Dubbed “the progressive years,” the first two decades of the 19th century were characterized by a public zeal for social reform and social justice. In 1885, English businessman Charles Booth had created the new concepts of a poverty line and a normal standard of living. His thoughts about social reform were widely promoted by Robert Hunter of the University Settlement in New York, who published Poverty in 1904. Muckraking writers of the period aroused outcry among the general populace by exposing corporate and government corruption and by depicting the shocking conditions in tenements, mental asylums, and factories. Upton Sinclair’s book The Jungle, published in 1906, exposed abuses in the meat packing industry and led to labor reforms and establishment of the Pure Food and Drug Act.

States began passing legislation and creating commissions related to child welfare, labor laws and workplace safety, minimum wage, housing, sanitation, and other social welfare issues. Most state governments created public pensions for widows with dependent children. Between 1912 and 1913, the U.S. Children’s Bureau (headed by social worker Julia Lathrop, a pioneer of the settlement house movement), the U.S. Department of Labor and U.S. Department of Commerce were founded. The first White House Conference on Children brought together child welfare leaders from across the country to enact reform.

Against this backdrop, the newly organized National Association of Societies for Organizing Charity had immediate influence. Its extensive field work helped organize new societies and strengthen others. Smaller cities became well-organized, with the South and Northwest particular areas of focus. To permit membership of Canadian societies, the association changed its name in 1912 to the American Association of Societies for Organizing Charity. In 1917, it became the American Association for Organizing Charity.

In rural and newly-populated areas, the new organized charity organization societies often were the only human welfare agencies. In larger, older cities, they operated among a plethora of disparate agencies. The intent of the charity organization movement was to bring all the local philanthropic agencies together in concerted action to prevent haphazard or duplicative relief. The charity organization society was to investigate and record individual cases, and then refer clients to the appropriate agency for help. But McLean discovered in his field work that these agencies increasingly were themselves providing direct service to individuals and families. Pauperism, child welfare, juvenile justice, sanitation, tuberculosis, and other health issues were emergent problems for new and existing agencies.

War Leads to New Services, New Directions

The war years mobilized the entire nation with an unprecedented growth in social welfare organizations and programs. The American Association for Organizing Charity field work was essential during these years, organizing charities in “sleeping towns” that grew almost overnight because of new war industries. Association membership grew to about 175 members by 1915.

The American Red Cross fueled a nationwide fervor for social service. Founded in the United States in 1881, it was reorganized in 1905 to focus on military personnel. During the war, the American Red Cross created the Civilian Relief Department to provide “home service,” a term coined by Mary Richmond, to aid families of servicemen. The association and its member agencies partnered with the American Red Cross, aiding in disaster work, training volunteers, and using social casework methods to help servicemen and their families. Richmond prepared a special casework manual to use in courses offered at universities and colleges, which were funded by the American Red Cross and the U.S. Public Health Service. (A History of Social Welfare and Social Work in the United States, James Leiby, Columbia University Press, New York, 1978)

During this period, the American Association for Organizing Charity and member agencies loaned professional staff to train volunteers for war service. Women’s groups mobilized to provide direct aid, raise funds, and work in war-related employment. These volunteers received intensive training, from operating office telephones, to friendly visiting and investigative casework.

“The war changed the corps of volunteers and prepared them to take on the essential work of the organization as directors on the board and members of the district committees. As representatives of the districts, volunteers were the backbone of the district conference system. Their direct knowledge of people and businesses in each community helped the staff to plan for and to serve the real and pressing needs of each district. By the second decade of the 20th century, the tradition of informed and dedicated volunteer service was firmly established.” (A Splendid Work: 125 years, Family & Children’s Service, Minneapolis, Minnesota, 2004)

The Charity Organization Society in Denver, established in 1887, is generally credited as the first to conduct a single fundraising campaign for affiliated charitable organizations. Called the “United Way,” its first campaign in 1888 raised $21,700 for 22 local agencies. A federal act in 1894 exempted charitable institutions from taxation. The first community chest was founded in Cleveland in 1913, modeled on Cleveland’s Jewish Federation. The federated giving concept grew quickly.

Unprecedented fundraising on a national scale supported the war effort. Motivated by the need for war funds and efficient community planning of services, executives of 12 fundraising federations founded the American Association for Community Organizations in 1918. It is the predecessor of today’s United Way of America.

At the same time, the American Red Cross launched a massive national fundraising campaign. Communities zealously supported the effort, and community chests and war chests proliferated across the country. Family Service of the Cincinnati Area and numerous other charity organization societies were among the first to establish the community chest in their cities.

Future Scope and Policy Puts Focus on Family

Until this time, casework largely had been provided for those living in extreme poverty. Now casework services were being provided to servicemen and families undergoing emotional distress, regardless of their economic situation.

With the rapid growth and increasing demand for services, McLean recognized that the charity organization movement had evolved to a new stage of development. In 1918, he asked member agencies to consider a question that would forever after define the association and its members: “Should the family or the community be the particular unit of charity organization?”

A committee on future scope and policy was created. Its report, issued in 1919, was a milestone for the organization and for the entire field. The growing membership of some 170 agencies was unequivocal in its response: Their fundamental purpose was casework with disorganized families, whether or not the families were destitute. Their purpose was not to coordinate the services of other agencies, nor to provide relief to those who were economically distressed.

Furthermore, the 1919 statement of scope and policy declared that it was the function of family societies to “bear unhesitating witness to bad conditions of work and wages in industry and to assume responsibility for furthering better conditions.” The American Association for Organizing Charity and its members agreed to promote major social reform by educating and influencing legislation.

With this pivotal decision, the business of organizing charities quickly evolved into the business of social work. “The charity organization society became the agency for family social work, and a member of a community of agencies that were linked, it was hoped, by a professional ideal of service; investigation and friendly visiting developed into social casework; and the hope of directing and amplifying the community spirit of charity became a secular commitment to service and reform.” (A History of Social Welfare and Social Work in the United States, James Leiby, Columbia University Press, New York, 1978)

The word “charity” implied provision of relief services. To reflect this dramatic change in the direction of the association—in the very concept of social work—the American Association for Organizing Charity dropped the word “charity” from its name in 1919 and became the American Association for Organizing Family.

They sought new ways to be of service to their members. It implemented consultation visits to review the work of agencies and share knowledge based on the experience of other agencies. The newly created executive department acted as a help center for well-established agencies, facilitating intercommunication and advocacy. Publication of The Family began in 1920 along with special bulletins and other educational materials. Conferences and training were provided to increase the number of caseworkers, develop policies and standards, and work cooperatively.

The American Association for Organizing Family worked to be a galvanizing force at the national level and within communities. Because the family was the unit of service, the work of the association and its members touched upon numerous issues of social welfare and social reform. It joined forces with other local and national agencies to influence change. “Our part to play from now on, both in work with individuals and in our programs for social advance, must be one of hearty partnership with others; with all existing agencies whose faces are turned forward, we should join hands in democratic equality for the common weal.” (“A New Era,” The American Association for Organizing Family Social Work, 1919 annual report)

McLean had been on the research team that produced the Pittsburgh survey, a landmark sociological study of an entire community. He recognized the need for a local council of social agencies, public and private, to plan collectively, identify needs and implement effective, efficient services. Together with its member agencies, the association helped organize central councils or federations of social agencies. They believed that only in working together could they assess need and create a community-wide plan to fill the gaps, eliminate duplication and raise service standards.

Read the next chapter from A Century of Service.

Resources Used

Stories from the Network


From the 19th century and into the 21st, KidsPeace in Orefield, Pa., has always been a safe refuge for children in crisis.

The smallpox epidemic of 1882 left thousands of Pennsylvania children orphaned. William Thurston, the president of Bethlehem Iron Works, now Bethlehem Steel, founded the Children’s Home, an interim care facility to provide for these children. The organization was called Wiley House for many decades in honor of the man who donated land for the new home. In 1960, Wiley House expanded its focus to meet the increasingly complex and severe behavioral and mental health problems of its children. It now offers one of the widest and most effective continuums of children’s mental and behavioral health services in America. Renamed KidsPeace to reflect the evolving national identity and mission, the agency provides treatment for thousands of children in more than 50 locations across 11 states and the District of Columbia.

KidsPeace also reaches millions of people around the world through its public service campaigns, educational and prevention efforts, and Internet presence. 

Family Service of Greater New Orleans

Since its humble beginnings in 1896 as the Charity Organization Society, Family Service of Greater New Orleans has been reaching out to its community—advocating for social justice, responding with innovative programs, and healing the hurt of those who suffer. In its earliest days, the Charity Organization Society provided rations and allocated aid to the ailing poor during the yellow fever epidemic. It also was a powerful advocate on issues such as a juvenile court system, state-supported housing, and help for the mentally ill.

“No such thing as a bad boy”

Although Floyd Starr in Albion, Mich., and Father Edward J. Flanagan in Omaha, Neb., hadn’t met, they shared a radical vision that ultimately revolutionized the fields of child welfare and juvenile justice.

They were firm in their resolve that there was no such thing as a bad boy, only normal kids trying their best to cope with personal misfortune or a bad environment. Their belief in the inherent goodness of children ran contrary to the popularly held “science” of the day: eugenics. Flanagan and Starr set out to disprove that theory.

With his college diploma in one hand and a shovel in the other, Floyd Starr turned a ramshackle 40-acre farm into a home and school for troubled boys. The farm had only an old barn and rickety sheep shed, but it had trees for climbing and a lake for swimming. In 1913, before his first cottage was even finished, two homeless boys appeared at the door. More followed, and “Uncle Floyd” became school teacher, counselor, head master, chef, farm hand, and friend. Today’s Starr Commonwealth now serves children at five sites in Michigan and Ohio. Its continuum of services includes residential treatment and community-based early intervention, prevention services, and transitional follow up care. The mission of Starr Commonwealth still stands strong, and has given thousands of troubled boys the chance to do the same.

Father Flanagan, an Omaha priest, had equally radical ideas. With the aid of the St. Vincent de Paul Society, he had opened a Workingmen’s Hotel in 1916 to provide temporary shelter, meals, and work for men in need. As he came to know these men, Father Flanagan believed that the only way to create lasting change was to begin when men were boys, before they had been so broken by life’s circumstances.Father Flanagan intended to begin small. On Dec. 12, 1917, he borrowed $90 from a friend, believed to be local Jewish attorney Henry Monsky. With it, he opened the first Father Flanagan’s Home for Boys. The archbishop sent a few nuns over to look after the boys.

Today, the village of Boys Town is an incorporated Nebraska municipality with its own police and fire department, schools, churches, and a research hospital. As many as 550 boys and girls live in treatment family homes on campus, and treatment programs are offered at more than a dozen sites across the country. A research-based, integrated continuum of care ensures that children receive the right treatment at the right time. Father Flanagan’s Boys’ Town annually provides direct care for more than 51,000 children.

(…No Such Thing, Elizabeth W. McAdam and Floyd Starr, Tri-Arts Lithograph Company, Inc, Cleveland, Ohio, 1968; Ninety Years of Changing Lives, Starr Commonwealth, 2003; Boys Town: A Photographic History, Barbara A. Lonnborg, editor, The Donning Company, Publishers, 1992)

Future Scope

“The year ending 1919 seems to your executive committee to be one of the epochal years of the family social work movement in the United States,” declared the American Association for Organizing Family Social Work 1919 annual report, entitled “A New Era.” Based on members’ feedback the 1919 statement of future scope and direction moved away from:

  • Organizing a new charity organization society
  • Providing relief to destitute individuals and families
  • Referring clients to appropriate agencies for services

Rather, it moved toward:

  • Individual and family casework
  • Identifying and preventing social ills
  • Advocacy