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Spring 2024 Issue

Filling the Gaps
By Sue Coyle, MSW
Social Work Today
Vol. 24 No. 2 P. 16

Social workers have started their own organizations to help bring more services to their communities.

Most social workers enter the profession aware of at least some of the need that persists throughout their communities, whether it be hunger, homelessness, substance use, mental health, education, or one of the many other areas of need prevalent today. They plan to use their degrees to serve and help meet those needs. Many aim to do so by joining a social service agency, working within the government, being a part of the health care system, or finding a position within a school.

Still, others plan to offer therapeutic services as a part of an existing practice or on their own or to enter academia and train the next generation of social workers.

However, as social workers gain more experience in the profession and learn more about what is and isn’t available to their clients and communities, they start to recognize where needs are falling through the cracks.

“If all the organizations that exist worked around the clock, they still wouldn’t be able to address all the needs,” says Brenda Alford, MSW, CGMS, founder and executive director of the Alliance for Nonprofits, an organization that works to help nonprofits improve and expand their own services and, thus, their impact. “There are a lot of gaps out here. Who fills those gaps?”

Filling those gaps comes in many forms, as social workers strive to strengthen existing programs, advocate for systemic change, and research the ways in which individuals and communities are both supported and let down.

For some social workers, however, those gaps become an opportunity for something new. They realize that the way in which they can offer the most help—the place where their skills, talents, and passion most align with the need—does not yet exist within the community they serve or hope to serve. It is those social workers who become the founders of nonprofits and, in some cases, for-profit organizations throughout the country.

Social Work Today spoke with four such social workers to find out about their experiences as founders.

Identifying the Need
Starting a new organization, as opposed to working within an existing company or program, requires both idea and action. For many social workers, inspiration and motivation come from both personal and professional experience.

For example, Marlene Holmes, PhD, MSW, a sports social worker, instructional designer, and motivational speaker, founded The BFCA (Black Female College Athlete) Experience after her own transition out of college sports. It was a struggle. “I thought this was something that had to do with me,” she says. “Maybe I could have prepared a little more. Then, I started to encounter young athletes, retired athletes, and parents of athletes throughout my career.” She found that student athletes were not receiving the support they needed to make informed decisions about their education and career path—decisions that could make their transitions out of athletics or into another level of athletics, such as high school to college, smoother. She founded The BFCA Experience so she could offer that needed guidance.

“It takes a level of commitment to become a college athlete, but more importantly to become a college athlete that graduates. Most of us are not going pro. You can be the greatest athlete in the world, and—we’ve seen it with the WNBA [Women’s National Basketball Association]—you make it to the team and two weeks later, you’re cut,” she says. “These are the things that [athletes] are not mentally and emotionally prepared for. These are the conversations that I have. I can be there and say, it’s not a bad thing.”

Similarly, Vanita Sanders, MSW, founder and CEO of Beyond A Diploma, a Michigan-based organization that helps prepare students and parents for postsecondary education, drew from her own personal and professional experience when launching. Having earned her MSW as a nontraditional student and working within the GEAR UP (Gaining Early Awareness and Readiness for Undergraduate Programs) program for many years at the University of Michigan, Sanders recognized a need that extended beyond where GEAR UP reached.

“I understand how difficult and challenging the education system is,” she says, adding that when she decided to start Beyond A Diploma, she asked herself, “How do I take some of this magic that’s happening at the University of Michigan and bring it back to the Detroit-area students and parents?”

Getting Started
The inspiration is just step one, however. After all, there are many individuals in all professions who envision ways to improve, recreate, or expand what already exists. Actually launching an organization requires great determination, planning, and decision making.

One of the most important decisions for a social worker is whether to start a nonprofit or for-profit organization. Nonprofit often seems like the most natural and logical choice for a founder who is also a social worker. For Alford, who founded a for-profit organization previously, a nonprofit made the most sense for what she was hoping to achieve.

“To me, the real difference is we don’t have a profit line on our financial statements,” she says. “A business is a business whether you are in it for a profit motivation or not. [However] you are looking at benefits differently. When you are in a for-profit company, what benefits your client is different. When you’re running a nonprofit, you get down to actual individuals and what their needs are.”

Emily D. Fernandes, MSW, executive director of Open Sky Wilderness Therapy, views for-profits differently. Open Sky is a for-profit organization. The decision to launch it as one was made when Fernandes cofounded it. In fact, her motivation for starting her own organization came from the struggles she saw other wilderness therapy programs face as nonprofits.

“I went on to work for several publicly funded outdoor programs for adjudicated and at-risk kids in the 1990s that were incredible, including Outward Bound in Florida and the Wilderness School in Connecticut. Sadly, by the early 2000s, most of the state funding for outdoor youth programming across the country faced severe funding cuts, which is what drove me to follow my passion for continuing outdoor youth work in the private sector,” she says.

Fernandes adds, “We established Open Sky as a for-profit because it gives us the most influence as owner-operators to design and run the program the way we believe works best. We are able to do things we believe are important, even if they require more resources.”

What Fernandes is pointing to are the differences in how for-profit and nonprofit organizations are or can be funded. While nonprofits can rely on fees for services or goods, as for-profit organizations do, as well as private donations, many nonprofits apply for and receive grants from the government and other entities. Grants make many services possible but may also put limitations on a program depending on the terms of the funding.

There are many other factors beyond funding that may lead a founder to start a nonprofit, however. All aspects should be considered in the planning and research stage so that the organization that most suits the service and the founder is created.

Resources and Support
Determining what’s best for an organization is complicated. Even when it seems like there’s an obvious answer, the ins and outs of that solution are not always as clear cut. And it’s important to make these decisions carefully. After all, Sanders says, “You want to make an impact, but you also want to make an income. And you can do both.”

Thus, accessing the right resources when starting up is vital. “For us, the business aspects of starting and running a program were self-taught,” Fernandes says. “We read books, sought counsel from family and mentors, and mostly, learned by doing.”

Fernandes adds that she would love to see more curriculum in schools of social work focused on financial and business-oriented skills. “Behind the magic of the therapy work are endless amounts of logistical and financial demand.”

There are, of course, resources available outside of schools that many social workers rely on today. Alford points to various organizations and programs designed to help teach business owners/founders how to operate, such as the US Small Business Administration and the business centers run by the Minority Business Development Agency, as well as more regional—often state-specific—nonprofit agencies that specifically aim to assist nonprofits. Alford also encourages social workers to seek available online and print materials. “There is a lot of training that exists,” she says.

The most valuable resource, however, for all four social workers interviewed, is the people they have supporting them, both as a direct part of the organization and as mentors.

Holmes has a team of people she trusts working within The BFCA Experience. “I trust them enough to be honest with me, and they understand the foundation [of The BFCA Experience] is authenticity. They’re going to let me know at the rawest level that that sounds great or we need to scale back. It’s been amazing, and they really have supported me from day one, well before I actually knew that this was something,” she says.

Holmes also has a number of mentors external to the organization she can turn to when in need of advice. “A lot of my mentors have their own businesses,” she says. She reaches out to them with ideas as well as logistical and administrative questions like what they charge or how to get an EIN and LLC. “It’s a totally different world.”

Sanders also turns to mentors. “What helps to keep me going are those relationships. I have a coach and mentor. She is a social worker. She went through the same journey as I am [on]. Finding those people who have done it before [is vital]. You learn through mentors or mistakes.”

With the right support system, a social worker facing unanticipated challenges or needing to adapt and adjust their nonprofit is more likely to be able to handle the unexpected, whether it’s a global event such as a pandemic or a decision to alter or add to the services offered.

For example, when Sanders first started Beyond A Diploma, she was offering a number of face-to-face workshops with students but she realized this wasn’t the direction she wanted to take long term. “I have done direct service since 2003, and I was burnt out.” With reflection, support, and the time needed to think about what she wanted to achieve through Beyond A Diploma, Sanders pivoted. She now focuses on training others, providing them with the information they need to then go out and support the students. “I believe in capacity building,” she says. “How can I train other people to know what I know?”

Social Work Skills
Through it all—from the idea to the launch to maintaining and growing an organization—these founders rely on their social work skills. “I have found that the same skills I developed working as a therapist are incredibly relevant for working with employees and coworkers: being a good listener and effective communicator and supporting people to learn, grow, and develop their unique skills and talents,” Fernandes says. “Over the years, I’ve been struck with how I draw on the same facilitation and leadership skills that I developed through all the years working with youth and apply them now being the executive director of an organization of over 150 employees.”

Sanders adds, “The competitive edge that anyone has with an MSW is we’re trained to be problem solvers. We’re taught to look at the person and the environment. How do you help [an individual] deal with these things in their environment?” she says. “What the degree has done for me is provide me with the lens with which I look at things.” Sanders also notes that she utilizes tools such as logic models and methods of advocacy that she does not see other professionals outside of social work use.

Helping others to recognize the skills that social workers bring to all sectors, however, is still an uphill battle. Both Sanders and Holmes say they have had to explain to others what social workers are capable of doing.

“The most challenging thing for me,” Holmes says, “is educating others on what social workers do. When I am pitching, whether it’s to a university that has a social work program or does not, the biggest challenge is educating them that social workers have the foundational training to pivot in almost every field. When I explain that, they’re like ‘oh, OK, because I thought social workers only took kids from families.’ I think that is and has been and will continue to be the biggest barrier, especially in the sports world.”

Future Founders
But even with barriers and the work required to successfully launch a business, all four founders deem starting their own organization as worth it. They are committed to and proud of what they have and continue to accomplish. And they look forward to more social workers creating their own organizations.

Sanders and Alford advise social workers preparing to start a new organization to do a gap analysis first. “Look at what already exists and look at where the gaps are in the community,” Alford says. “If you’re starting something new, you want to start where there is a gap.”

“You want to be a solution to the problem,” Sanders says, “and you want to be a solution that you may not necessarily see.”

Above all, if social workers are confident in the need and the solution they have identified but are nervous about taking the leap to founder, Sanders advises them to do it. “Do it afraid.”

— Sue Coyle, MSW, is a freelance writer and social worker in the Philadelphia suburbs.