Abstract Social work’s ability to address complex societal problems such as those identified in the American Academy of Social Work and Social Welfare’s Grand Challenges for Social Work is reliant on being innovative in how we prepare social workers and how we collaborate with others, including business. This research seeks to understand how leaders of major social work organizations perceive potential partnership with the business sector—including both possible threats and opportunities. Interviews were conducted with those serving on the Council on Social Work Education’s Leadership Roundtable. The research explores how emerging partnership models can be helpful and ways in which the profession can prepare practitioners for better partnering with the business sector. Qualitative findings identify four key strategies to address the grand challenges and enhance partnerships: (1) more interdisciplinary work is needed, (2) social work students need to be adequately equipped for collaborative work, (3) a cohesive message is needed from the field, and (4) the potential benefits for partnering with business outweigh the risks. As the American Academy of Social Work and Social Welfare’s Grand Challenges for Social Work suggest, current social problems are increasingly complex, urgent, and not solvable by a single entity (Uehara et al., 2013). Public resources continue to shrink, and a single funding source typically cannot address all aspects of a given problem (Hanleybrown, Kania, & Kramer, 2012). Government funding is not assured. For example, funding for Temporary Assistance for Needy Families has consistently declined since its inception in 1996, and its role as a safety net program has greatly diminished (Floyd, Pavetti, & Schott, 2015). Shrinking government funding has forced the social services sector to be more strategic and rely on new resources. At the same time business priorities are shifting, creating an environment of more external philanthropy, and an expanded business presence is seen both in philanthropic efforts and on social justice issues (Carroll, 2015). It is notable that businesses have recently taken public stances on some of President Trump’s statements on social issues (Cain, 2017). Social work’s ability to address complex societal problems is reliant on the field being innovative in how it prepares social workers and how the profession can collaborate with other sectors (Nandan & Scott, 2013; Nurius, Coffey, Fong, Korr, & McRoy, 2017; Uehara et al., 2013). This research seeks to understand how leaders of major social work organizations perceive potential partnership with the business sector to address social work’s grand challenges—possible threats as well as opportunities. The research explores how emerging partnership models can help make social impacts and looks for ways in which the profession can prepare practitioners for improving partnerships with the business sector. An Expanding Presence of Business in the Social Sector Beginning in the early 20th century, businesses primarily acted in a role of welfare capitalism, taking a limited role of providing safety, health, and other welfare benefits for employees. These actions frequently are described as a political tactic by the sector to ward off governmental intervention and regulation (Klein, 2005). However, some early business leaders recognized that not only was welfare capitalism good for limiting regulations, it was also a corporation’s “social responsibility” to care for their employees. With the Great Depression, both government and business were challenged to create different interventions to meet social needs. However, during this same time period a variety of other factors have influenced businesses to contribute to social welfare in other ways (Aguinis & Glavas, 2012; Matten & Moon, 2008). Increasing Social Contributions Several articles have been written about the history and evolution of the corporate social responsibility (CSR) movement (see, for example, Aguinis & Glavas, 2012; Carroll, 2015; Cochran, 2007) (for a detailed time line, see Figure 1). The consensus is that corporate giving is an integral part of being a responsible corporate citizen (Carroll, 2015; Matten & Crane, 2005). U.S. companies reported $21.1 million in cash contributions in 2015, and nearly half (47 percent) of participating companies increased their total giving between 2013 and 2015 (Committee Encouraging Corporate Philanthropy, 2016). Cochran (2007) found that many corporations were giving in alignment with their company mission and requiring more accountability from recipients, a noticeable shift toward strategic philanthropy. Figure 1: View largeDownload slide U.S. Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) Time Line Figure 1: View largeDownload slide U.S. Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) Time Line Strategic Philanthropy As businesses become more strategic about philanthropy, many see ecosystem change as a promising strategy for larger-scale social impact (Kramer & Pfitzer, 2016). Ecosystem change refers to cross-sector efforts focused on improving large-scale social outcomes, with an underlying understanding that all aspects of the social ecosystem must change for there to be long-term impact. This approach requires participation from a variety of stakeholders within the ecosystem working toward a common goal. Throughout this article, multiple stakeholders coming together is referred to as “partnership.” Other literature broadly refers to similar concepts as collaborations or coalitions (Mizrahi, Rosenthal, & Ivery, 2013). Some of these partnerships have intense participation from a multitude of sectors and well-thought-out frameworks for creating change; others have less established partnerships but similar values for instituting change. The range of implementation has been described in a variety of ways (Austin, 2000; Austin & Seitanidi, 2012a; Koschmann, Kuhn, & Pfarrer, 2012), but it is clear that cross-sector partnerships can be an effective tool for community change. One formal approach of ecosystem change is collective impact (Hanleybrown et al., 2012; Kania & Kramer, 2011). Kania and Kramer (2011) provided five specific strategies for a cross-sector group of community stakeholders to come together around a common agenda and create social change. Building on traditional grassroots organizing theories (Christens & Inzeo, 2015), collective impact has gained attention as a targeted framework for collective action for creating social change (Karp & Lundy-Wagner, 2016). Like many other traditional forms of ecosystem change, collective impact is designed to address the complex and uncoordinated nature of our social services landscape. Investment in ecosystem change fits well into CSR models of value creation (Austin & Seitanidi, 2012a) and has the potential for long-term value to be seen by both business and society. Kramer and Pfitzer (2016) made the case that businesses thrive when the communities they operate in are healthy, and that when businesses partner with critical ecosystem efforts, community health improves. Kramer and Pfitzer (2016) provided examples of many ways that businesses are even initiating ecosystem change efforts across the globe. For example, in communities like Cincinnati, Ohio, and Columbus, Indiana, the business sector provided initial leadership and support for the creation of cross-sector partnerships to address poor educational outcomes (for example, Strive Together; Community Educational Coalition). Continued investment from business into strategic approaches like ecosystem change is projected (Carroll, 2015), yet the impact that business is having on the social sector is unclear. Given this projected growth in business sector investment in strategic philanthropy and ecosystem change, it is important to understand the potential role of business in social change and explore ways in which social work and business can align their efforts. Why Choose to Partner? There is evidence that the number of cross-sector partnerships is growing, but questions remain about why partners would work together rather than separately. Why would businesses choose to partner when their typical activities are not social services oriented? And why would social services providers enter into these partnerships beyond financial resource interest? A variety of contextual factors may influence participation in partnerships, but the theoretical understanding of what drives participation is less clear. For guidance, this research draws on multiple theories—legitimacy and signaling theories as well as exchange theory. Legitimacy theory and closely related signaling theory provided guidance in exploring why businesses are participating in ecosystem change initiatives. These theories point us to examining signals that businesses give customers, stakeholders, and partners by engaging in social sector partnerships. Suchman (1995) defined legitimacy as “a generalized perception or assumption that the actions of an entity are desirable, proper, or appropriate within some socially constructed system of norms, values, beliefs, and definitions” (p. 574). Organizations act in a way that will lead those receiving their signal to think more positively about them. In this case, a business might partner in CSR or ecosystem change activities that they can publicize to present themselves as doing good and in return gain customers. When considering partnerships, legitimacy theory is applicable to any type of participating organization. Thumler (2011) relied on legitimacy theory in his study of school improvement partnerships in Germany and the United States. He used case examples to show how private foundations (some of which are corporate foundations) acted to gain legitimacy in the public school environment. Kramer and Pfitzer (2016) in their study of ecosystems change efforts found that one of the main reasons that businesses are sometimes left out of potential ecosystem change efforts is a lack of legitimacy. In other words, they have not acted or signaled in ways that have established enough trust with the existing partners. Essentially, an organization acts in a way that it believes will lead those receiving its signal to think more positively. Signaling can be performed in a variety of ways, but simply being a part of a partnership has been seen as a way to legitimize an entity’s presence (Suchman, 1995). Exchange theory may also explain what benefits a partnership may bring (including legitimacy). This theory leads us to hypothesize that organizations conduct a cost–benefit analysis before investing in a partnership to understand the benefit that any parties will gain from participation (Mizrahi et al., 2013). Anticipated benefits might include resources, innovation, knowledge, efficiencies, and increased outcomes, but the partnership could also cost the organization resources, time, damage to their reputation, or a loss of autonomy (Marx, 1998; Mizrahi et al., 2013). As business has not always been the most traditional partner for social work, my research explores social work leaders’ current perceptions of partnering with business, especially in addressing social work’s grand challenges. Evidence of business engaging in social change efforts is growing, and ecosystem frameworks are emerging across the country, yet much of the literature about these social change approaches is outside of social work. This research seeks to strengthen the role of and significance for social work in this change process by identifying perspectives and strategies for advancing the role of social work in partnerships that involve the business sector. Method and Data Collection Individuals serving on the Council on Social Work Education (CSWE) Leadership Roundtable were targeted for this research. The Leadership Roundtable was established in 2010 and was originally tasked with devising a national social work workforce study encompassing all levels and fields of practice. Today the roundtable meets regularly to discuss national social work legislative advocacy, workforce needs, and the future of social work. It comprises representatives (typically the president or CEO) from nine different social work organizations: American Academy of Social Work and Social Welfare, Association of Baccalaureate Social Work Program Directors, Association of Social Work Boards, CSWE, Group for the Advancement of Doctoral Education in Social Work, National Association of Social Workers, National Association of Deans and Directors of Schools of Social Work, Society for Social Work and Research, and Saint Louis Group. Eleven leaders were invited to participate in a 30- to 60-minute structured interview either over the phone or, when available, in person. These 11 included a leader from each of the nine represented organizations—two of the organizations had both a president and a CEO. Eight (73 percent) of those invited participated in an interview. Of those not participating one person declined and two did not respond. Seven of the nine (78 percent) organizations from the Leadership Roundtable are represented in the sample. All interviews were conducted between January and March of 2017. Each participant provided consent and interviews were recorded. A research assistant then transcribed each of the recorded interviews. Mixed-methods software Dedoose (version 7.5.19) was used to organize, code, and generate initial analysis. The primary researcher and a research assistant used DeCuir-Gunby, Marshall, and McCulloch’s (2011) coding methodology to individually review the transcripts and apply thematic codes across them. A review was then conducted to identify agreement between applied codes. This process was conducted twice, the second time allowing for more detailed secondary thematic codes to be applied within parent codes. Based on the interview structure, general themes were categorized into three primary areas. Eleven different primary codes emerged within these areas, and from them more than 50 secondary codes. Findings Based on the interview structure, general themes were categorized into three primary areas: (1) social work partnerships with business, (2) the use of the collective impact framework, and (3) preparing students for the future. Social Work Partnerships with Business For social work to truly address the social work grand challenges, finding the right partnerships with business (and other sectors) was identified as critical. All participants expressed a need for more than social work coming together to address the grand challenges. We can call them social work’s grand challenges, and we might be better if we call them “society’s grand challenges that social work is involved in.” And it’s going to take all sectors of the community, business sector, legal sector, any sector, public, private, social, to address these things. (Leader 7) *** Well, to be honest, I think that to address those grand social challenges it takes all hands on deck. . . . I don’t think that just one field could do it. I think that’s been somewhat a challenge of the profession to think that we can solve these sorts of major social issues without the partnership with business. . . . Solving social work grand challenges requires resources . . . generated beyond just the public sector. (Leader 10) Four different participants highlighted the fact that several aspects of social work intersect with business and that these often go unrecognized or place social work and business at opposite ends of the spectrum. I think any entity that we operate in service to the human good has elements of a business. So, you get into the whole dialogue of socially conscious businesses, social work entrepreneurialism, things of that nature, and I think it’s not an either–or, but many of us have been trained in that perspective. (Leader 8) Considering this, it is not surprising that all eight participants stated that partnering with business can strengthen business practices of social services providers. Three of the participants went further to state that this was really needed as many social workers lack business training, which is a disservice to the organizations and clients they are leading. Several other potential benefits from partnering were noted (see Table 1). Table 1: What Is to Be Gained by Partnering with Business? Gain of Partnering with Business Respondents (n) Access to business principles/practices 8 Monetary/financial resources 8 Access to technology 4 Power and influence with external stakeholders 4 Diversification of views and approaches to social change 2 Employment or other benefits for clients 2 Legitimacy, with younger generations calling for efficiencies and partnerships 1 Gain of Partnering with Business Respondents (n) Access to business principles/practices 8 Monetary/financial resources 8 Access to technology 4 Power and influence with external stakeholders 4 Diversification of views and approaches to social change 2 Employment or other benefits for clients 2 Legitimacy, with younger generations calling for efficiencies and partnerships 1 Table 1: What Is to Be Gained by Partnering with Business? Gain of Partnering with Business Respondents (n) Access to business principles/practices 8 Monetary/financial resources 8 Access to technology 4 Power and influence with external stakeholders 4 Diversification of views and approaches to social change 2 Employment or other benefits for clients 2 Legitimacy, with younger generations calling for efficiencies and partnerships 1 Gain of Partnering with Business Respondents (n) Access to business principles/practices 8 Monetary/financial resources 8 Access to technology 4 Power and influence with external stakeholders 4 Diversification of views and approaches to social change 2 Employment or other benefits for clients 2 Legitimacy, with younger generations calling for efficiencies and partnerships 1 Participants were specifically asked if they thought that there was a general aversion to social work partnering with business. Two participants talked seriously about there being an aversion based on the misuse of power by business in the past. A few others lightly laughed at the question, with Leader 6 stating, “No more than government!” However, all recognized that sometimes social workers approach social change with a belief that business has different motivations for partnering and a different ideology for why social change should happen. Well, I think a lot has to do with the general sense, which is probably not correct, but the general sense that business and what we think about business doesn’t hold the same level of values and ethics that the profession does around equality and social justice. And also, the sense that businesses don’t always act ethically and that business is more likely to exploit the population that we advocate for, more than anything else. (Leader 10) This perspective of misaligned motivations between social work and business carried over into potential threats of partnering (referenced by six of the participants). Three participants also felt that there was a potential for a loss of identity or to veer from an organization’s vision. Two participants discussed the potential for power imbalances, as business sometimes comes to the partnership with resources. Two other participants noted that business leaders’ lack of social work expertise can create weakness within partnerships, especially when businesses expect particular outcomes in exchange for resources. A few participants noted that although there were potential problems to be wary of, it really was more about finding the right fit with business partners. Both sides have to be open to the partnership. Identifying the right people, creating MOUs [memoranda of understanding] through legal systems that protect you and yet also free you. They are very difficult to create. Finding the right leadership, I would say is an issue on both sides—the business side but also on the NGO [nongovernmental organization] side. (Leader 9) All leaders stated in some way that the potential benefits outweighed the presented risks. This was underscored by the need for social work to be open to partnering with business (and other sectors), be prepared to identify potential threats, and have the skills to build positive relationships. Many social workers enter partnerships with apprehensions about the motivations of business, which can create a barrier to establishing relationships. Four of the leaders noted that social work needs to consider the approach it takes as we are not the only ones in the field that care about social justice and can sometimes be exclusive about it. We don’t have a monopoly on social good and doing good. Any business partner that we partnered with, their willingness to do good would be just as equal to ours. (Leader 7) *** When you draw a line with social justice, you automatically put other professions at the aspect of “Well, we care about people and you don’t,” and that’s not the case. (Leader 10) Last, a few leaders noted the importance for social work to be able to help businesses identify and recognize benefit from the partnership. For everyone involved to be a true participant, they need to see benefit from the effort. Fifty percent of the leaders noted that businesses themselves can gain credibility with external stakeholders and access to community networks. Two leaders also noted that businesses can gain legitimacy with consumers. People are not willing to partner unless they see advantages and that [the] relationship provides them with something to help them move forward on their agenda as well. So, I think we do need to find, if we’re going to do those sorts of things, how [to] develop a partnership so that there is a benefit and people see that there is a stake in it that really sort of benefits them as well. (Leader 10) Use of the Collective Impact Framework When considering whether or not social work should be embracing the collective impact framework to address the grand challenges, only one participant thought that he or she did not have enough knowledge to answer any questions about the framework. Three other participants were not familiar enough with the model that they chose to not answer more in-depth questions about the framework. Despite a lack of in-depth knowledge in some instances, seven (86 percent) participants thought that the framework had the potential to mobilize stakeholders to create change. Three participants also thought that the framework’s attention and focus on data were strengths. When considering the ability for the framework to help groups tackle the social work grand challenges, four participants indicated that although the framework might not be an answer, it certainly could be a tool for creating change. I think it’s a tool that people should be made aware of and I don’t know that the one tool of collective impact is going to resolve the grand challenges, but it is a resource that people should have readily available to them to do their work. (Leader 8) *** I think that the collective impact model really is a very strong model for thinking about grand challenges, each of the grand challenges has a network, each of the networks can be seen as in need of organizational structure and could certainly move through the stages that create a collective impact, creating effective collective impact. (Leader 1) Understanding that collective impact efforts are frequently being driven by sectors other than social work, a question was presented asking if there were any threats to social work being excluded from collective impact efforts happening across the country. All participants recognized the critical importance of social work having a voice in creating social change. Two specifically noted the risk of not being a part of the development of new knowledge. Separately emerging out of threats to not participating in collective impact efforts, three participants highlighted a need for the profession to come together and better advocate for the profession as a whole rather than the fragmented systems that are currently in place. It is critical that social work be at the table. A huge drawback for possibly not having as much of a presence is the fragmentation of the field. (Leader 6) *** The social ecology with these sorts of things is that the more choices we have, the less likely we are to make a choice. Versus being lean and focused on something that we can do as a profession—then we can have an impact on that and then expand the next go around. (Leader 10) Preparing Students for the Future As all the participants were associated with social work education in some way, I asked questions about preparing future social workers for cross-sector partnerships and partnerships with business specifically. No specific differences were found between general cross-sector partnerships and those just with business; as result, findings are included together. Three participants noted that they did not think students were being adequately equipped for cross-sector partnerships or with enough business skills to run nonprofits. All three complemented their statements with the concern that they have seen businesspeople taking over high-level positions within social work organizations. I think that’s what schools need to be doing and helping students to digest that material whatever level they’re coming in, baccalaureate, master’s, or doctoral, post credential as an ongoing learning cycle because we do a very poor job as a profession in terms of keeping our social workers up to date on practice modalities. (Leader 8) All eight participants agreed that students should be equipped for cross-sector partnerships. Social work education has traditionally used community organizing methods to prepare students, and participants provided many different innovative strategies outside of traditional methods. Five key areas (shown in Table 2) were highlighted as ways to better prepare students. I think that we really need to make sure that we are preparing social work practitioners to be players and leaders in these models. . . . I think that we really need to make sure we give students an opportunity to practice being in these kinds of collaborative spaces and actually challenge the spaces and . . . the curriculum as well. (Leader 4) Table 2: Social Work Education Areas That Could Be Improved Area for Improvement Respondents (n) Changes to the curriculum or coursework 8 Continuing education 7 More interdisciplinary training 4 Changes to faculty training and culture 3 Experiences in the field (practice experience) 3 Area for Improvement Respondents (n) Changes to the curriculum or coursework 8 Continuing education 7 More interdisciplinary training 4 Changes to faculty training and culture 3 Experiences in the field (practice experience) 3 Table 2: Social Work Education Areas That Could Be Improved Area for Improvement Respondents (n) Changes to the curriculum or coursework 8 Continuing education 7 More interdisciplinary training 4 Changes to faculty training and culture 3 Experiences in the field (practice experience) 3 Area for Improvement Respondents (n) Changes to the curriculum or coursework 8 Continuing education 7 More interdisciplinary training 4 Changes to faculty training and culture 3 Experiences in the field (practice experience) 3 The participants saw the importance of engaging business partners. They also saw the potential for using the collective impact framework or other interdisciplinary approaches for addressing the grand challenges. Furthermore, for social work to be a leader in creating these social changes, participants identified the importance of preparing students for such work. Discussion Social workers should consider partnering with businesses for many reasons. Legitimacy is both directly and indirectly mentioned in the findings. Legitimacy that can come from connections with business has been shown to create credibility and influence with external stakeholders. Complementing existing literature (Carroll, 2015), participants noted the growing expectation that businesses give back to social causes in some way. CSR actions can create legitimacy with consumers and stakeholders while strengthening their brand (Kramer & Pfitzer, 2016). Businesses’ reactions to some of President Trump’s recent political stances (Cain, 2017) and interview responses show that some businesses are participating in social justice causes. In addition, findings of ecosystem and collective impact efforts mirror the literature (Kramer & Pfitzer, 2016) showing partnerships have the potential to mobilize stakeholders and create change—that relying on a formalized model can bring legitimacy to partnerships in general and attract additional resources. Successful partnerships include an exchange of resources and are mutually beneficial. Participants identified numerous benefits associated with partnering with businesses. Although exchange theory is not typically applied within the corporate business setting, the need for benefits to be reciprocal within the partnership was mentioned in the findings. Corporations may be partnering to increase their legitimacy, and several participants felt that social work organizations and community partnerships need to be proactive at helping businesses see what benefits they might receive from participation. The need for partnerships to be mutually beneficial to all stakeholders aligns with exchange theory (Mizrahi et al., 2013) and with one of the primary components of the collective impact framework (Hanleybrown et al., 2012). These principles should be used to strengthen relationships. The identified benefits that both social work and business can obtain from participating in partnerships aligns with Austin and Seitanidi’s (2012b) identified values. Understanding that many business principles are needed to successfully operate a nonprofit, leveraging business expertise was identified as a benefit to social work organizations. As noted earlier, legitimacy, credibility, and even power within stakeholder networks are important benefits that social workers should be leveraging from partnerships with business. In exchange, businesses may encounter a variety of benefits as well. Aligning with Marx’s (1998) work, leaders specifically noted potential for gained legitimacy with consumers and supporters, employee recruitment, and an overall improvement in quality of life in the communities they work in. Tackling the Social Work Grand Challenges If the future of social work is to truly tackle the identified social work grand challenges, my findings suggest four primary steps of action. Step 1. The field of social work needs to be more interdisciplinary. A culture of interdisciplinary change should be present in both educational and training programs and also in the field. Participants recognized that social work cannot tackle these challenges alone. Those in the field need to embrace a collaborative approach to solving large-scale issues and more readily reach out to other disciplines to leverage expertise. CSWE (n.d.) cited 17 graduate programs that offer a dual degree with business administration. These partnerships, as well as those with other professions, are an ideal starting point for this culture shift. Step 2. Social work needs to be adequately equipping students for both administrative skills and collaborative approaches. Leaders have seen other professions (including business) taking high-level positions within social work organizations. In alignment with Nandan and Scott’s (2013) findings that show the need for transdisciplinary education, if social work is to remain relevant, it is critical that students enter the field with the skills needed to lead organizations and partnerships. Understanding that many students may not naturally elect to take macro or more business-oriented courses, social work education programs should consider ways to infuse some concepts into programs—for example, alternative assignments, a more interdisciplinary culture, and continued learning programs. Step 3. The profession needs to consider ways to become more cohesive around the grand challenges and how to tackle them. CSWE’s Leadership Roundtable appears to be attempting to align some of the many efforts taking place, but there are many social work organizations, which makes having a unified voice difficult. As other disciplines also work toward tackling major social issues, it is imperative for social work to have a voice at the table in creating change. Step 4. Although threats may exist in partnering with the business sector, participants agreed that potential benefits far outweigh the risks. Social workers need to more regularly think about how to partner with the business sector and leverage the resources they have. In seeking out partnerships, they also need to learn how to show benefit to entice partners. All entities involved should be able to articulate the value of their participation, but sometimes the business sector might need help seeing what their contribution and shared value creation might be. Conclusion Findings reveal the need to look outward for innovative ways to solve the social work grand challenges. If social workers can identify the right partners and overcome potential barriers, there are many benefits to be gained from partnering with the business sector. The collective impact framework is not the only means for addressing grand challenges, but it does appear to have potential for bringing together multiple sectors to create change. 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Social Work – Oxford University Press
Published: Apr 23, 2018
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