Abstract: Organizations Negotiating Welfare System Change: Philanthropic Boundary Work during the War on Poverty (Society for Social Work and Research 24th Annual Conference - Reducing Racial and Economic Inequality)

Organizations Negotiating Welfare System Change: Philanthropic Boundary Work during the War on Poverty

Friday, January 17, 2020
Independence BR G, ML 4 (Marriott Marquis Washington DC)
* noted as presenting author
Matthew Bakko, MSW, MA, PhD Student, University of Michigan-Ann Arbor, MI
Background/Purpose: As changes in the welfare system have occurred over time there has been a concern with tracking historical processes and effects of sector boundary change. However, social work research has under considered boundary change processes in the relationship between philanthropic funders and human service agencies. While philanthropic organizations provide critical resources to agencies in the social welfare organizational ecosystem, there is a lack of attention to philanthropy’s internal dynamics, including for how sector boundaries are (re)negotiated through everyday practices and power dynamics. To understand better historically critical junctures in social welfare and civil society, we must take seriously the role of philanthropic organizations, and the mechanisms they employ, in shaping the welfare landscape and the work of human service agencies. This study asks: How have everyday philanthropic organizational actors negotiated welfare system change and shifts in boundaries, and to what effect?

Methods: An in-depth historical case study was conducted to examine the research question. The primary organizational actor in the case is the United Foundation of Detroit during the War on Poverty, a precursor to today's United Way, years 1964-1974. Evidence for examining actor negotiations, gathered from the Foundation’s archive, includes reports, Board of Director and special committee minutes, memos from the executive director, organizational leaders, and staff, inter-agency communications, and speeches by leadership. Evidence was investigated through process tracking and interpretive archival content analysis, including examinations of manifest and latent content.

Results: The societal and welfare changes of the War on Poverty era provided United Foundation actors with the impetus and opportunity to protect, strengthen, and expand their philanthropic role and power in the welfare organizational ecosystem. Three key contextual factors threatened the United Foundation’s role and power over welfare provision: 1) pre-existing relational dynamics and control of resources between the United Foundation and other service provider organizations; 2) the expansion of government’s role in welfare through the War on Poverty; and 3) the racial upheavals of the so called “Urban Crisis.” Organizational actors responded by transforming these threats into opportunities through using specific mechanisms to exert greater control over funding and activities in their organizational ecosystem. Tangibly, these took the form of a newly developed service funding priority system, which classified and ranked service areas, and strict supplementary fundraising policy. These tools combined with managerial ideologies of effectiveness, efficiency, and “one united giving vision” to provide the United Foundation leverage to exert control amidst welfare system boundary change.

Conclusions/Implications: This study contributes to the field by illuminating everyday negotiations by philanthropic organizational actors on the ground, particularly through uncovering their relationship to other actors in the welfare system. This provides contemporary lessons for understanding funder-agency relationships and power dynamics, the role of managerialism in a privatized welfare environment, and “boundary work” as an analytical tool for understanding actions of organizational actors amidst welfare and sector change. Within the dynamic, frequently market-driven, welfare context of today, these lessons augment social work’s discovery of human service outcomes with deeper investigations of in-depth process.