I worked at a dialysis corporation for a few years in my career.  We occasionally had large group social worker meetings that employees from the corporate office sometimes came to present.  Often when Corporate came, they would talk about finances and insurance billing and the cost of doing business.  Virtually every time, the corporate employee would say something like “as social workers, you all just want to help people and you don’t really understand or care about the money aspect.”  It always felt very condescending like there was some deficiency with social workers because we care about helping individuals and that we all weren’t quite sophisticated enough to understand the reality of business.

Social Workers are actually extremely proficient at understanding how systems work and that nothing exists in a vacuum.  When we look at the big picture it is easy to see how there is a business aspect to social work.  Not only is money involved in how we can provide our services, we will work for businesses – our own or someone else’s.  This will necessitate understanding business or management information.

Chances are – if you are good at your job – you will be asked to take on more responsibilities – probably become someone who manages people. The thing, though, just because you are a good social worker does not mean you automatically have the skills to be a good leader or manager.  Your social work skills help you but there is a whole new world to learn.  Maybe you dream of owning your own private practice.  In both of these scenarios, you will have to develop skills that hone your business sense.  If you know you want to own your own business or become a manager or director of some type, you may want to look at school programs that also have social service slanted business classes.  (Some schools even have MSW/MBA programs.)  Many MSW programs do not have classes on social service management.  My MSW program only had one class focusing on the business aspect of social work.

Although I absolutely love the clinical aspect of my job, I think I am happiest with managing a staff at my current corporate job and also immensely enjoy running my private practice.   The business aspect of social work is my favorite.  Below is a mishmash of my thoughts on the business part of social work.

  • Making money and helping people are not mutually exclusive. A social worker can make a good salary and still help people.  Helping people does not mean less because money is a consideration.
  • It is inevitable. Stop fighting it. Even individuals who have found their niche and are purely clinical will invariably be required to thinking of billing issues and productivity.   Instead of complaining about it, accept it and you will likely feel more fulfilled.
  • Take time to learn management skills. Take a class.  Get a mentor.  Be open to learning ways of doing things that may not be second nature to you.
  • Network and build relationships. One of your biggest supports will be people doing the same thing as you.  There is always so much to learn and I am so grateful for all the people who still answer my questions.  In turn, I can’t tell you how many people I have assisted with starting their own private practice.
  • Join social media groups and internet boards specifically for therapists, leaders or social service managers.  I will say most of what I learned about marketing comes from an internet board of private practice therapists
  • Be direct in your communication. As a social worker, I want people to figure out things for themselves.  I’ll ask questions guiding them.  I also want to give feedback in the most palatable manner possible.  This means sometimes softening too much what I am asking. As a leader, I have learned to be more direct.  I can say “my expectation is for you…”
  • If you are hiring people the number one quality I look for is a passion for the job. Seriously, I don’t want you working for me if I don’t detect a passion for helping.
  • Next, if you are hiring people, look for people who are smarter than you and who speak up. This has served me well in my career.  I had a supervisor tell me my team was disrespectful because they voiced their opinions.  I could not have disagreed more.  My team was high-functioning with high productivity, successful and cohesive because everyone had a voice and not only felt heard but could see their ideas come into action.
  • Remember when you supervise people you want them to feel good about their jobs. Don’t tear people down.
  • Maintain Integrity. Just because you acknowledge money and business may be a part of your job does not mean there is a reason to not make ethical decisions.  We are social workers, after all, it does all come down to assisting the client to live the best life they choose.
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