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  April 15, 2002

Community-Based Non-Profits Pressured
by Corporate Culture, Says Speaker
By Claudia G. Chamberlain

The corporatization of social services is putting pressure on community-based non-profits, according to two professors of social policy and urban studies. "Corporatization" refers to the organizational culture that today dominates contemporary non-profits and structures them like a corporation.

"The non-profits are no longer autonomous agencies," said Robert Fisher, UConn professor of urban studies and social work, speaking during a lecture April 4 at the Greater Hartford campus. "The agencies are not able to set their own mission or goals, but instead must focus on how to keep the organization alive and where to get the money next."

Fisher, director of the Urban and Community Studies Program for the University's Tri-Campus that includes Hartford, Waterbury and Torrington, is co-author of a newly published book that focuses on the past, present, and future of settlement houses. These settlements outside New York City have evolved today into non-profit community-based services.

The book, Settlement Houses Under Siege: The Struggle to Sustain Community Organizations in New York City, is co-authored by Michael B. Fabricant, a professor at Hunter College School of Social Work in New York.

Fabricant was at the UConn campus April 4 with Fisher, to foster a discussion on trends in community-based non-profits. Some 60 students, social workers, faculty and community guests participated in the two-hour program, which included a question-and-answer session. The lecture, "The Future of Our Cities and Communities," was the third in a new series co-sponsored by the Urban and Community Studies Program and the School of Social Work.

"The book should have a broader audience beyond those interested in social settlements in New York City," Fisher said. "The kinds of discussions we're having about community-based non-profits emphasize political economy, and that's the essence of non-profit financing and program development."

Fabricant said it was settlement houses that spawned the social work profession.

"Settlements are part of the origins of the profession. You can't separate social work from social settlements," he said. "The whole sense of moving from service work to education came out of the social settlement work in New York City."

Fisher pointed to three significant current trends affecting non-profit community-based services.

"The first major trend is the transformation of the welfare state that has occurred in the last 20 to 30 years, that pushes services - especially public services and care - away from centralized sources to decentralized sources, and especially to the non-profit sector," he said. "Accordingly, what we see in America and New York City is an absolute proliferation and burgeoning of the non-profit sector."

The second trend, he said, relates to the issue of corporatization and privatization: "Almost everything and everyone is forced to adopt business processes and goals. It's all about efficiency and the bottom line, over everything else.

"The third major trend we're seeing is the decline of community connection," Fisher said. "At the very moment that the welfare state is being transformed and corporate globalization is affecting a centralization of economic power, processes and tasks are being pushed back to the communities."

As this happens, Fisher added, there is less social support in the communities, less assistance, yet communities are being pressured to do much more with much less.

"The transformation of the welfare state, the corporatization of everything, and the decline of community connection have placed extraordinary pressure on the community-based non profits," he said. "Most of these agencies have not been able to do all that they've wanted to do, let alone be close to as effective as they want to be."

Fisher said the book does not simply extol their virtues, however, but points to their limited potential and limited success, and underscores the need to alter the contemporary political economy and the constraints on community building and development.

The fourth and final lecture in the Urban and Community Studies series, "Two Conversations on the Future of Our Cities and Communities, " will be held Thursday, April 18, at 5:30 p.m. in the Zachs Room at the School of Social Work on the Greater Hartford campus.

The conversation is the second of two with Peter Marcuse, a professor at Columbia University, and will include educators, and civic and public officials from the local community: Dick Mansfield, dean of Christ Church Cathedral in Hartford; Stan Simpson, a columnist for The Hartford Courant; and Hartford City Councilwoman Elizabeth Horton Sheff.

Fisher said the lectures so far in the series have been dynamic, relevant, and well-attended by members of the community.

"The series is definitely contributing to the discussion on the future of Waterbury and Hartford," said Fisher. "The goal of our BA program is to meet the needs of students in Waterbury, Hartford, and Torrington for quality undergraduate education. At the same time, we seek - through public lectures, faculty research and student internships - to have an impact on the urban world and the communities in which we live."

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