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McLean, Francis H.

Francis H. McLean (1869 – 1945) — Social Work Pioneer, Leader in the Charity Organization Society Movement and a Principal in Founding the National Association of Societies for Organizing Charity, Forerunner of the Family Service Association of America

By John E. Hansan, Ph.D.

: Francis McLean was instrumental in creating the National Association of Societies for Organizing Charity, which later evolved into the Family Service Association of America.  McLean led charity organization societies (COS) in Montreal and Brooklyn before joining the field department of the Russell Sage Foundation. He believed that the fundamental work of charity organization societies was not only casework with clients, but cooperation between charitable organizations. In his view, sharing knowledge and experience would, ultimately, lead to prevention of poverty and other social ills. For his efforts, McLean is widely considered a pioneer in the field of family social work, an innovative idea for the time.

Early Years:  Francis Herbert McLean was born November 14, 1869 in Oakland, California, the youngest of four children.  His parents were Edward and Sarah Emeline (nee Maynard) McLean, devout Congregationalists. Young McLean graduated from high school in 1877 and later received a degree from the University of California, Berkeley. McLean’s first employment was as a journalist and editor in Berkeley, California.

In 1894, McLean moved from California to New York City and became a resident at University Settlement House.  Like other settlement house residents he volunteered his services to help the neighborhood in some ways.  Among his activities was a comparative analysis of food prices in different socio-economic districts. , McLean also pursued studies at different educational institutions designed to help him improve his knowledge about and ability to engage more effectively in charity work.  For example, he attended graduate-level classes at Columbia University in political economy, finance, statistics and sociology. He also took classes at Johns Hopkins and the University of Pennsylvania.

In 1898, McLean obtained his first paid employment in social work when he was hired to be the assistant to the General Secretary of the Brooklyn  Board of Charities. Then, in 1900, he accepted the position of General Secretary of the newly established Charity Organization Society in Montreal, Canada. While in Montreal one of his challenges was the fact the city had no public outdoor (i.e., home) relief. He made a presentation on this subject at the 1901 annual meeting of the National Conference of Charities and Correction held in Washington, D.C.  It was titled: “Effects upon Private Charity of the Absence of All Public Relief.”

His opening paragraph stated the issue starkly:

“The almshouse is the fundamental institution in American poor relief,” writes Warner. “It cares for all the abjectly destitute not otherwise provided for. Its shelter is the guarantee against starvation which the state offers to all, no matter how unfortunate or degraded.” Subtract the almshouse, subtract any form of public institution or aid for dependants or for defectives excepting the insane and a small fraction of the idiotic, and you have the conditions existing in Montreal….In other words, neither the city nor province, either by the maintenance of public institutions or by reasonable grants to private institutions, assumes or pretends to assume any responsibility beyond the care of all delinquents, the care of the insane among the defectives and orphaned children among the dependants….”

In the conclusion of his presentation McLean said:

“…It may be claimed that I unduly exaggerate the importance of the presence of the almshouse poor as a factor in private outdoor relief. After all, the percentage of such not in private institutions may be really small. Why, therefore, should it so badly demoralize right methods of relief? In reply, I would state that such a question does not take into consideration the subjective element in the problem. It is not the actually necessary amount of additional relief which causes the harm, though that is no mean amount, but it is the fact that no one ever loses consciousness, that there is no apparent place of last refuge for those who require discipline or indoor treatment, though that last refuge would only become a necessity in a comparatively few cases. Let me make myself plain. Take a normal community. A relief society refuses aid to this family and that family.

“No one ever supposes that all such families or persons are going to drift into public institutions. It is the hope of a relief society that, with the assistance of the alms of good advice, most of them will force their way to self-dependence under the necessary discipline. And so the refusal is made, knowing that in the end the few absolutely unfit will eventually become public charges; but remove that assurance, and you at once open up unpleasant possibilities — possibilities which are often theoretical ones only, but which will still wield influence.

“Take away the place of final refuge — the public institution — and the poison of weakness and shuffling inefficiency and headless sentimentality, which must always be guarded against in private outdoor relief, simply runs rife; and, more than that, private charity finds its interests unwholesomely centred around elemental material problems of bread and fuel….”

After two years, McLean moved again and accepted the post of supervisor of district superintendents for the Chicago Bureau of Charities.  Then, in 1905 he was appointed superintendent of the Brooklyn Bureau of Charities, where he started his paid employment.  In 1906, in response to the devastation caused by the San Francisco earthquake and fire, McLean accepted a request from Edward T. Devine, and interrupted his work, to direct the Family Rehabilitation Committee of the American Red Cross.  While in that position, he developed a district system and operated under a philosophy that dealt with total rehabilitation not simply relief needs.

In 1905, executives of 14 charity organization societies agreed to exchange form letters, printed material record forms, material describing charity organization, etc., each month. Charities, the periodical issued by New York City C.O.S. (later Charities and Commons, later The Survey) undertook to handle the mechanical details of the Exchange- the cost of printing, postage, etc., to be met by a membership fee of $30 annually from each participating agency. It was known as the Exchange Branch; it was supervised by a special committee of Charities, Miss Mary Richmond was Editor (she was then general secretary of the Philadelphia COS.)

In 1907, the Exchange Branch added a Field Department to handle correspondence and answer by letter inquiries the Exchange Branch received about starting charity organization societies or strengthening old ones; to handle this task, McLean, then Superintendent of the Brooklyn Bureau of Charities, was appointed “Associate Editor.” During the first year, McLean received requests from forty-five cities. A short time later with funding from the Russsell Sage Foundation the Exchange Branch became a separate project from the publications; and Mary Richmond became the chair and McLean the field secretary.

In 1908, McLean gave another presentation at the 35th annual session of the National Conference of Charities and Correction held in Richmond, VA.  The title was: “How May We Increase Our Standard of Efficiency in Dealing with Needy Families.”  One of his major points was the necessity for workers to record and maintain Diagnosis and Treatment Cards for the families they are trying to help.  He said:

“…A growing realization of the need of an aid which would impart definiteness to records and give one a clear idea of not only the main problem, but all of the subsidiary problems, caused the Field Department last fall to send out to the societies in the exchange branch of the department, a proposed form to be known as a diagnosis and treatment sheet. A study of the records last winter has convinced the field secretary that these sheets are an absolute necessity, and should be used by all the societies. Even the very best of the records would have been much clearer to the reader with such a sheet. In many cases, apparent lapses in treatment would have been revealed to the societies, if they had attempted to fill out the blanks.

“In brief the diagnosis sheets provide for a separate summarizing of the environmental, physical, moral, mental and temperamental condition of the head of the family, the home keeper and as many of the children as may be necessary. In addition there is a place for the recording of industrial efficiency. Underneath there is room for the entering of the general plan of treatment, changes in the plan being recorded in red ink. Also in the appropriate columns there is room for the entering of any specific treatment for one or more individual members of the family. When one of these blanks is properly filled out one has a better, clearer, more correct picture of the family than a thousand pages of record could possibly give. More too, the records themselves become clear to the committees and workers. There is no doubt of their use giving force and directness to secondary investigations and to treatment. The Providence Society has adopted the blank for cases which will require extended treatment. The Atlanta Associated Charities has adopted the plan for all cases. This was only done a few weeks ago.

“The use of the diagnosis and treatment sheets must be watched. We must see that simple impressions do not find their way to them, unless in penciled form so that they can be erased when investigation shows the real conditions. I have seen workers with a perfect wealth of description, who could write up a family in beautiful shape, so that it actually lived before your eyes. The only trouble was that half of what appeared real was false, and most strange catastrophes overtook some of these families, to one’s utter disillusionment. But again it is the old cry, it is history we want. Facts, facts, facts. But in their marshalling, in the thought and discussion which must follow that process, in the careful systemization of the best treatment, in this our diagram cards are of vital and far reaching importance.

“These then are our suggestions:

1. First, the axiom. All treatment must be based upon knowledge, real knowledge of the facts. No reading of character is safe and no conclusions based upon interviews and visits in a home alone.

2. In gathering that information it is well to bear in mind the distinction between primary and secondary sources of information as the art of history has it, and to use discrimination in visiting, taking primary sources as much as possible. I believe the school of philanthropy should have at least one lecture in their course on the technique of history.

3. Discrimination may be used, wherever we cannot make all the visits that we would like, providing we have a fairly clear conception of the apparent problem and are seeking for ways of helpfulness.

4. We must early find our theme as 3, above, indicates, and must find a center, not necessarily simple, but complex, upon which our information may hinge. With this must ever go the ability to change, to alter one’s basis at lightning speed, as the master of baseball does, if the facts command us to do it. This indeed illustrates the need of going to the primary sources of information.

5. An acknowledgment of the morality of the record card and its intelligent use as a necessity, if our investigation would be what it should be.

6. If we would have definiteness, clearness and sensible system in our treatment we must have something resembling diagnosis and treatment sheets which will describe the personalities and environmental conditions of every single member of the family, together with the treatment planned. Even the societies with most efficient district committees have signally failed in their records, and I for one am not prepared to say that many a bad step in treatment is not traceable to this lack in systemization….”

In 1909, the Russell Sage Foundation took over responsibility for the Exchange Branch, creating a Charity Organization Department with Mary Richmond as chair and Francis McLean as chief executive. The department focused on nationwide extension and fieldwork to promote better investigation and treatment. A monthly bulletin focused on casework, investigation, and case record reviews enabled younger organizations to improve their techniques.

Following much correspondence and interviews with leading charity organization executives, a committee was appointed at the national conference in 1909 to present a plan for a national charity organization association at the 1910 national conference. From an original document:

“…This committee was elected at a meeting of the Exchange Branch at Buffalo, June 14, 1909, to consider the question of the a national organization of societies for organizing charity, and to report with recommendations at St. Louis. The Committee as elected consisted of Mr. Davis of Columbus Miss Higgins of Boston, Mr. Kingsley of Chicago, Mr. Logan of Atlanta, Mr. Magruder of Baltimore, Mr. Porsons of New York, and Mr. Almy of Buffalo, Chairman. On motion of Mr. Deforest, Miss Richmond and Mr. Mclean were added.

“The inception of this committee was as follows: the secretaries of various societies for organising charity, of different sizes and different parts of the country, had exposed to the Field Department their opinion that a national organization of some sort was desirable. As the Field Department last June was about to cease to exist and to transfer its activities to Charity Organization Department of the Russell Sage Foundation, there was no remaining body in the field definitely representing the charity organization movement except the Exchange Branch, a group of 24 societies which were in the habit of exchanging matter monthly. The Exchange Branch recognises that it cannot commit the societies of the country to any plan, but as the only organization which represents societies for organising charity, it ventures to make this report after which it will withdraw from this field, and limit its work to the exchange of forms, etc….

“There has been some correspondence, and the committee has studied a brief prepared by Mr. Francis H. McLean, which states in detail the method of organization of some of the chief national associations, such as the Y.M.C.A., the Federal Council of the Churches of Christ in America, the W.C.T.U., the Federation of Women’s Clubs, the National Consumers’ League, the National Playgrounds Committee, and the National Tuberculosis Association.

“Mr. McLean found that the form of the organization of the Y.M.C.A. was the most helpful in its suggestions, and two tentative drafts of the constitution, considered by your committee, were both based upon the Y.M.C.A. model. Both involve the election of a national executive committee of about 15, as widely representative as possible, of which at least one-half should be laymen rather than paid officers; this committee to report annually to the national association, and to be subject to its control….”

McLean presented his report on Charity Organization Field Work at the 1910 National Conference in St. Louis:

“…Nothing can take away the fundamental character of the movement and its staying qualities. It will increase in importance as the years go on … Who knows how much of the social progress of the next hundred years, I care not in whatever line, shall trace its rightness and timeliness and get-thereness to the organized charity movement … which, my friends, is coming into its own heritage of graceful power and increasing strength and wideness – the greatest, most significant, most far-reaching, most potential social movement which the nation now has, and whose very presence, when rightly guided, means life to every other social movement….”

The 103 delegates voted unanimously to form a temporary organization. A constitution, bylaws, budget, and program would be considered and voted upon at the 1911 National Conference.

The National Association of Societies for Organizing Charity was launched at the National Conference in Boston on June 8, 1911. The forerunner of today’s Alliance for Children and Families began with 59 charter members from New England to the Pacific Northwest. McLean was appointed general secretary.

Evidence of McLean’s abilities and experience continued being recognized by his selection to make presentations at the National Conference of Social Work:

1914: “From the Standpoint of Community Standards of Charity”

1921: “The Central Council of Social Agencies: Actual Accomplishments”

1931: “Present Day Problems in the Family Field”

Francis McLean worked with the new organization as field director until 1932 when he became a staff consultant.  He retired in 1938 but continued to be a volunteer.  He died June 9, 1945.

For further reading:

Online Books by Francis H. McLean, courtesy of the University of Pennsylvania Libraries

Online Books by Francis H. McLean II, courtesy of the University of Pennsylvania Libraries


University of Minnesota, Twin Cities, Social Welfare History Archives. Minneapolis, MN. More information is available at:

Biographical Dictionary of Social Welfare in America.  Walter I. Trattner, Editor. Greenwood Press, Westport Ct., 1986. pp. 535-536.

National Conference on Social Welfare Proceedings (1874-1982)

How to Cite this Article (APA Format): Hansan, J.E. (2013). Francis H. McLean (1869-1945) — Social work pioneer, leader in the Charity Organization Society Movement and a principal in founding the National Association of Societies for Organizing Charity, forerunner of the Family Service Association of America. Social Welfare History Project. Retrieved [date accessed] from

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