Skip to main content

Social Work: What is the Job of a Community Organizer? – 1948

What Is the Job of a Community Organizer

By Arthur Dunham

A presentation at the Meeting of the National Conference on Social Welfare

in Atlantic City, NJ, April 17-23, 1948, (pp. 162–172)

WE COME CLOSE to the heart of community organization when we consider the job of the community organization worker, for, “No program is better than the persons who administer it.” (1)

My discussion is based on three admittedly controversial assumptions:

1. By community organization for social welfare I mean the process of bringing about and maintaining adjustment between social welfare needs and social welfare resources in a geographical area or a functional field. Resources include, not only agencies and organizations, but also personnel, physical equipment, finances, laws, leadership, public understanding, good will, and participation. Community organization is a dynamic, pervasive, far-reaching process.

2. Community organization includes, among other things, four specialized aspects about which there is frequently difference of opinion: (a) fact-finding, which is closely related to “programming” and to bringing about adjustment between needs and resources; (b) public relations and interpretation; (c) fund-raising for individual agencies as well as joint financing; (d) social action in so far as it relates to social welfare objectives.

3. Community organization is a process that may be conducted on any geographical level-neighborhood, community, state, national, international-or between any geographical levels. Incidentally, if we have this point of view we shall probably prefer the term “community organization worker” to “community organizer,” which suggests some kind of local manipulator or wirepuller.

Starting from this base, I shall discuss briefly six aspects of the job of the community organization worker:

1. The functions of the community organization worker.– Those of us who are familiar with the thoughtful and stimulating papers on community organization given by the late Kenneth L. M. Pray and by Wilber Newstetter (2) at the 1947 National Conference of Social Work must be deeply appreciative of the contributions which these men have made to our thinking. Wilber Newstetter suggested that there are three major aspects of community organization: education and promotion; interagency administration; and social inter-group work. Without in any way minimizing the importance of the phenomena of inter-group work, I should like to suggest a somewhat different way of looking at community organization as a whole. I think we need to answer the question, What are the functions of community organization agencies and workers? In the committee report on “The Field of Community Organization” presented by Robert P. Lane in 1939, (3) it was suggested that there are six “secondary objectives” of community organization.  I believe that these secondary objectives are really the functions, the tasks, the jobs to be done, by community organization agencies and workers. Briefly, these are: 1) fact-finding-laying an adequate factual foundation for sound planning and action; 2) program development; 3) establishment and improvement of standards; 4) coordination and facilitation of intergroup relationships; (5) education and public relations; and (6) enlistment of adequate public support and participation.

If this statement is correct, every agency and every worker in community organization is concerned more or less continuously with performing one or more of these functions. Obviously, community organization includes a wide range of diverse activities and methods. In this respect, community organization is unlike casework or social group work, where there is more intensive concentration on a narrower range of more nearly similar activities. The caseworker, for example, is always concerned with helping a family or a person to solve certain individual problems; the community organization worker may be engaged in activities as diverse as operating a social service exchange, planning and carrying out a survey, directing a community chest campaign, or promoting a bill to reorganize the state’s public welfare system.

2. What types of job do community organization workers hold? It follows that there are many types of community organization job, and that these are far more varied and dissimilar than the various types of specialized casework and social group work jobs. Let us limit ourselves, however, to jobs which are concerned primarily with community organization and omit the jobs of executives of client-service agencies, child welfare and public welfare workers, settlement workers, etc., where there may be a community organization component in the job, even though it is concerned primarily with administration, casework, or social group work.

Community Chests and Councils has made an invaluable job analysis study of positions in community chests and welfare councils. On the basis of this study they have drawn up job specifications for seventeen types of job in chests and councils. Three of these, accountant, comptroller, and office manager, are definitely not social work positions. The other fourteen are as follows: Executive secretary, chest and council

Executive secretary, chest

Executive secretary, council

Budget secretary

Campaign director

Campaign division secretary

Secretary, council division

Secretary, information and referral service

Labor representative

Neighborhood council secretary

Publicity director

Research director

Social service exchange secretary

Director, volunteer service bureau

I suggest that at least three of the jobs-publicity director, research director, and neighborhood council secretary (or neighborhood worker, as it might be called)-may be found in other types of community organization agency, so these may be considered generic types of community organization job rather than chest-council specializations. I believe that we can also identify at least nine other types of community organization jobs, all of which are outside the chest-council field:

a) The executive of a state-wide agency for health and welfare planning carries on general planning and, usually, promotion of legislatio n on a state-wide basis, through such organizations as a statewide citizens’ welfare association or a state conference of social work which conducts a year-round action program in addition to the traditional conference program.

b) The executive of a program promotional agency in a specialized field is concerned with development and promotion of a social welfare program and improvement of standards. Examples would include a local housing or tuberculosis association; a state society for mental hygiene, crippled children and adults, or the blind; and most national agencies, such as those in family service, child welfare, health, recreation, etc. This would include also certain positions in Federal agencies, such as the Social Security Administration in the Federal Security Agency.

c) The executive of a national agency for coordination and broad health and welfare planning carries on health and welfare planning and coordination in the field of social welfare as a whole or in a broad area, such as health, youth service, casework, etc. The National Social Welfare Assembly and its divisions, the National Health Council, and the national professional associations are examples of such agencies.

d) The financial secretary is in charge of, or primarily concerned with, fund-raising for a local, state, national, or international agency. The job sometimes involves direction of a highly organized financial campaign.

e) The conference executive carries on the direction of a national, state, or local social welfare conference whose primary function is the holding of an annual conference or convention and closely related activities. There are relatively few of these jobs; examples are afforded by the National Conference of Social Work and the state conferences in New York and Pennsylvania.

f) The community organization field representative may be concerned with either administration or community organization or both. He carries on field service for a national or state agency where the contacts are primarily consultative, cooperative, and liaison in nature rather than authoritative, administrative, or procedural. The job of field representative for the Family Service Association of America, which is essentially a federation of local units, would be an example. Obviously, many public welfare field representative jobs are primarily administrative in nature and would not be included as community organization jobs.

g) The legislative representative analyzes, interprets, and promotes legislation for a statewide or national voluntary agency.

h) The teacher of community organization instructs in a school for the professional education of social workers. The teacher is, of course, primarily an educator, but he is so intimately related to the training of community organization workers, and there is so much movement back and forth between teachers and practitioners, that it seems reasonable to include his job in this analysis.

If we take into account both these classifications, several comments may be made. In the first place, both classifications cover only the executive or primary jobs. In practice, one would find in many community organization agencies examples of such gradations as executive, sub-executive, senior practitioner, and junior practitioner.

In the second place, a careful examination of community organization jobs would show that the job of the community organization worker-even that of the senior or junior practitioner-resembles the job of an executive or subexecutive, in terms of its content and types of activity, more closely than it resembles the job of the casework or social group work practitioner. If this is true, it has important implications for the training, selection, and supervision of community organization workers.

In the third place, these classifications obviously contain some borderline jobs which require further study to determine whether or not they are primarily social work jobs, whether the persons who hold them should be primarily social workers, with community organization training, or whether we should draw these staff members mainly or largely from related professional or vocational fields, such as social research, public relations, fund-raising, and accountancy. The particular jobs which seem to lie in this borderline area are: budget secretary, campaign director, campaign division secretary, publicity director, research director, and financial secretary.

In the fourth place, certain jobs clearly require knowledge of specialized functional fields as well as knowledge of, and skill in, community organization. Examples would be the secretary of the health division of a community welfare council and the executive or staff member of a national promotional agency for family service or mental hygiene.

In the fifth place, from the standpoint of job content and the skills involved, we can distinguish nine major areas of job specialization:

a) Health and welfare planning, carried on in councils and in certain state-wide and national agencies, and having many ramifications

b) Community chest operation: joint financing

c) Fund-raising other than in community chests

d) Social service exchange administration

e) Promotion of programs in specialized fields

f) Research

g) Public relations

h) Legislative analysis and promotion

i) Teaching of community organization

3. The community organization worker.– An interesting study of the education and experience of the members of the Association for the Study of Community Organization who have jobs that are primarily concerned with community organization is being made by Robert Hiller, a graduate student at the Institute of Social Work of the University of Michigan. Mr. Hiller has analyzed 266 replies from members of the Association for the Study of Community Organization. A preliminary review indicates that most of their jobs, including subordinate grades, would fall pretty clearly under those listed in the foregoing classifications.

Mr. Hiller’s study will be the best picture we have yet had of the genus community organization worker. A few of the preliminary findings, which I quote with Mr. Hiller’s permission, are: 1) of the 266 workers, 73 percent are men, 27 percent are women; 2) the average age of the whole group is 43.4 years; 3) 38 percent have Master’s degrees in social work (44 percent of the men and 29 percent of the women); of the 175 workers under forty-five years of age, 52 percent have Master’s degrees in social work; 4) the 266 workers have held a total of 1,520 jobs, or an average of about 5.7 jobs per worker, of which 83 percent have been in social work and 49.8 percent in community organization.  (Note: Those who are interested in this possibility may communicate with the author of this paper at the Institute of Social Work of the University of Michigan, 60 Farnsworth Avenue, Detroit 2, Michigan.)

4. The role of the community organization worker.– Kenneth Pray eloquently maintained the thesis that the community organization worker is essentially an “enabler” and not a manipulator. (4) I think Kenneth Pray gave us insight into a profound philosophical truth. I suggest that if we follow any community organization job back into its ultimate nature and reason for being, we shall always find that the community organization worker is the agent of some group or aggregation of people-whether it be the voters of the United States or the supporters of the local community chest-in carrying into effect a program which these people support either by contributions, by active assent, or by acquiescence. Certainly, it is in harmony also with the fundamental ideas of democracy that the administrative agent or the practitioner enables the group to achieve its desires rather than commands or manipulates the group.

Thus far I think we may go safely, but can we not go on from this point, and must we not also be on guard against oversimplifying the role of the community organization worker? If a community or a constituency group is substantially united in its thinking, then there is perhaps a rather simple situation in which the community organization worker acts as the agent of the constituency in helping it to attain its objectives. But is it not often true that the constituency group, and even the governing board, is not substantially united in its thinking and does not know what it wants to do except in very general terms? For example, a group of agencies and citizens may form a community welfare council. They know that they want to improve the well-being of the community through better teamwork and joint planning and action. But as to how they should attain this result, or what should be their immediate objectives, they may have very little idea. Should they give priority or major emphasis to promoting a recreation survey, seeking a reorganization of the municipal department of public welfare, trying to raise standards among the child caring organizations, or interpreting social work to organized labor?

It seems to me that the role of the community organization worker must often be that of creative leadership. Ordway Tead defines leadership as “the activity of influencing people to cooperate toward some goal which they come to find desirable.” The community organization worker will usually give indirect rather than direct, public, or official leadership. But he must bring to the problems of his agency all the knowledge, imagination, resourcefulness, and creative craftsmanship that he can command. He must often interpret, suggest, and analyze alternatives, and enter fully as a dynamic partner into a creative group process by which goals will be chosen, decisions will be hammered into shape and translated into action. The final decision will rest with a lay group; but the community organization worker must be a creative partner and participant in the determination of objectives as well as the expert in the application of the process of community organization.

In an interesting article on “A Federal Agency’s Relation to Community Planning,” (5) Arthur Hillman pointed out that the Office of Community War Services at various times played the role of the secretariat or clearinghouse, convener or mediator, attorney or advocate, and consultant or adviser. The roles of community organization workers would probably run the whole gamut from fact-finder, analyst, planner, catalyst, interpreter, educator, conferee, negotiator, mediator, and consultant to organizer, agent, executive aide, advocate, promoter, social actionist, and militant leader.

Moreover, Donald Howard and Hertha Kraus have recently challenged social workers in general and community organization workers in particular to produce leaders who can assume the roles of “social generalists” and social statesmen. These are not flights of fancy; if we want examples of social statesmanship we can find two of them in the professional careers of those great civic servants of the last fifty years, Edward T. Devine and Homer Folks.

5. The equipment of the community organization worker.– Is it possible to give any general answer to the question of what should be the equipment of the community organization worker? If we allow for numerous individual exceptions we can perhaps formulate at least a tentative and general answer.

Presumably, he will derive his equipment from personal qualities and attributes, general education, graduate professional education, and experience. Most of us would probably agree that a college education and two years of graduate professional education in an accredited school of social work, with some specialization in community organization, would normally give the best foundation for a social worker who wishes to become a community organization practitioner.

Then, in addition to the basic professional education that we may assume for any social worker, I suggest that there should be six basic elements in the equipment of the community organization worker:

a) First-hand experience in dealing with people, preferably in a client-service agency: There is a difference of opinion on this point. I believe that the community organization worker should have had one or more years of previous staff experience (not merely field work) in a case work, social group work, or other client-service agency; or perhaps a reasonable equivalent of such experience in a closely allied profession. Social work is concerned with serving people, with human needs and human relationships. I believe that the community organization worker should enter social work at the point of helping and working with people rather than at the point of committees, meetings, organization charts, plans, programs, surveys, or campaigns.

I am convinced that social work cannot afford to have community organization leaders who have not worked directly with the clients of the social service, cannot afford leaders who are remote from the experience of caseworkers and social group workers and who may tend to think of social welfare programs in abstract and impersonal terms.

b) A sound working knowledge of the field of social welfare and of types of social welfare resources on local, state, and national levels: In most community organization jobs, the worker must be a social work “generalist” rather than a specialist, in terms of his knowledge of functional fields.

c) An understanding and working knowledge of community organization, its objectives, the types of problem encountered, types and functions of agencies, methods and principles; and at least an elementary understanding of the closely related subject of administration.

d) Skill in the practice of community organization: This element, above all others, distinguishes the practitioner of community organization from one who merely “knows about” it. This skill is likely to be gained primarily from properly supervised field work and from experience.

e) Personal qualities: The community organization worker needs the personal qualities that are needed by any social worker, and also many of the qualities that are needed by an executive. Among the important qualities we should certainly include integrity, courage, emotional balance and adjustment, objectivity, sound judgment, tact, sensitivity, adaptability, imagination, ability to work under pressure, an interest in, and liking for people, and a deeply held respect for human personality. One can hardly insist, in addition, that a sense of humor be mandatory, but the worker will have a rugged life without it!

f) A sound philosophy of community organization: The community organization worker needs to have a philosophy and an overall point of view about his job. To be sure, his community organization philosophy will be part of his philosophy of social work, his social philosophy, his philosophy of life. Authoritarianism, traditionalism, commercialism, lack of convictions, and a spineless opportunism are the antitheses of sound community organization. A sound philosophy of community organization would be rooted in democracy and oriented to its values of ultimate control by the whole people; the right of self-determination by the individual, the group, and the community; cooperation and mutual participation in the achievement of common goals.

6. How shall we develop community organization workers?– We may work through many channels to develop the number and the quality of workers that we need. We must go on from our present encouraging but scattered beginnings in job analysis. We must do a better job of recruiting, and we must put into our recruiting efforts some sense of the quality of social adventure which is inherent in community organization. We must greatly strengthen the programs of the schools of social work. We may need to supplement the regular curricula with more specialized summer institutes and opportunities for advanced study for those who have received their Master’s degrees or have had substantial job experience.

We must accelerate the production of technical literature on community organization. Wayne McMillen has put us all in his debt by producing the most important and most valuable single book that has yet been written on Community Organization for Social Welfare. Other valuable additions to our material are being made, but we are still a long way from possessing an adequate working literature.

National agencies, such as Community Chests and Councils, the National Publicity Council, the National Social Welfare Assembly, the Association for the Study of Community Organization, and others, may do much to raise the level of practice through research, publication, educational conferences, institutes, and meetings, field service, and other methods.

We can experiment with and gradually establish methods of recording that meet our needs. Community organization workers are not likely to arrive at full professional status until they develop the self discipline and the conscious direction of their use of community organization that will come with the development of adequate analytical operating records.

Finally, community organization workers in local communities, individually and collectively, can become the greatest single force for advancing the job and raising standards. The individual worker can advance through reading and study, through becoming more analytical about his own job, through experimenting and reporting the results of his experiments. In local community organization discussion groups, workers may strengthen and stimulate each other and get a sense of working together in a common professional service.

Community organization must never be seen as merely a job. We are working with the materials out of which a community is built, a cooperative society is fashioned. We are in the thick of the personal, group, and inter-group relationships that make up modern social life. The community organization worker needs a sense of vocation. He is performing an essential function. He is a producer and conserver of social values. He has a vital and crucial role to play in the social drama of our time-the role of a servant of democracy.


1. “We Want an Executive” (New York: Community Chests and Councils, 1947), title page inscription.

2. Wilber I. Newstetter, “The Social Intergroup Process,” Proceedings of the National Conference of Social Work 1947 (New York: Columbia University Press, 1948), pp. 205-17.

3. Robert P. Lane, “The Field of Community Organization,” Proceedings of the National Conference of Social Work 1939 (New York: Columbia University Press, 1939), p. 500.

4. Kenneth L. M. Pray, “When Is Community Organization Social Work Practice?” Proceedings of the National Conference of Social Work 1947 (New York: Columbia University Press, 1948), pp. 197, 202. 6 Ordway Tead, Art of Leadership (New York: McGraw-Hill, 1935), p. 20.

5. Arthur Hillman, “A Federal Agency’s Relation to Community Planning,” Social Forces, XXV (December, 1946), 183-89. 8 Donald S. Howard, “New Horizons for Social Work,” Compass, XXVIII (November, 1947), 9-13; Hertha Kraus, “The Future of Social Work: Some Comments on Social Work Function,” Compass, XXIX (January, 1948), 3-9.

Source: National Conference on Social Welfare Proceedings On-Line

The proceedings of annual meetings of the NCSW, 1874-1983, are available on the web thanks to a digitization project undertaken by the University of Michigan Library, with assistance from the Social Welfare History Archives at the University of Minnesota.  The web site for this resource is:

2 Replies to “Social Work: What is the Job of a Community Organizer? – 1948”

Comments for this site have been disabled. Please use our contact form for any research questions.