Skip to main content

Community Organization: Its Meaning 1939



This Study aims to record, historically, the meanings given to the term Community Organization,* so far as these are shown in social work literature, and to discover the causes of the wide-spread confusion in relation to that term.  Following the method of research in physical sciences, the writer adopted a working hypothesis in advance.  This was based primarily upon attention he had given to the subject while serving as Editor of the Social Work Year Book for its first three issues.  He wished to include Community Organization in the first issue on the same basis as Social Case Work and Social Group Work, but no one to whom he turned was able to indicate clearly what area such an article should cover.

The working hypothesis adopted is in reality an assumption as to the general set-up of social work, its major divisions, and their relation to corresponding activities outside of social work.  That assumption will be more easily understood if an illustrative diagram is first introduced.  In this diagram, for simplicity, family agencies (including public assistance bodies), settlements and chests (including councils of social agencies) are regarded as embracing the entire specified field of social work, while schools, factories, and leagues of women voters are assumed to be the only outside agencies which enter social work as a result of using its processes.


*Initial capitals are used in such places as this, in order to avoid the frequent repetition of quotation marks.

[Refer to diagram for page 2]Page 2 Study [View Image]
[View Image]
Page 2 Study


  1. Their religious work
  2. Their social case work — Parts of what the priest does in the confessional, and what pastors and church visitors do
  3. Their social group work — Church scouting groups, etc.
  4. Their social community organization—Social program promotion, chiefly by city, state, and national federations of churches.


  1. Their educational work.
  2. Their social case work — Visiting teaching, vocational guidance, compulsory attendance.
  3. Their social group work — School playgrounds and school center groups.
  4. Their social community organization — Social program promotion by school officials; the advisory and supervisory work of the state departments of education (and the federal Office of Education) in relation to the social activities of schools, such as those named in 6 and 7.

Family Agencies  (Including those for public assistance)

  1. Their social case work.
  2. Their social group work — Group meetings of clients.
  3. Their social community organization — Promotion of legislative and other social programs by local, state, or national agencies. Also the entire work of the two latter (research, publicity, advice and assistance to local agencies, by visits, publications, organization, reorganization, conferences, etc.)


  1. Their social group work.
  2. Their social case work — Individualization of certain clients; vocational guidance sometimes.
  3. Their social community organization-Extensive promotion of social programs, as at Hull House and elsewhere.

Chests (including Councils of Social Agencies)

  1. Their social community organization—Their entire financial and social work, including both their direct activities with and for their member agencies, and their promotion of social programs; also the entire work of the national chest organization.


  1. Their factory work.
  2. Their social group work — Recreational activities.
  3. Their social community organization — A little help with social programs.

Leagues of Women Voters

  1. Their distinctive political and political — education activities.
  2. Their social community organization — Assistance in the campaigns against child labor, women’s labor at night, etc.

The Working Hypothesis

This study is limited to the activities of organizations, within and without the social work field, which do things directly or indirectly for people.  Within that group it is important to distinguish between mutual benefit organizations, like golf clubs, which are not included in the study*, and those in which the members or supporters promote services for the entire community or at least for special outside groups.  These services may constitute an agency’s entire work, as in the case of family welfare societies, or they may be only a small part of its work, as in the welfare activities of a factory owner.

Whatever the operating agencies may be — religious, educational, political, commercial, industrial, or social  — they will use one or more of the three fundamental processes — casework, group work, or community organization. The case work and group work processes are applied to people-beneficiaries.  By contrast the processes of community organization are applied to agencies, and only indirectly to beneficiaries.  The community or a segment of it is first welded by interested persons into a more or less permanent organization for a fundamental “cause”, or into a temporary “united front” for an immediate goal. Once the permanent organizations are set up, they engage in case work or group work for their parishioners, pupils, employes [sic], patients, or clients; or they may engage in further community organization. There are thus two stages of community organization — a volunteer stage, when interested citizens unite for a cause or to set up a new agency; and a professional stage when an established agency promotes the program or erects a new organization.


*This exclusion of completely mutual benefit organizations is necessary because they are essentially a separate group. For example, membership is sold to their prospects by the promise of benefits, just as stock is sold for the expected dividends. But when voluntary service or contributions are sought for political parties, churches, or community chests the promoters base their appeal on what the prospect can thereby do for an outside disadvantaged group or for the whole community. In the latter case may possibly share in the hoped-for benefit, but even so he knows that others who give nothing are going to share in the results of what he gives or does.

Though the community organization processes are varied, they all center upon the organizing act and subsequent nurture. Implementation is implied in the latter term.  As preliminary and supplementary stages in the process several other activities are often necessary — research (to get a clear picture of the fundamental facts), planning (to develop a wise program of action, publicity (to make the findings known to possible Supporters), and promotion (to organize and apply the support effectively).

The program may be a new political party, a new commercial organization, or a new welfare society — calling for the moral support of considerable group — or it may be a new public agency, for which a legislative campaign is necessary and appropriations of public money.  Again, the program may involve the reorganization of decadent society or even the dissolution of one that is no longer needed; it usually includes the year-in-and-out assistance of local societies by the staffs of national bodies, through field visits, publications, conferences, and correspondence; and in the case of public agencies it covers the statutorily prescribed relation of state departments or federal agencies to their local units.  This latter process involves somewhat more of supervision and regulation.  In the public field also community organization may mean a program for implementing a governmental agency, as when state or local departments of education are to be given greater powers or more adequate appropriations.  Raising the child labor age is properly regarded as an implementation measure for the enactment of necessity places the enforcement of the new feature upon a specified agency. All legislative reforms are thus either the establishment or the implementation of public agencies.

When the community organization processes are directed toward the organizing and nurture of social agencies, they constitute Social Community Organization.  The fact that this term has not hitherto been used, * though the corresponding terms, Social Case Work and Social Group Work are well established, indicates strikingly the extent to which the concept of Community Organization has been neglected by social workers.  It has been regarded as a strictly social work performance.  Actually, as indicated in the preceding paragraphs, and by the Notes on Page 3, the community organization processes are widely used for their own purposes by religious, educational, political, business, and governmental agencies.  Sometimes these agencies apply the same processes to social programs, as when school officials assist in promoting a child labor law or endeavor to get more adequate appropriations for their visiting teaching program.  In such efforts they are operating in the field of social community organization.


* In Arthur Dunhams’s term Social Welfare Planning, which he has used in the Social Work Year Book as a substitute for Community organization in social work, there is implied recognition of the fact that the term Social Community Organization is needed.

As an aid to clear thinking upon this subject it is helpful to keep in mind the fact that all three terms — Social Case Work, Social Group Work, and Social Community Organization — relate (1) to a process and (2) to the area or field in which the process is used. This is suggested graphically in the diagram on Page 2 if the titles are read vertically in the successive columns.

Thus the field of community organization is the sum total of the activities named in the final column, under whatever auspices they are carried on — social case work agencies, social group work agencies, social community organization agencies, or outside agencies.

In the preceding paragraphs an important fact, much overlooked, has been implied — that community organization is often a state-wide or national activity. The term has ordinarily been restricted to the local community.  As a matter of fact, national state-wide agencies, in both public and private social work, have a community organization relationship to the local units in their fields in which is fundamentally the same as that of the councils of social agencies to their member organizations.

One other statement in the preceding discussion demands amplification — the assertion that community organization does not give direct services to beneficiaries.  About twenty years ago, because that limitation was not accepted in social work circles, the term Community Organization was extended beyond the organizing and nurturing act, and made to include direct recreational services in community centers and elsewhere.  Thus the terms Community Organization and Group Work became badly confused.  Setting up and implementing a community center is community organization; operating it is ordinarily group work.  The activity becomes community organization only when the group which meets at the center discusses, adopts, and promotes the setting up of a program for the benefit of the community or a segment of it. The program may be as simple or as  temporary as an effort to convince the Superintendent of Schools that the center should be opened one more night a month. Working for that end is community organization; operating the center on the extra night each month. Working for that end is community organization; operating the center on the extra night each month is group work or community organization, depending on the nature of the activities undertaken that night.

In this outline of the writer’s working hypothesis, established practice has been followed  in freely using the terms Case Work, Group Work, and Community Organization as Adjectives – “community organization agencies” for example.  This usage arises from the desirability, for practical purposes, of dividing social agencies into the three traditional groups.  But the only way in which agencies can be so classified is by assigning each type of agency to but one group, doing this on the basis of the process most extensively used.  Such assignments have unavoidably caused considerable confusion.  Settlements, for example, are usually assigned to group work.  But when the community organization functions of settlements are considered at a conference of social work the discussion is likely to take place in the Group Work Section. The term Community Organization may not be used by any of the speakers, and newcomers to social work may leave the session supposing that forms of group work have been discussed.  Classifications of this sort are convenient by they obscure the composite nature of certain agencies’ work unless special effort is made to emphasize it.  That emphasis is one of the purposes of the diagram presented on page 2.

Note: Transcribed from the original by Heidi Anoszko, Research Assistant

Source: Social Welfare History Archives, University of Minnesota Library. More information is available at:



View graphic version