The Unsung Story of Social Workers (and why donors need to invest in them)
“What was the most amazing thing of your amazing trip?”. I got asked this question during a recent talk at the University of Hong-Kong. I was discussing with students what I learned during the (indeed amazing) trip that I had just completed in search of great NGOs across the World.
I visited 52 organizations, across 5 continents, over 10 weeks, in what was an incredible learning experience. From India to Rwanda, from Brazil to Cambodia, from Europe to the USA, I had the chance to visit and assess some of the most impactful organizations around the globe. This travel and work, conducted by my team and I at Epic Foundation, provided an unparalleled opportunity to observe on the ground what works and what doesn’t today for organizations seeking to make an impact.
The question the students posed was surprisingly challenging. Previously, I had not attempted to single out the most amazing thing about that learning experience and work. Yet, to my own surprise, I answered with no hesitation, “social workers!” Reflecting on it afterwards it made sense. Social workers truly were the most ‘amazing thing’. Social workers had surprised me the most, moved me the most, and unveiled the most challenging questions I pondered during the global journey.
It was indeed interesting to visit different places and challenging throughout to bear witness to the challenges faced by vulnerable kids, and it was intellectually stimulating to connect with visionary social leaders and organizations. Yet, today, the thing that sticks with me the most after the trip is my own deeper realization and appreciation of the key role that social workers play in NGOs as well as the modest understanding many of us have of it.
Two things really struck me from spending time with social workers in different countries:
1.) Social workers’ skills. As NGOs become more specialized their staff is required to understand complex social problems, to identify solutions and to implement them. They are often caught in a double bind between the conflicting needs of the people they must help and the donors they have to satisfy. This requires a diverse and dynamic set of skills – technical and soft skills – alongside the rare capacity to work under pressure in often harsh, if not dangerous, places. On my trip I met many social workers that possess these sophisticated skills’ and have the inspiring drive to work in difficult places with the most vulnerable populations on our planet.
2.) Social workers’ sense of mission. It is hard to find the right words to describe the sense of mission that seem to animate most social workers I met. From social workers saving lives in an horribly run-down hospital in Mumbai, to those rescuing youth in the dangerous slums of Sao Paolo, to social workers supporting kids during the end of their life in a children’ hospice in London. I have met social workers fighting for homeless LGBTQ youth in New York, for street children in Bangkok, for former sex-workers in Kampala. Different people, working in very different places but held together by a distinct, and sadly all too unique, sense of mission and purpose. Many of them - clearly - could have pursued much more lucrative careers, but they didn’t and they don’t regret it or seem to think about it. You can see plainly in their actions and words the confidence and pride of people that know they are ‘doing the right thing’.
Although I could go on endlessly, I don’t want this article to be just an ode to the virtues of social workers. In reflecting on the importance of social workers my aim is to bring attention to the real doers of the social sector making an impact every day and how NGOs’ donors can support them.
I want to highlight 3 ways donors could and should do more to fully valorize and harness the potential of social workers.
- Re-thinking social workers’ salaries. The issue is twofold: on the one hand the salary levels of social workers in most NGOs I have reviewed tend to be low when considering the complexity of the work. On the other hand, non-profits lack mechanisms that can reward social workers that have great experience or that perform above the norm. Both problems are largely the result of a traditional pressure on salaries. Salaries in NGOs tend to be viewed as a ‘cost’ to be contained. Donors tend to easily accept exorbitant budget lines referring to ‘food support’ or ‘medical supplies’ but then over-examine and question expenditure on salaries. This needs to be reconsidered. The notion of rewarding financially high performance is also still largely alien to the NGO world. And this is not just the donors’ fault. NGOs themselves are often reluctant on this topic: rewarding performance implies also sanctioning the lack of results. All this needs to change and donors can help by supporting higher salaries or simply providing more unrestricted funding to support key staff positions.
- Investing in social workers’ training. I am referring to time and resources for training, research and development. If there is one thing that many excellent social workers crave for is more opportunities for learning, as well as dialogue with other social workers within and outside their organization, in order to enhance their practice and expertise. Unfortunately, few donors are willing to pay for this. Investing in social workers’ personal and professional development would increase their productivity, unleash potential for collaboration, and foster cross-fertilization between sectors. All these things are vital not only to an individual NGOs’ performance, but also to the development of the non-profit sector as a whole.
- Fostering donors’ exposure to social workers. Social workers are the engine of NGOs. If you want to understand how an NGO works and makes an impact you need to sit with them: it is as simple as that. Donors tend to interact with NGOs through their leaders (Founders, CEOs) or fundraising/development directors. There is nothing inherently wrong with that of course, but meaningful exposure to the actual work of social workers in turn creates meaningful insights and experiences for donors. It is amazing what we can all gain from this exposure, both in terms of understanding of the work of NGOs and in terms of our own motivation and passion. Social workers can also vastly benefit from being exposed to the perspective and constraints of donors.
Social workers are the heart and soul of NGOs and social enterprises. It is critical to invest in them and to connect - as deeply as possible - to their work. This connection can drive stronger, more effective partnerships between donors and NGOs. This bond can help us all want to do more and better.
By Nicola Crosta – CEO and Founder of Impact 46
Former Executive VP, Epic Foundation
 View are my own.
 The trip was part of Epic Foundation’s 2015 global selection process. 1400 organizations applied to it and – after 2 rounds of due diligence – 52 finalists were visited by Epic’s team.