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The Role of Nonprofit Leadership in Impacting Community Change

Social worker in leadership position mentors volunteer at outdoor event for a nonprofit organization.

Social workers in nonprofit leadership roles are uniquely positioned to bring about community change. As mission-driven organizations, nonprofits provide ideal platforms for identifying specific issues affecting a community and creating targeted programs to address them. While no single path exists to become a nonprofit leader, social workers can develop relevant skills that prepare them for such roles through advanced degree programs that emphasize leadership.

Tulane University’s Online Doctorate in Social Work prepares students to manage community-focused initiatives. Social work professionals interested in building a nonprofit organization or transitioning into a leadership role at an existing agency can build their skills through the DSW program’s remote learning opportunities, which offer the flexibility working professionals require to advance their careers.

The Importance of Leadership in Nonprofit Organizations

The importance of leadership in nonprofit organizations cannot be overstated. Nonprofit organizations engage with broader public issues to address the social services needs of individuals. While a social worker interacting with clients individually might assist with program applications or provide counseling, those who lead community organizations concentrate on the underlying causes of social problems, such as economic inequality,unemployment, housing policies, drug laws, and structural and environmental issues that disproportionately affect marginalized groups.

Effecting systemic change — work sometimes described as macro social work — requires leaders with the training to implement, manage, and evaluate complex programs as well as the knowledge and experience to influence public policy.

Careers in Nonprofit Organizations

Social workers with the necessary training for leadership roles have many career options, and their education qualifies them for both public- and private-sector positions. Advanced degree holders may choose to focus on clinical work or research. Many also choose an academic path, pursuing professorships or academic administration roles. For some, however, careers in nonprofit organizations provide the most effective setting for addressing problems that affect communities.

Social workers have a wealth of career options in the nonprofit sector. Those wanting to serve in a leadership role that is focused on community-level action typically target executive positions. The titles for such roles vary — an executive director at one organization might be equivalent to a CEO at another, for example — but all require a broad knowledge of social work practices and theory as well as general and field-specific leadership skills. Leadership roles include program management positions and specialists in areas such as community outreach, development and funding, strategy, and public policy.

Nonprofit Leadership Skills

Advanced degree programs allow professionals to hone their nonprofit leadership skills, building their knowledge and abilities related to community organizing, fundraising, grant writing, research and analysis, finance and budgeting, and strategic planning.

Graduate students also cultivate the communication skills that social workers in nonprofit leadership rely on to collaborate with other organizations, inspire staff members, and articulate a clear strategic vision. Additionally, leadership programs such as a DSW emphasize critical thinking skills, which are necessary to design, evaluate, and implement programs and policies that can effect change across an entire community.

Nonprofit Leadership Development

Studying specific styles of leadership, as well as exploring how they align with a student’s areas of interest and professional goals, brings focus to the leadership development process. For example, a social worker who wants to join a large, well-established organization might focus on delegative leadership, while an individual targeting agencies in earlier stages of development might explore transformational or participative leadership styles.

Nonprofit leadership development is not limited to management training, however. Leadership roles in nonprofit organizations require a deep understanding of social work theory and process. An advanced curriculum builds on students’ understanding of social welfare policy, systems theory, and evidence-based program management.

How Do Nonprofits Help Communities?

Nonprofit organizations help communities in a variety of ways:

  • Child care agencies
  • Disaster response networks
  • Food banks
  • Homeless shelters
  • Mental health centers
  • Needle exchange programs
  • Public health services
  • Refugee and immigrant services
  • Substance abuse programs
  • Women’s shelters
  • Youth centers

The above examples and countless other types of community social services organizations share an emphasis on marginalized populations and a commitment to core social work values of service and social justice.

Developing Skills for Leadership Roles

Social work professionals with a Doctorate of Social Work (DSW) have their choice of career paths in the field. They have the qualifications to practice clinical social work or become educators, but many pursue managerial positions or even start their own nonprofits. In fact, non-academic administrative positions are the top area of employment for practice doctorate graduates, according to the Council on Social Work Education.

Tulane University’s Online Doctorate in Social Work (DSW) gives current practitioners who are interested in leadership a path to attaining executive-level positions. Graduates are prepared for roles in program management, applied research, nonprofit leadership, or university-based teaching in as few as seven semesters. No matter which career path they choose, graduates of Tulane’s DSW program have the ability to affect meaningful community change. Visit the program to learn more about how Tulane prepares social work professionals to bring positive change to communities across the world.

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