A Philosophical Awakening

It was around 1997. I was an undergraduate student at the University of Missouri in Columbia. I remember it being a great day. I was feeling good about life, hopeful to make it out of school and thus out of poverty. I had found an area of study that grabbed my attention like no other – social work. I was intrigued by the underpinnings of social work, but I especially gravitated to discussions of organizational theory, management and leadership. I was sold on the concept of “person in environment”: the idea that we have to look at people comprehensively, that an individual’s behavior cannot be adequately understood without considering his or her broader environment.

One day, I started thumbing through the index of a textbook and came upon the largest nonprofits leading social change. Among them were the Boy Scouts, Urban League, NAACP, YMCA and United Way. It was an impressive list of groups who each had a clearly defined role in our nonprofit ecosystem. I was energized by their broad perspectives that reached beyond their local communities and looked at issues from a national vantage. These organizations sought to change lives one person and one community at a time but across hundreds of cities and towns. They had chapters in most communities and aligned across their chapters to solve some of the thorniest social issues. They endured at a time when communities were changing dramatically due to the outflow of jobs, increased access to drugs, and limited access to quality k-12 education.

Years later, I see more clearly that “person in environment” applies not just to people but to organizations. Today, most nonprofit organizations are fighting multiple fights. As culture and demographics shift, they are fighting against historic declines in membership and engagement. Not too long ago I had a discussion with local symphony leaders who articulated that it is very difficult to increase attendance for their traditional performances. They have pivoted and are featuring acts like Nelly to sold-out audiences. Our challenges in human services are similar. There is an increased appetite and demand from our customers—our investors—for choice, nonprofit alignment, scale and outcomes. Discretionary dollars within human services and education continue to be constrained, and out of necessity, most organizations have pivoted to be more responsive.

In 1997, I could not have foreseen how much would change in social work and human services. The environment will continue to shift, and we as individuals and institutions must pivot with it and continue to see our work and our customers in the broader context of the now global environment.

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