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Community Chest Movement: An Interpretation 1924

The Community Chest Movement–An Interpretation


C. M. Bookman, Executive Secretary, Community Chest and Council of Social Agencies, Cincinnati (1924)

Editor’s Note: This is the complete text of a  general session presentation at the National Conference Of Social Work Held in Toronto, Ontario June 25-July 2, 1924.  C.M Bookman was a social worker and activist who wrote numerous articles on social work as a viable profession.  In 1917 he was appointed director of the Community Chest and Council of Cincinnati and an ardent advocate of federated fund-raising. Mr. Bookman says early in this presentation: “…I shall speak frankly on the subject of community chests, realizing that neither the opponents of community chest methods, nor its friends, will be pleased with some of the things I shall have to say….”

The social service infant whose birth was so deplored among social workers ten years ago, whose early years were so beset with dangers, and whose early actions were so severely criticized, has grown and developed until it is today a giant holding in his grasp the destiny of American social work for at least a decade to come. The two or three cities with federations ten years ago have increased to nearly two hundred; the two or three hundred thousand dollars raised by federations ten years ago have increased to over fifty millions; the few thousand stockholders in the early enterprises now share the joy of service with millions of their fellow-citizens. More and more cities are adopting the plan and nothing seems likely either to stop its growth or to hasten greatly its continued spread. A few successes or a few failures will influence it but slightly. Its ultimate success or failure rests upon the soundness of its principles and the statesmanship of its leaders. No movement in the long history of social work has so quickly caught the popular fancy. Through community chest methods practically the entire population of many cities have become interested in social work. Social problems and ways of solving them have become popular topics of conversation. Social work in these cities is recognized as one of the vital forces in the life of the people. Hence more money has been raised for social service and charitable endeavor than was ever dreamed possible, and many of the results secured are outstanding.

I have no desire to compare the social results of a community chest city with the social results of a city not so organized. Such comparisons are invidious; but that progress in social service in community chest cities has been marked during the past ten years, I believe will be accepted without question. Some of the individual pieces of social work are no better done than in unorganized cities, but the entire social program has developed more soundly. Social results on a community basis have been secured. The movement has not been in existence long enough to ascribe to it longevity. However, it has been in existence long enough, and it gives promise of a long enough future life, to make an inventory a possibility and a necessity.

I shall speak frankly on the subject of community chests, realizing that neither the opponents of community chest methods, nor its friends, will be pleased with some of the things I shall have to say.

Why has this movement caught the popular fancy? The belief of many that community chests owe their continued existence to war experience and the urge to social service endeavor that came after the war is partly correct. The war and the war chests accelerated the growth of community chests more than ten years of careful planning and effort could have accelerated it without the war. At the same time the war and the war chests had a bad influence on the sound development of the federation movement. The tremendous necessities growing out of the war made imperative the quick development of the best money-raising machinery possible if sufficient funds were to be raised to continue social work programs that had developed during the war. The war chests demonstrated that large amounts could be raised through unity of action in one campaign. The fact that churches, colleges, and hundreds of other organizations adopted this plan of securing their finances and still continue such a plan indicates clearly that war chests made a contribution to methods of raising money by popular subscription. Of course, it must be stated that the war chest itself owes its existence largely to the experience of cities that before the war had found the federated method of securing funds sound and practical. After the war, many cities having learned the value of united and concerted action, planned to carry on this successful money-raising plan and many community chests were formed as a result. Other cities discontinued their joint money-raising efforts until business depressions forced the agencies into joint efforts at financing their needs. Hence three or four years after the war we find a second spread of the idea of joint financing. That interest is still unabated.

While war chests undoubtedly accelerated the growth of federations, they followed certain practices that have been detrimental. Although certain well defined standards were adopted for the determination of budgets, war agencies, generally, received what they asked without too careful scrutiny of needs. The prevailing opinion was that no amount asked could be in excess of the needs, the money often being contributed first and programs formulated afterward. The effect of this financial frenzy is still with us. Churches, colleges, social agencies, and innumerable other groups have been conducting campaigns for millions, often with indefinite plans, with rather hazy conceptions of the real values inherent in the programs to be executed, and with little or no concern about the capacity or desire of the public to give. I do not mean to imply that the capacity to give has been reached. What I do want to emphasize is that the habit formed during the war, and continued annually since the war, of asking without proper budget consideration is rapidly exhausting the patience of the public. Those responsible for collective financing before the war based their appeals for funds upon most careful budgetary procedure. Agencies were willing to put their plans through a refining process, to eliminate all slag possible. They realized that funds with which to do the work would not be sufficient if they were not careful to request only what was reasonable after most careful study of the needs. Expansions during the war and immediately after the war encouraged the agencies to ask for any sum whatsoever with almost total abandon.

Then, war chests were interested almost solely in finances. They did not undertake in any way to co-ordinate the social work, leaving that entirely to the separate agencies. They were self-appointed bodies, that because of war needs could handle the giving of the public as they wished; they generally wished to do it in an autocratic way. People were told what they must give, and public opinion backed by methods not always commendable forced their gifts. Laborers were told to give by their employers, and quite generally the amount of their gift was subtracted from the pay envelope on the first of the following month. This autocratic method was little objected to, and was in a large measure justified by the exigencies of the war situation. Labor reasoned, if the government can restrict the amount of flour to be used, others can impose this personal tax for semi-governmental purposes. There were some murmurs of disapproval, usually squelched by epithets that no true American cared to leave as a heritage. Then followed a partial revolt against this arbitrary authority and to this rather than to any diminution of patriotism of the individual delinquents were due the losses in collections suffered by war chests when their control began to lessen.

I wonder if some of the losses in collections today experienced by many of the community chests should be interpreted in the same way. Many community chests today are little more than financial agencies. Chambers of commerce, business men’s organizations, and individual givers, who had come to realize the wastefulness of the former methods of financing social work-the social agencies themselves that received more money through the war chest plan, with practically no supervision going with it, were willing to perpetuate the plan as it was during the war. So, we find many community chests organized on that basis; the same, or practically the same, self-appointed group taking control, and the social agencies, in fact the givers themselves, having little or no representation. This undemocratic board, as the money-raising efforts took less and less time, began to dictate what social programs should be prosecuted and what ones suppressed, and the agencies, in a large measure, found themselves unrepresented in places of authority. The board of control, being so far removed from the actual social needs and the existing agencies’ methods of reaching those needs, could not be intelligently sympathetic. The agencies having no responsibility in the money-raising could little appreciate the difficulties of money-raising and requested expansions beyond any community’s ability to grant, and in many cases felt they were being discriminated against when the sum was not forthcoming, honestly believing they could raise the amount asked if they should attempt it independently, forgetting their days of poverty in their years of prosperity.

Community chests when organized as financial agents can present convincing arguments on the value of their work. They do raise more money than individual agencies would be able to raise, at an expense but a fraction of the former expense. They do relieve givers of the constant annoyance of repeated appeals-one reason why central financing appeals to the average businessman. However, valuable as these contributions are, I doubt if community chests can justify their existence on the financial argument alone. We all recognize the need of economies. We realize that there is so much to do, and so little with which to do it, that the social agency or social worker that wastes money is guilty of malfeasance. But social programs are not formulated to save money or to save annoyance to givers; they are formulated to build up social values in society, to make possible a better and a happier people. We must look to social results for justification of the community chest plan of conducting social work. Many of the high ideals born with the war have disappeared, and yet the federated plan of enlisting interest and support for social work has continued. Why has it continued? We are all familiar with the loyalty of a few hundred givers to individual agencies before community chests were thought of; of the sacrifices these few hundred would make for the prosecution of the work of these independent agencies. These few hundred, through the community chest method, have become thousands vitally interested in the broader social programs as well as in the particular programs of individual agencies. These thousands have been able to hold fast to at least this one ideal that grew out of the war-common service to humanity.

Then, the community chest plan has made possible scientific methods of molding public opinion. The centralization and unification of social work has provided funds with which to carry on constructive educational programs; money with which to bring to the attention of the entire community the social ills of that community. A student of community chest cities will find that there has grown in those cities the feeling on the part of the citizens that no one can be a true citizen, and measure up to the real responsibilities of citizenship, if he fails to identify himself with such a movement.

Every citizen has it in his heart to give. He may find this or that or the other objection to giving, but he realizes that he owes a responsibility to the common life of the community, and that while sharing the opportunities of twentieth-century civilization he must accept the responsibilities that go with them.

Then, the community chest method is not a class method. Social work in the past has been largely a matter of taking from the rich and giving to the poor. The community chest bases its appeal upon common responsibility; asking the rich and the poor, the favored and the unfortunate to share in the up-building of the community life. This has appealed to the man of small means, and he has grasped the opportunity to be a part of such a movement. What was once the task of the privileged few has become the job of the average man.

Then the economies introduced have appealed to the business man. Sentiment must never be divorced from social work. It is the heart of it, but the head must be joined with the heart if we are to make progress in relieving modern social conditions.

Furthermore, the community chest plan in social work parallels the plans of unification and consolidation that have been going on in all lines of human endeavor. The businessman knows the value and understands the reasons for unification of plans in the business world. The great financial consolidations and what they have accomplished, from his point of view, are convincing arguments for the adoption of the same plan in social work.

Much as we may regret it, the social worker in the past has not been considered by the public as very much needed in the scheme of things. The community chest, by combining the social endeavors of the various agencies, social workers and individuals, has produced a program and an activity of sufficient size to command the respect of the community, and to give to social workers and social agencies a standing they never had before.

Then many have been drawn to the community chest plan because of the petty annoyance of independent, unrelated money-raising efforts of the past. These things and many others have had their effect. I do not believe I am overly optimistic when I say that the biggest factor in the success of the community chest has come from the fact that it has permitted thousands to feel the thrill of service when they give their time and money to human welfare.

Why, if these things are true, has the community chest plan been criticized, not alone by social workers but by social agencies and various members of different boards, and sometimes by givers? Let us not forget that organized social work itself has not escaped criticism; that charity to the average citizen has been an individual matter; that his inclination has been to give to relieve personally known distress. To be sure he oft times gave because of the personal satisfaction that came to him at having relieved distress; he did not even experience the joy of unselfish service. Here is a factor that must not be overlooked.

The criticism was made that these separate agencies when organized would make charitable work mechanical; that it would remove the giver from the object of his gift. How natural when the community chest introduced a third step in the transference of his money to the object of his interest that he should be unfavorable to the plan.

Then, social agencies and social workers, much as they may preach the doctrine of unselfishness, are at heart just as selfish in the things they do as other human institutions and individuals. They fear that a certain amount of prestige and power may be removed from the agency they represent; that the control they exercise over their own programs will be assumed by an outside group; that the givers in the community who have been loyal to them and to their program will lose interest in that particular program as they develop interest in a wider community one.

Then, also, social workers have been largely a group of technicians, and as technicians they have developed sound and lasting methods of procedure in handling many phases of social work, but I fear that oft times technique has blinded the eyes of the social worker to the real purposes of social work.

Furthermore, the comment has been made that the community chest is a leveling process; that certain of the stronger agencies find themselves retarded in their growth, while the weaker agencies are permitted expansions. The community chest plan is a leveling process, but the strongest agency in the community chest is permitted expansion, in my opinion, beyond any expansion it could possibly secure through its individual efforts. At the same time agencies that are weaker, but just as important in the scheme of social progress, are built up to a point where their work is effective. The leveling process instead of being a drawback should be considered one of the strongest virtues of the community chest plan.

What does it profit an agency interested in the moral life of the young to flourish independently if health measures are neglected, if educational opportunities are lacking, if poverty and vice hold sway? Social agencies must realize that to accomplish the things they wish to accomplish it is necessary to build up the entire life of the community.

I do not believe that some of the social agencies unfavorable to the community chest plan of operation are quite consistent. Name an agency that is not willing and anxious to extend its work, to take over the work of other agencies! They are quite willing to federate social work under their own direction, but the community chest is anxious to federate social work under the direction of all the social forces of a community. The community chest plan is the democratic way. I think that perhaps this critical attitude arises from a desire on the part of an agency to increase its power and prestige and it’s standing per se, and does not arise from a fear that the social program will suffer.

A feeling of religious intolerance is, I think, another ground for objection to the community chest. The Catholic refusing to give if any part of his gift is to be used by a Jew or Protestant; the Jew refusing to support Catholic social work, and both concerned if any of their gift is used by a Protestant agency. This point of view might not be so serious if we could induce disease germs to recognize religious affiliations. It is perfectly futile to care for any one group in a community, and permit some other group to go unprotected and unprovided for. The complexity of modern community life makes each individual dependent upon the welfare of every other individual; be he Catholic, Jew, or Protestant, white or black, we must be concerned with the social conditions under which he lives. For selfish reasons, if for no other, we must be cosmopolitan in our giving.

Of course there is a bigger and finer aspect to this subject; through joining forces for the welfare of the community, intolerance has been in a measure replaced by tolerance. One of the biggest contributions that the community chest has made to modern community life is to be found here.

There have developed, however, certain difficulties in community chest procedure which must be overcome, and some dangers which must be recognized. First, may I speak of the difficulties encountered in maintaining the high level of giving that has developed in community chest cities. When such large sums are raised as $4.00 to $4.25 per capita, there is little hope of a yearly increase in budgets. If giving in the cities of Cleveland and Cincinnati is studied it will be found that two periods of expansion occurred, one during the war and one immediately following it; that outside of these two periods of increase, the budgets of these cities have remained at practically the same amounts. I doubt if Cleveland or Cincinnati could raise such a large amount per capita for social work as they raise today if they had tried to make social service expansions by adding small amounts each year. Experience seems to indicate that in joint financing, budgets will increase more easily by adding large amounts at longer intervals than by smaller increases yearly. An accumulation of needs makes an impression on the giving public. The agencies themselves by such a policy are more careful in determining their real needs, and through constant publicity acquaint the public with these needs.

Certain wasteful practices have grown up in social service that must be eradicated; certain consolidations must be effected in the interest of the work. The period of consolidation is as important to the social agency as is the period of expansion.

New sources of revenue must be explored, such as taxation, earning power, and endowments. The fact scarcely needs statement that social agencies will not develop such sources of revenue to the fullest extent if expanding budgets are allowed year after year.

There has grown up quite generally in community chests the practice of lump-sum giving to the whole social program of a city. The individual giver has not been tied up to definite pieces of social work. The belief that the giver through organized social service and especially community chests will be removed from the object of his gift is one criticism that needs careful consideration. If we are to maintain the interest of the individual givers we must see to it that their interest is made specific; that they are tied up to individual pieces of social work and are given an opportunity to know social conditions first hand. If a community chest plans to consolidate all social work under its own direction it does not matter much whether givers are interested in individual agencies or not. Such a plan would eliminate the separate agencies and center social work in one agency. One organization would be more economical, but what would be the source of its inspiration and leadership? No small group, however wise, should be intrusted with the control of the social welfare of a community. What social work needs is unity in diversity, not control but oversight and regulation with as many groups and individuals as possible furnishing inspiration and leadership. A way must be found to keep the individual giver interested in the separate agencies. I feel that the principle of designation, when joined with proper educational efforts, meets this difficulty. I do not present it as the only way, but I do feel that the giving in the city which I represent would be 25 per cent less if it were not for the principle of designation. I do not care td discuss the details of such a principle, but I do submit that the community chest must find some such method of tying up the giver to the social work of the city. A general interest is never so vital and certain as a specific interest. The two should go together.

One other danger has developed through wrong application of one of the sound principles of community chest organization–the functional committee plan of operation. This plan, in brief, is to group the agencies according to their interests, so that they may consider programs and plans in closely related fields of social work. In many cities this plan has produced almost an army of swivel-chair social workers, social workers who are out of touch with the actual social work, who are merely planners and not doers. I believe that the functional committee plan of organization must make use of the social workers already in individual agencies; to illustrate, the social workers connected with health agencies should form the functional committee on health. Additional employees at times may be needed by the functional committee, but such employees should be very largely under the control of the functional committee.

One other element of danger which I see in community chest practices is that a chest may take the position that it should be all inclusive; that no social work should go on in a community save under its guidance. Community chests, to be successful, must develop public opinion favorable to their work. There are, however, many social movements, instigated by minorities, which, though sound in their social point of view, are nevertheless militantly opposed. In their own interest, as well as in the interest of the community chest, these minorities should not intrust their programs to public opinion. Such agencies should not be members of community chests. But, someone asks: “How about your immunity feature? Will people give to agencies which are not members of the community chest?” Or will the giver say, “I have given once for all”? One thing clearly demonstrated in community chest practice is that immunity does not immunize. Additional campaigns conducted in chest cities during the past two or three years have been uniformly successful. Any agency which puts forth the same effort to secure its funds and to educate the people in a federated city that it would put forth in a non-federated city will find the people responsive to its appeal.

The charge that big givers are controlling the development of social programs in community chest cities is largely without foundation. I believe that certain movements cannot participate in community chest endeavors because of the opposition not only of big givers, but of other strong, well-organized groups in a community. At times big givers, because of the tremendous financial support they give to the chest, speak with more authority than other groups, yet it has been my experience that the individual agencies within the community chest have more freedom in prosecuting their programs than when they operated independently. The chest stands as a buffer between these agencies and the public, and sometimes between the social worker and his own board. The crux of the whole matter is that we must consider carefully the types of agencies that should be members of a community chest, not accepting in membership those that the public is not ready to sponsor. I insist that this in no way interferes with the logical development of those agencies sponsoring programs not as yet acceptable to the public. They should develop through individual support until they have built up sufficient backing to become vital factors in community life, and should not permit their programs to retard other social developments.

Community chests are experiencing difficulty in working out the proper relationship that should exist between them and national agencies. The experience of the National Information Bureau shows one reason why this is so-over two thousand national agencies apply for indorsement and but 150 receive it. There is overlapping and overlooking, militant groups are interested in legislation before educational processes have convinced the public that such legislation is desirable; agencies fight intolerance but become quite as intolerant as those they fight; agencies with carefully formed programs are mixed in the public mind with those with indefinite programs, and so on through a long list. Some organization of national social work must be effected, lucid in its simplicity, representative in its organization, recognizing in its leadership that community chests cannot go faster than the public they represent is ready to have them go. Consider the effect of trying to finance 50o national agencies from community chest funds-twice as many agencies as any community chest has in local agency memberships. Until some order is developed in national agency work, community chests, in my opinion, will find great difficulty in contributing to national programs. Budgets are usually developed by national agencies without any representation from the communities that are supposed to raise the money; local communities are assessed certain amounts and are criticized when they refuse to grant these amounts. Some method of sound and sensible building up of national agency budgets must be devised. Community chests are conscious of the fact that the communities they represent have a definite obligation to do their part in national and state programs. They are willing to assist in formulating a policy that will make their support effective and mutually helpful. In the meantime the national agency that will plan wisely can raise its funds in a community chest city more easily, I believe, than it can raise its funds in a nonfederated city.

There has been much recent discussion on when and how to organize a community chest. This subject is prominently before us now because of the contest conducted in New York for a plan of organizing the social work of that city, and because of the survey in Chicago to determine the methods of procedure there. It is not so much a question of when, as how to organize. That some order should be introduced into social work is an accepted fact. Whether the method of organization shall be a community chest, a council of social agencies, or both, or some other plan, is a question which should be answered after a very careful analysis of the social work of the city in question. The answer depends upon many factors. Some factors, however, are basic, and should be a part of any organization plan. Adequate finances and competent social engineering are two essentials to success in social work. Each of these essentials should be the responsibility of the groups vitally interested in social work, the agencies, the givers, and the general public. No ready made plan of organization will be successful in any city. Probably the Council of Social Agencies is the soundest method of procedure for most cities. A city wishing to organize its social work should secure the approval of the social agencies and social workers to the plan, and a reasonable backing of the givers to these agencies. It should develop its organization upon democratic lines, each agency appointing delegates to the central body. Once having secured the co-operation of the agencies, the social workers and the givers, the development can proceed as rapidly as sound leadership dictates.

In conclusion may I say a word regarding the real objectives of social work? The complexities of modern community life carry with them great opportunities but as a by-product of our twentieth-century civilization many responsibilities are apparent. It should be the aim of social work to secure the acceptance by the entire community of these common responsibilities. Rich and poor, the various religious denominations, the great forces, social, commercial, and religious, should be willing to join hands for common ideals, to make a better city for the living of human life, better health for all, better educational opportunities for young and old, moral conditions that strengthen character, better laws, less legal restrictions, and better standards of living. The community chest is a factor in this great work, and if organized and carried on in the proper spirit will contribute substantially to the realization of this high aim.

We should recognize the fact that no social agency exists for the purpose of adding to its own power and prestige, but for the purpose of contributing to human welfare. I predict in the future that the social agency that tries to stand alone unco-operative in its point of view, individualistic in its actions, will atrophy and die. I appeal to the social workers to improve their technique, but to be social statesmen as well as technicians. I appeal to them to get outside the circle of their own selfish interests and to add their strength, their ideals, and their powers to those of others, so that a proper and just social order may be established.

Source: Proceedings of the National Conference of Social Work Formerly National Conference of Charities and Correction at the Fifty-First Annual Session Held in Toronto, Ontario June 25-July 2, 1924. pp. 19-29.

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