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Organizational Structure of a Social Service Organization

Author: Michele Vrouvas
Publish Date: 

Without a sound organizational structure, even the loftiest ideals for community improvement will not be enough to make a social service organization run smoothly. According to the Community Toolbox, social service businesses of all sizes can transform their dreams into reality by relying on systems that deliver success in for-profit corporations. Those systems include a steering committee to develop the group's goals, a coordinating council to create strategies, and task forces of workers who use those strategies to perform the organization's work. According to the nonprofit agency American Public Human Services Association, such a structured system is one reason that, 80 years after its founding, the agency is able to continue its work of supporting human service organizations in more than 25 states.

Many social service organizations follow the pyramid structure that centralizes final authority in one leader. Typically, the pyramid structure recognizes two distinct business operations, administration and social work. At one end, the leader oversees administrative functions with the help of special assistants. Supervising the social work part of the business are middle- and lower-level managers. One example of the pyramid structure is in North Carolina's Wake County Department of Human Services, where the director of medical/clinical services is a middle manager who supervises employees specializing in clinical strategies and adult services. Another type of middle-level management in the pyramid structure is in California's statewide Department of Social Services, which has two middle management levels. One management level is for administrative offices handling employee, public and legislative affairs, and the other level is for social work offices that focus on community improvement. The pyramid structure of federal social service organizations, such as the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services and the Social Security Administration, often places final authority in one director who oversees multiple levels of middle managers and an extensive workforce.

The organizational structure of social service businesses commonly displays functional departmentalization, which assigns employees to departments that handle one type of work. The two main categories of function-based departments are administration and social work. The number of administrative departments tends to increase according to the geographic scope of the organization. Thus, the nationwide focus of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services requires it to have at least eight departments devoted exclusively to management, resources and technology, legislation, and public affairs. The narrower focus at the state level is obvious in such organizations as the Alaska Department of Health and Human Services, which has only one department for financial matters but three departments for public health, community services for substance abuse prevention, juvenile justice, and disabilities services and aging.

Job specialization allows social service employees to do the work they know best. Commonly, that work is spread across administrative departments that hire employees, administer payroll, allocate resources, control finances, and lobby for legislative initiatives. Job specialization in social work departments focuses on clinical research and planning, children's health issues, long-term adult care arrangements, mental and behavioral health, economic self-sufficiency, and senior and disabled services. Job specialization further depends on the geographic area the organization serves. For example, social service agencies in Colorado, Virginia, North Carolina and Alaska support each agency's priorities of fostering the well-being of state residents. By comparison, the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, which serves the entire country, has an entire research agency -- the Agency for Healthcare Research & Quality -- that supports the department's organizational goal of improving health care for all Americans.

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