they want and…all anyone wants is to be like Charity:water and is that so wrong? Or so hard?

    The answers, of course, to those last two questions are no. And yes.

    But so what this got me thinking, since it’s April and in social work education land that means students interviewing with practicum sites and looking forward to next year and thinking about where they’ll fit in their next stage of actual practice (!), is that maybe we need to start carving out a role for social work students, at least those in a social work administration/advocacy practice-type concentration, for a social media presence within social work organizations.

    I know, all of the social media experts caution nonprofits that they can’t just solve their social media problems by sticking an intern on the task, but we know that social work practicum students are NOT just “interns”. They bring the value base and client-centeredness of social work, the support of their university setting, and, not insignificantly, a huge time commitment every week over a relatively long period. And, for the most part, they have some familiarity with social media, a passion for their organizations and their work, and a desire to let the world in on the terrific stuff that’s going on in their corner of it!

    I know it’s a bit of a stretch, but, if nonprofit leaders are successfully convincing their Boards of Directors and CEOs that they need to invest in social media (oftentimes at considerable financial cost), and if social media mavens like <a href="“>Heather Mansfield are coming up with really concrete, fairly easy ways to tell the impact that social media has on an organization and its work, can’t we convince field instructors and the field education powers that be that it has a place in social work education too?

    Here are some of my thoughts, based on a review of the learning contract for advanced administrative students, on how some basic social media strategies (like creating and maintaining a presence on social networking sites, using social news sites, and assisting with an organizational blog) might fit in:

  • “Briefly describe the history of your agency, being sure to emphasize historical and current mission statements, targeted clients, catchment area, and important partner agencies.”–This requires being able to tell an organization’s story, and those are the kinds of stories that can motivate people to action when told in a social medium. Think about a series of blog posts about turning points in a particular organization’s history, or using social media to connect to current and potential coalition partners in the community.
  • “Interview several direct service social workers and clients in order to gain an in-depth understanding of client needs (both met and unmet needs), the day-to-day activities of direct service social workers, and the challenges they face.” Again, these stories would be so compelling as blog posts, or accompanied by photos and posted as links to Facebook, or as part of a revamped, interactive organizational website. We need to think about how we can accomplish student learning goals while simultaneously advancing the organizational mission–that’s what field education is, at its best.
  • “Demonstrate the ability to represent the agency in a professionally responsible manner in the community.” Um, enough said?
  • “Use at least one advanced administrative practice skill designed to influence policy and/or program development, implementation, or change on behalf of clients and/or communities in the student’s chosen field of practice.” If we apply some of the evaluation techniques to figure out the impact of our social media work on our social change goals, this could fit very well. Certainly the relationship-building, message-crafting, and strategic planning that go into a good social media approach qualify as ‘advanced practice skills’.
  • “Apply knowledge, skill, and abilities to mobilize resources for meeting needs and enhancing well-being.” This could be really fun–maybe a Twitter-based fundraising campaign, or a Cause on Facebook, or a Flickr photo contest that ties into the organization’s website, driving traffic and boosting donations. As a field instructor, this was always a hard item for me to tackle, but I can see a lot of potential with social media.
  • “Demonstrate the use knowledge and skills to build teams and organizational cultures that maximize staff morale and engage community diversity and Demonstrate an understanding of how knowledge and skills can be applied to recruit, interview and hire prospective staff members/volunteers.” This is a particularly good fit, I think, given the necessarily social nature of social media and the opportunities to use outlets like blogging to build a sense of community, help workers to tell their stories, and bring in new people who will be committed to the organization’s mission.
  • And, finally, “Demonstrate the knowledge and skills needed to develop measures of status change, behavior change, client satisfaction, productivity, efficiency, resource acquisition, and staff morale for an agency program.” Maybe social work students could even design a social media program and its indicators of success, to develop an increased understanding of outcomes and how to track them while laying the foundation for the organization’s successful implementation of a social media approach?

    Look, I know that social media is never going to be the core of the social work field contract. Nor should it be. But I also know that social work, as a profession, has to be continually concerned with keeping our skills relevant, providing real value to those organizations who facilitate our very existence by providing field placements, and sustaining our work by helping the organizations where we practice to survive. Social media is showing some real promise in helping nonprofit organizations to connect to new people in new ways and build momentum around their work, and I think that social work students are particularly well-poised to play a role in this revolution.

    Now, let me know if you want some help figuring out how to approach your supervisor!

    Study on Nonprofits and Social Media ROI (or lack thereof)

  • Good news for social work administrator salaries?

    by nomm de photo, via Flickr's Creative Commons

    The nonprofit world has been buzzing for the past few months over news of long-awaited changes in how nonprofit organizations are rated. For several years, the primary measure of nonprofit “excellence”, according to many of the sector watchdog organizations which prospective donors and others consult before making decisions of support, has been the ‘overhead’ to ‘program’ ratio (both in quotes because of their rather dubious definitions). There are tremendous problems with this very blunt measure, the most serious of which is the fact that it does not actually measure anything very helpful about a nonprofit’s work at all, namely: is it actually solving the social problem it sets out to solve?

    But another problem with the reliance on overhead ratios as the benchmark of nonprofit success is its depressing effect on the salaries of those working within nonprofits because, of course, salaries are most often counted as “overhead”, especially the salaries of nonprofit administrators (anyone not engaged in direct programming).

    But there is cause for hope, as macro practice social workers head for graduation this spring, when many will officially become part of nonprofit organizations’ “overhead”, applying their skills and knowledge to the effective operation of organizations that, if led by talented people with clear visions of social change and real leadership to marshal resources towards that change, will be part of the solution to our most vexing social ills.

    Late last fall, Charity Navigator, the largest and most prominent of the nonprofit watchdog groups, announced that they are totally revamping their formulas for evaluating nonprofit organizations. They will heavily discount their old reliance on overhead ratios in favor of (yet unannounced) metrics that emphasize impact.

    Very exciting, really, for all of us who care far more that our nonprofit organizations actually achieve what it is that they set out to do, rather than how much money they spend on salaries in order to get it done. (And, as an aside, I really think that’s just about everyone. I mean, people get all riled up about xyz nonprofit executive making “too much money”, but if I show them a program that spends 100% of its revenues on ‘program’, say, having a volunteer hand out $100 bills to homeless people, I can guarantee you that they wouldn’t be too excited.)

    But, it’s almost graduation time, so let’s talk about what’s really on the minds of macro practice soon-to-be social workers everywhere: getting a job that will pay you a decent (read: pay your loans and still earn a real, living wage) salary.

    According to the most recent Bureau of Labor Statistics data, the median hourly wage for social service managers, the closest category to social work administration, was $26.92/hour. Assuming full-time work (which, certainly, cannot be assumed in today’s economy, but most management positions are full-time), you’re looking at about $54,000/year. Doesn’t sound that bad, probably, except when you consider that that’s a national figure, which is distorted by the much higher costs of living in some parts of the country (and correspondingly higher wages) and when you look at the BLS numbers for chief executives, who earn a median $76.23/hour, about three times as much, to do very similar kinds of work: manage budgets, oversee personnel, interface with external stakeholders, plan for the future, deal with threats, and solve problems.

    Enter this whole discussion about overhead and how we should define and monitor a “good” nonprofit organization. The way that I see it, as long as low overhead equals good organization, then there are very powerful incentives for nonprofit leaders, including other social work administrators, to keep administrative salaries low, even dangerously low, to the extent that it can be difficult to recruit and retain the best and brightest minds.

    If, conversely, we start defining a good nonprofit organization as one that excels at its mission, that succeeds in addressing the problem that is its target, that innovates, that surpasses expectations…then won’t there be just as powerful an incentive to find the very best person possible to lead that organization, even if it costs more to hire her?

    It’s crazy, really, when you think about it. If a society’s values are lived out in its allocation of resources (which they largely are), then it would appear that we value the creation of new items for Taco Bell’s value menu more than the eradication of homelessness. Or the cure for AIDS. Or the end of child abuse.

    You get the idea.

    There will obviously be a lag, as the changes in the sector’s barometer slowly infuse themselves into organizational practices. But I truly believe that we’ll see a rise in the demand for top-notch nonprofit organizational leadership in the years to come, and the salaries to go along with it.

    Now social work administrators have to make the case that we are uniquely qualified to provide that leadership. That’s another challenge, but one that I can imagine my students and former students will tackle with gusto.

    It’s that time of year again…J-O-B

    So another terrific class of macro social workers is getting ready to graduate from the University of Kansas (and, I’m certain, many other schools of social work around the country!), and, while the social work job market may not be quite as tight has it was for the class of 2009, it’s still a rough field out there. At this time of year, my thoughts turn to job searching in macro practice and how to help graduating students and other social workers who are looking for macro practice jobs. To get us started, here is a list of links of online job sources (all in nonprofit/social change work), a couple of articles about job searching in a recession, and a presentation on using purposeful internships to set yourself apart from other candidates (it’s good; sorry for the random punctuation around it–I spent 30 minutes trying to cut it out and moved on!).

    Keep me posted on your job search process, and please, once you’re successful finding a great job that allows you to advance your life while serving your cause, share your tips!

    Opportunity Knocks
    Opportunity Knocks has listings of nonprofit jobs, a Nonprofit Wage and Benefit Report, a place to post your resume, tons of helpful articles, and a list of job fairs around the country.

    Idealist has nonprofit job listings and hosts career fairs in a number of cities. Sign up for email alerts for nonprofit jobs in your area.

    Jobs For Change
    This is the one that I wrote up last year. They also have columns and advice for job seekers.

    Mostly administrative-type jobs in the nonprofit, health care, and government sectors.

    Philanthropy Careers
    These are pretty fundraising-heavy listings, but there are some administrative positions, too, and it has high volume.

    Council on Foundations
    This site has a lot of postings and thorough descriptions.

    Philanthropy Journal
    This site includes entry-level nonprofit jobs plus those in management/leadership.

    The NonProfit Times
    This is kind of old-school, basically the classified ads for the nonprofit world’s newspaper. They also operate a career advice center.

    This is unofficially for the Gen-X and Gen-Yers–part of OnPhilanthropy. I subscribe to their FLiP blog for insights on nonprofit leadership for young adults.

    Don’t forget Craigslist. More nonprofits are putting openings there because it’s a free listing.

    More Resources:
    Nonprofit Job Searching in Tough Times

    Nonprofit Job Search Tips



    The dreaded “Class Participation” grade: can technology help?

    photo credit, deborah jaffe, via flickr

    **I’m teaching a new class this semester: Human Behavior in the Social Environment: Groups, Organizations, and Communities, and it has prompted a lot of thinking about group development, in particular, and some new ideas about organizational impact on practice, too. This week, I’ll have a few posts about some of the topics that I’m raising in this class, tying in some of the reading I’ve been doing around these ideas. I (and, I’m sure, my students!) would appreciate any of your feedback, too.

    One of the challenges of any instructor, I think, is how to solicit the full participation of all students in a way that supports the learning of other students as well. For social work instructors, where most of our classes are very participatory, and where a big part of our, rather unspoken, responsibility is to assess the degree to which a student is not only intellectually but also ethically congruent with our profession, finding this instructional ‘sweet spot’ is even more critical. We tell students that it’s not enough just to be present; they have to participate. Yet we (or, at least, I) struggle to quantify ‘participation’, and, even more importantly, to qualify it–how do I honor each student’s contribution, respect differences in language abilities and speed of processing, preserve confidentiality, and deal with conflicts among students (and student comments that challenge my own understanding of our professional value base)? On the fly, yet with a record that will later allow me to assign a point value to these interactions?

    Over the winter break, in preparation for this class, which is a bit larger than some of my Master-level courses and also uses quite a bit of group work, I did some reading on pedagogy and also on group interactions and group work for learning. In light of those insights, and in preparation for class next fall, which will be half online, I am incorporating the use of online discussion boards, internal to our class, into the class participation grade. It has been mostly a success so far, largely because I was able to learn from the experiences of other instructors who have forged these paths before, although I’m still experimenting with ways to address some of the challenges.

    Perhaps not surprisingly, I’m finding that the new medium doesn’t really change many of the dynamics and patterns of student participation; it mainly moves them to a new venue. At this midpoint in the semester (happy spring break, everyone!), here are my admittedly unscientific reflections on the limits and potential of discussion boards in social work education.

  • They absolutely help students whose only barrier to participation is shyness. I have had some wonderful, quite meaningful exchanges (and observed some others) with students who say almost nothing in the full class environment. This is a huge advantage; those students who obviously are very engaged with the material but just don’t feel comfortable expressing themselves in class have a new outlet.
  • Students tend to disclose more in a discussion board than they would in class. In some cases, this is really powerful; they delve more deeply into the course, and we are able to build a stronger relationship, than would otherwise be possible, in a shorter time. Sometimes this is kind of awkward, though, when students disclose things that they really might not want, on more reflection, me (or other students) to know; there’s an anonymity (even though there isn’t) on the discussion board, and boundaries can be a little blurred.
  • The core challenges in creating meaningful class participation experiences remain: students tend to react more to me than to each other, despite my attempts to draw linkages; students tend to answer the questions posed more than critically explore unanswered quandaries; and it’s harder to get students to bring in course readings and other, external perspectives than to get them to just respond from their own experiences. This doesn’t discourage me from using discussion boards but, rather, suggests that they are not the panacea that some would hope.
  • Finally, and unexpectedly, I love having a record! I can look back at how students have changed their understanding over the weeks, how relationships are developing, how we’ve been able to build in class off what we do on the boards. It makes assigning grades easier, too, because I don’t have to keep track of points every week.

    Students and instructors using discussion boards, in social work or elsewhere in higher education, I’d love to hear your thoughts and experiences. How can we make this technology maximally useful? How can it complement classwork? And what do you see as its dangers?

  • Guest Post: Justice for all–including those with mental illness

    Note from Melinda: This is a guest post from one of my all-time most awesome students, from whom I have learned, and continue to learn, a great deal about what it means to be a great social worker. I asked her to write something about an issue that should matter a great deal to all social workers, both in our quest for social justice, and in our efforts to build the political power of our organizations and those we serve. Thank you, Cookie, for all you do and all you are. I’m so very, very glad to know you.

    My name is Janet Cook, or simply Cookie. I am a mental health consumer (dual diagnosed) and a convicted felon. Some of you may ask yourself why I am sharing this very personal information for all to see. Am I not opening myself up to judgmental attitudes, unfair labeling and just plain old, everyday common discrimination? Yes I am, but for good reasons.

    First, I could not care less about what strangers may think of me. My family and friends know me and, to borrow the infamous statement by Sally Fields after her Oscar win, “They really, really like me.” It has always been my philosophy in life that if someone does not like me I am okay with that as long as they have made at least the most basic effort to get to know me. Also, I am neither naïve nor narcissistic enough to think that everyone will like me or afford me the opportunity to be who I am without judgment.

    That being said, I now come to my second reason for sharing the above information. My felony conviction, a condition over which I had control, allowed me to resume my right to vote once my civil rights were restored by completing my sentence and probation. First thing I did was re-register to vote. No lie–that is how important my right to vote is to me.

    On the other hand, my mental illnesses, lifelong conditions that I never asked for but have accepted as just one part of who I am, can deny me right to vote in one of 40 states that places voting restrictions on people with mental illness, including Kansas.

    In Kansas, if I am under guardianship or have been found incompetent, my right to vote is assured because the Kansas Legislature removed references to these conditions in 1974. However, prohibitions for individuals who are insane, i.e. suffer from mental illness, and felons were left in the Constitution. Am I the only one who does not see the logic in this?

    Kansas SCR 1622 is a concurrent resolution that would remove the references to mental illness and suffrage rights from the Kansas Constitution. The right to vote is our most fundamental duty and honor as citizens, and struggles throughout history have sought to extend it to all. Yet in recent committee meetings some State Senators voiced belief that people should have the capacity to make proper judgment or some level of capacity before being allowed to vote. I have to ask myself how election officials might go about “testing” every registered voter to make sure he/she will make a “proper judgment” before casting a vote. Any and all ideas are welcomed.

    Fortunately, SCR 1622 was passed by the full Senate by a resounding majority-38 yeas and one nay. The fight in the Kansas House is going to be a bit more of a battle. The bottom line is that all Kansans need to contact their State Representative to ask them to support SCR 1622. If you don’t live in Kansas, find out what your state’s laws are regarding the suffrage rights of those with mental illness, and connect with consumer groups advocating to extend and protect this core right.

    By all accounts, approximately one in four Americans suffer from a mental illness. Look around you right now, at your work place, at the mall, in the grocery store or wherever. Every fourth person you see or meet in all likelihood suffers from a mental illness. Do you or anyone else have the right to tell them that “Hey, you can’t vote. You’re just too crazy.” Sound silly? Guess not in at least 40 out of 50 states in the great country of ours. And at the same time, the social work profession tells consumers, including those with mental illness, that they need to take responsibility for their own services, engage in their communities, advocate to protect the services on which they depend. We can’t pay lip service to empowerment if we’re not willing to fight for the most basic power–that of the vote–and against discriminatory efforts to deny it.

    Spread the word. To find out who your Kansas State Representative is and how to contact him or her, go to http://www.kslegislature.org. Tell your representative that you’re a voter, and that you think every Kansas citizen should be too.

    Saying “I told you so”–the power of social indicators

    I love it when I find the perfect example to use for class. It’s as though the world is guest lecturing, or something. Wonderful.

    One of the assignments that I use for the Advanced Policies and Programs course relates to social indicators–basically, how we know what it is that we think we know about the social problems that face us. For example, we don’t know what real unemployment looks like, we only know our unemployment rate, which uses a particular definition of unemployment (which specifically excludes those people who are so discouraged that they’ve given up looking for a job), and which inevitably misses some people who might, from their own perspective, view themselves as ‘unemployed’.

    The assignment asks students to analyze a social problem and its indicator, discussing how the indicator might be improved, the particular perspective it articulates, and what the indicator says about how we, collectively, view that social problem. Students are unanimous that it’s a tough assignment, because they have to dissect social problems in a way that they never have before, but it’s also uniquely useful in making them more sophisticated analysts, better able to critique our way of ‘knowing’.

    And one of the points that I make frequently is that the mere fact that we collect social indicators on some social problems and not really on others says volumes about what we really prioritize, and that a way to begin to shift those priorities can be, sometimes, just changing the kinds of questions that we ask and the kinds of data we collect. After all, we can’t paint those very compelling pictures of injustice if we don’t know exactly what that injustice looks like (or, at least, we can’t do it well).

    A section in Half the Sky (go on, get it now, I’ll wait) speaks to this. In 2000, Congress started to require the State Department to put out an annual Trafficking in Persons Report (TIP). It ranks countries according to how they combat trafficking, and it includes sanctions for those in the lowest tier.

    This is where, often, social justice advocates would start to roll their eyes–the whole “Rome burns and we issue a report” thing.

    But wait. The power of social indicators.

    What happened once Congress started to require this report is that American diplomats had to collect the data, so they started to talk with ministry counterparts in the countries where they were working, putting pressure on them to collect the data, prioritizing trafficking then, similarly to anti-terrorism, weapons proliferation, and drug trafficking concerns. The foreign ministries had to find the data that the Americans were demanding, or else risk their approbation. And, of course, those sanction threats didn’t hurt either.

    Whether from wanting to avoid falling into that lower tier, currying favor with Americans (perhaps to make up for other areas where they were falling short of diplomats’ expectations), or legitimately outraged at what they were discovering in their countries as a result of their inquiries, countries began to act. They passed laws, conducted law enforcement raids, and initiated their own investigations. As the authors discuss and I found in my own research into this effort subsequently, the TIP has even more potential for impact. As is perhaps not surprising, the human trafficking office is marginalized within the Department of State (they report that it’s not even in the same building!). The issuance of the report is perfunctory, when we need press conferences and Presidential response. And, while the lowest tier countries are sanctioned, there are no incentives for those excelling.

    Still, there are indications that, in the wake of TIP, the cost of doing business went up for brothels, eroding their profits and encouraging some traffickers to find another line of work. And the ripple effects from formally denouncing trafficking and exploitation of women are significant, too.

    Indicators matter. We collect and talk about and disseminate that about which we care. And as we, as social workers, improve our ability to use and interpret and manipulate social indicators to not only reflect social problems but actually move the needle, we’ll get closer to the world as it should be.

    Multi-media classes

    So my new favorite word for something that has long been my favorite thing?


    Basically, what this means for me, particularly in my teaching, is that I have always learned a lot from being willing to ask a lot of questions, from expecting a lot from my students (in terms of what they have to contribute), and from displaying a kind of hyper-enthusiasm (that, truly, is completely authentic) for all things organizing/advocacy/policy/politics related that people either get swept into it or just feel sorry for me, so that we have great discussions and generate a lot of new thought around the topic.

    And, now that I’m engaged in redesigning the Advanced Policies & Programs course for the mixed-media format, I’m using crowdsourcing to solicit ideas for how to structure the class and finding that some crowdsourcing-type principles are working their way into its design, as well.

    Here’s what I’m thinking so far for the course outline. I don’t teach it until Fall 2010, but I have to make podcasts of some lectures and redesign the syllabus and all of the assignments, and familiarize myself with some of the technology for the chat rooms and discussion boards, so it’s really going to be here before I know it.

  • Podcasts of some of my lectures–I just can’t see people wanting to watch me on video; as my students know, I am incapable of standing still when I talk, and I think that sitting down in front of a computer to watch me talk about regulatory policy for 90 minutes would be punishing, but the thought is that having a podcast that students could either listen to while doing something else or use in conjunction with a PowerPoint presentation timed to advance with the audio would be helpful.
  • Some additional handouts, and PowerPoint presentations with not only key concepts but also some examples and application of the concepts–particularly with some additional visuals (since I am guilty of excessive words on slides!) I’m looking for some video to use where I can–for example, as examples of policy presentations (both effective and not).
  • Blog posts from me, weekly, about the topics that we’re covering in the course, with students commenting on those in order to create a kind of conversation–so, for example, when we’re studying local policymaking, I’ll attend some city council/county commission meetings and blog about not only the substance but also the form of that type of government, and ask for student contributions and reflections.
  • Lots of use of chat rooms and discussion forums–I’ll be starting conversations about such topics as “the use of discretion: social workers as policymakers” or “barriers to policy change within nonprofit organizations”, and students can either log in at specific times for a live chat (which, I think, would be particularly helpful for those who want to ask questions and/or feel that they are developing a relationship with me as their instructor) or visit at their own convenience to offer their comments
  • Virtual group projects–a lot of them! I’m thinking that students will work in groups to create a policy guidebook, on a specific type of policymaking, for a specific organizational audience (so, for example, Guide to Regulatory Policy for homeless shelters–where they’ll talk about where to find proposed regulations, how regulatory policy impacts shelters, examples of successful advocacy, resources…) and work together on those, using some of our in-class time but mainly the discussion forums and Google Documents to share work. I’m also reworking the final session of the course, so that I’ll provide some statistics and background information on the major trends impacting social policy and student groups will do presentations that discuss the implications for their practice/our profession.
  • REALLY dynamic in-person classes. Our consultant for the mixed media classes pointed out that, when students receive much of the course content online, the in-person classes have to be really terrific for them not to think, “I could have done this from home on my computer!” So I’m planning two panels of guest speakers (policymakers, organizations engaged in influencing policy), student presentations, small group work on policy-related dilemmas…trying to figure out how to make those sessions maximally engaging.

    What do you think?

    Here’s what I need from all of you (my crowd, so to speak!):

    Have you participated in online/distance learning before? If so, what worked about those courses, and what didn’t? What did you wish that the teacher had done/provided to help with your learning?

    What would help you the most in figuring out how to engage material around policymaking and policy analysis in a mixed-media/online format? What is your learning style, and what kind of distance learning activities/materials do you think would help most?

    What do you think about what I’ve outlined here? Anything sound too bizarre or too boring? Students who took this class with me, what ideas do you have for how to organize the delivery of this content?

    Crowd, please, source away!

  • What Makes a Good Policy Brief?

    There are quite a few resources available on how to write a policy brief, but I still find that students struggle somewhat with this assignment, in part because it is such a different writing task than they usually face. A part of me always feels a little bit guilty for assigning it, too, because the truth is that I just don’t find them all that useful in actual lobbying; at least on the issues on which I mostly advocate, policymakers are more interested in the political ramifications than a set of factual arguments. So I found myself using talking points, lists of endorsers, myth v. fact sheets, and other materials, slightly less dense with facts. Still, I think that the process of researching and writing a policy brief is a very important one for policy advocates; it forces us to familiarize ourselves with the existing information from multiple viewpoints, to hone our statement of the social problem, to clearly articulate why our policy option is the best one, and to identify those messages that will be the most concise and coherent as we move forward with the campaign. And, of course, instructors (like me!) keep assigning policy briefs, so students will need to keep grappling with this exercise, at least in the classroom setting.

    Some thoughts on what makes a good policy brief, based on my research into others’ instructions for policy brief preparation, my work preparing dozens of briefs, and my review of many more dozens of student and organizational briefs.

    The best policy briefs:

  • Are short, of course, which pretty much goes without saying, and also a little repetitive, because policymakers may just scan the page, so you want them to have multiple opportunities to notice your best points. Pictures, graphs, and other visuals (along with lots of white space) are also good.
  • Use common terms, spell out every acronym, and are in general highly accessible to people who are not familiar at all with the policy issue. You’ll create other documents (like talking points) for your hardcore advocates; policy briefs are primarily used by those with relatively little context or additional information, so they need to be able to stand alone.
  • Address a social problem. I know, it sounds elementary, but I have seen ‘policy briefs’ where the reader is still not exactly sure that anything is really wrong, or why the supposed social problem is, indeed, problematic. You don’t need to state that the world will come to an end if your policy isn’t adopted, certainly, but you need enough research to tell a convincing story about why change is needed.
  • Clearly state a policy preference, and why it is the best solution to the problem (as outlined). Social workers sometimes try to play too nice, and to give too much credence to every possible alternative, as though there were no really bad ideas. Of course there are, plenty, and too many of them are making their way into law! Say what should be done about the problem, and clearly and persuasively explain why it is the THE best option. If you want to outline, briefly, a couple of the alternatives (and this is a good idea if there are 1 or more that are ‘catching on’), and then why they are inferior, that’s fine, but just don’t backhandedly advocate for those alternatives. If you think people will have trouble figuring out which policy choice you’re for, then only talk about yours.
  • When in doubt, cite. Social work students get hung up on this, but ignore APA and use footnotes abundantly. Everything that’s even somewhat questionable should be cited, and make sure that you’re using reputable sources; it might be a good idea to have someone a bit neutral look at your sources to give you this opinion.
  • Follow this general format (unless, of course, your instructor has different instructions): introduction/problem statement (should include the scope and scale of the problem, and why it’s bad–you’ll want to judiciously include facts that document this, and this might be the place for a very compelling (and brief) story); status quo policy situation (you can use this section to expand somewhat on the problem statement, since, if you’re advocating change, the current policy must be part of the problem); your policy recommendation (with supporting arguments as to why it is best); refutation of alternative policy arguments (if you’ve decided this is necessary); and conclusion (restating the problem and the solution).

    Students often tell me that they want more examples of policy briefs, so, this year, I obtained permission from some of my students to share their well-done policy briefs. The links to these documents are below, along with my comments about what I find particularly appealing about each one, and the authors’ names. All of these students received their MSW degrees from the University of Kansas in May 2009–congratulations to them, and I look forward to seeing more of their advocacy as their careers progress! Thank you, too, for allowing me to share these.

    If anyone has a policy brief that they’d like to share, for comments or critique, please do so. Do you have resources that you’ve found particularly helpful in preparing policy briefs? When have you used a policy brief in an advocacy context to great effect?

    Sarah Brokenleg: This one is visually very easy to read and attractive. She makes her main points early and repeats them, and she covers the three main policy subtopics. My favorite part about this brief is that she refutes the main counterargument without giving it any real emphasis, which I think is very effective.
    Statewide Smoking Ban

    Kavya Velagapudi and April Rand: They were very specific about their audience–Lawrence-area policymakers, and the brief is very targeted towards them. I like that they highlighted the programs that would be negatively affected without turning it into a ‘policymaking by anecdote’ situation. We debated the inclusion of the revenue-enhancement alternatives, because I tend to argue that we should never be the ones backed into figuring out where to come up with the money, but they felt, from their conversations with decision-makers, that they really needed to put something on the table, and I respect that.
    Alcohol Tax Revenues

    Adam Timberlake, Susila Gabbert, Anna Giles: Adam did the design work on this, and what I like most about this particular brief is that I know that it is an issue that is very close to his heart, but he presents it in a way that is compelling but still very professional and well-researched. At the end, he makes the three main points related to his policy brief. He doesn’t back away from the ‘soft’ benefit of healthier communities, but he doesn’t rely solely on that. And I love the way that he incorporated the housing in the background.
    Housing Trust Fund

  • Guest Post by Kavya Velagapudi: How I landed an awesome macro practice job

    From Melinda: So many social workers and new graduates are encountering a difficult labor market. To offer encouragement to them and to celebrate those who are successfully navigating the environment to secure terrific jobs that will have a significant impact, I have asked Kavya Velagapudi, a recent KU SWAAP graduate, to tell her story. Thank you, Kavya, and congratulations!

    My Job:
    It seemed like the odds were against me: A less popular Social Work Administration and Advocacy Practice degree, the recession, and the summer. But I am now the Program Coordinator at a brand-new non-profit called Low-Income Family Empowerment (LIFE) in Adams County, Colorado. Adams County consists of Commerce City and Federal Heights and portions of seven other cities.

    LIFE was started by the Adams County Housing Authority. Although the hiring agency is LIFE, I am the program coordinator for the Strong Families Initiative, which is a collaborative effort among six agencies that work with low-income families in the Adams County. The partner agencies of the Strong Families Initiative, including LIFE, received a grant for fourteen months (May 01, 2009-June 30, 2010) to continue their efforts and make new additions to their plans. My role is to coordinate the elements of this grant. However, I have been hired at the end of July, which gives me only eleven months to accomplish the requirements of this grant.

    There are four main elements to my role:
    1. I act as the information and resource specialist. I will be developing a map of services and resources available for low-income families in the County, find service gaps, and increase needed workshops and classes. The biggest challenge I have is to bring our partner agencies together, since they have traditionally been competitors in the Adams County. My role is to facilitate the collaboration efforts and coordination of services among our partner agencies and other service providers in the County.
    2. I will be coordinating the efforts to develop a 10-year plan to end homelessness in the Adams County. I will soon be hiring a contractor to conduct a study to understand the extent and distribution of homelessness along with an analysis of services and programs in the Adams County. Based on the results of this study, a plan will be developed similar to Denver’s Road Home, which is Denver’s 10-year plan to end homelessness. This aspect not only allows me to collaborate with several stakeholders in the community, including city government, non-profit entities, county’s housing authority, and other service providers, but it makes me the key person in this county-wide collaboration effort.
    3. I will be involved at some degree with all initiatives in the County that provide services for homeless populations, including emergency shelters, permanent housing, cold weather care initiatives, rapid re-housing, food banks, and other supportive services.
    4. As a brand-new agency, LIFE has only one full-time employee: Me! This means that I will sometimes stray from the requirements of the grant and do what is necessary to run the agency. This includes helping design a logo to finding funding to continue LIFE, including my position.

    How I found the job:
    I developed networks and contacts during my graduate schooling. They have been helpful in directing me to the right resources. Apart from that, I kept a list of all websites that post non-profit jobs; http://www.idealist.org, http://www.change.org, and other national social work job listing websites were some of them. I also bookmarked non-profit job websites of cities I was willing to move to. Since Denver was my first option, I moved there immediately after graduation. I found the job posting for Program Coordinator position on Colorado Nonprofit Job Board website. A week after I applied, my first interview was set. The interview panel had four members and the interview lasted about an hour. I was given a call a week later and I was told that I was one of the finalists. The second interview was set in a non-traditional interview format. I was asked to create a speech to procure the funding necessary for LIFE to remediate homelessness in Adams County. I developed a 10-minute presentation, which I presented to the second interview panel consisting of eight individuals, including LIFE’s Board of Directors and other stakeholders. A week later, exactly two months from my graduation day, I was called with a job offer. I started in my job the next week. The entire interview process took about 20-25 days.

    Tips for SWAAP students:

  • Sell your skills- Do not underestimate your education or experience. Be confident when you speak of yourself during job interviews. For example, I was asked if I ever coordinated a program in my first interview. I told them that I have not, but given an opportunity, I can. Rather than prolonging the conversation about my lack of experience in the area, I then spoke about the experience and education I have.
  • SWAAP is a plus- Think of SWAAP as your strength, rather than as a setback in your job search. It is a common belief that you can become an administrator after working in the clinical field. This is true. However, there are several programs that are in need of good administrators across the country. I will take the liberty here to say that most social work programs suffer largely due to the incompetence of its administrators. Being a great clinical social worker does not qualify one to be a great administrator. However, I do stress that administrators need to know the population they are working for. Without putting a human face on the work we do, we cannot be successful administrators in the non-profit world. We need to have a strong mind with a good heart. If we have a mindless heart or a heartless mind, we will not get far. Get a SWAAP degree and firsthand experience to go along with it.
  • Be patient and do not compromise- Every graduate student ends up in debt at one point or the other. But do not let your financial situation determine which job you take. If you can, wait until you find the job that will take you where you want to be five years from now. Do not settle for anything less. I suggest you take a part-time job to pay the bills temporarily. Most of us are in social work for personal reasons. Remember these motives during your job search. It is easy to experience burn-out in jobs that merely provide a paycheck without a sense of fulfillment. Being in a wrong job can cause more harm than being unemployed.
  • Research and network- Develop contacts, network, search job sites, and websites of organizations you like. (I spent on average 10-12 hours a day searching websites and emailing my contacts in the two months I was unemployed.) Be persistent! This does not mean that you apply for all jobs you are qualified for. You have to pick and choose what you like and apply for those jobs only. Otherwise, you will get tired of seeing letters of denial from multiple agencies! (I only applied for about 10 jobs and had only two interviews. One of them was a phone interview for a position in San Francisco. The second one was for my current position.)

    If you cannot relocate to another city or state, try finding employment at your practicum agency. If, for whatever reason, that is not an option for you, get involved in your school’s social work student group and share information among your peers. Although a student group seems like an unproductive use of time during graduate school, it will prove to be far more valuable when you are looking for jobs. If you are currently a student, involve yourself in the group as a student representative. If your school’s student group is not currently active, propel it yourself. This is a valuable SWAAP experience that involves organizing, networking, marketing, and administering that you can talk about during an interview, as I did during my first interview for my current position. If you graduated already, keep in touch with your graduating class. They will have information that you may not have. You can share contacts and resources through a Facebook group.

  • Always remember your mentors in school and keep in touch with them. My mentors had faith in me as I went through some rough times. Their faith in me is something I clung to as I pushed myself to try harder and aim higher. When you find the job you want, thank the people who contributed to your success- your mentors, professors, classmates, family, and friends.

    I wish you the best of luck! Please feel free to contact me at kavya.velagapudi at gmail.com for any reason.