Early 1900s

Industrialization, immigration, the discovery of oil and gold, the transportation revolution, and westward expansion brought vast new opportunities—and extraordinary social and economic problems. The decade following the Civil War was marked by a profound depression. Larger cities moved away from providing outdoor relief. State-supported institutions, state boards and commissions of charities, settlement houses, foster homes and orphanages, and voluntary agencies proliferated to address the urgent needs.

Leaders of both public and private social welfare organizations established the Conference of Boards of Public Charities in 1874. This was later called the National Conference of Charities and Correction, the National Conference of Social Work, and the National Conference on Social Welfare. Charity organization societies and settlement organizations also joined in an annual conference to exchange ideas and address mutual concerns.

As the nation began to return to prosperity following the Civil War, philosophies about charity shifted. The sense of moral duty to help those in need conflicted with new elitist theories of self-reliance. England had rewritten the Poor Law in 1834 and declared that public assistance was not a right. By the second half of the 19th century, American capitalists were embracing the social Darwinian thought promulgated by Herbert Spencer by which survival of the fittest was deemed morally correct. The only remedy for poverty was self-help. Social Darwinism led to abusive labor practices, oppressive government and, at its most extreme, systematic eugenics programs that sought to rid society of those deemed unfit.

Philanthropy at that time was impulsive and sporadic. For the newly wealthy, philanthropy was a means to demonstrate their social status. But relief was handed out indiscriminately with little attention to individual hardship, community-wide needs, and duplicative efforts. “Professional beggars” plied the city streets. Immigrants continued to pour into the country, and cities were desperate for a means to control the roiling masses of paupers.

The economic depression of the 1870s profoundly strained benevolent organizations; therefore, it was clear that a more organized system of charity was necessary.

In 1875, the Germantown neighborhood of Philadelphia established a society modeled after the London society. It became a district association of the Philadelphia Society for Organizing Charity, which was formed in 1878.

Like most growing towns in the 1870s, Buffalo was home to hundreds of roving street urchins. They lived in doorways and alleys; they drank from gutters. Many children died. Many were sent to prison, orphanages, and poorhouses. Some were sent to live with families in the country and worked as farmhands or servants.

Concerned about the orphaned newsboys and bootblacks who worked and lived on the street, the Young Men’s Christian Association in Buffalo treated them to a sumptuous Thanksgiving dinner in 1872.

The children were sent back to the streets, but the prominent citizens of Buffalo moved swiftly to create permanent solutions. Just two months later, the Children’s Aid Society was founded to protect orphaned and abandoned children. In 1877, the Charity Organization Society was established, the first such city-wide organization in the United States. The Buffalo Charity Organization Society was instrumental in founding the National Association of Societies for Organizing Charity, which was the predecessor of the Alliance for Children and Families.

These two Buffalo societies worked together to form the city’s first joint fundraising effort in 1917, which evolved into the Community Chest, and then later into the United Way. They also created a city-wide council of agencies to evaluate and plan social services. The two societies were extensively involved in augmenting the social work curriculum at the University of Buffalo in 1926 and in establishing the university’s graduate School of Social Work in 1936. Both societies had the same goal—to promote the well-being of children and strengthen families. They merged in 1972 to form today’s Child & Family Services in Buffalo, which is one of the largest nonprofit family service agencies in the country.

The Buffalo Charity Organization Society and the others that followed in the United States were based on the London Charity Organisation Society, which was founded in 1869. The society was intended to coordinate the city’s numerous charitable agencies, but it went an important step further. Rather than provide indiscriminate provision of alms, the society focused on more directed philanthropy.

Its volunteer workers, who were usually women, carefully interviewed those seeking aid, then matched assistance to individual need. Their work was thoroughly documented so agencies could coordinate services among themselves. This new method was the origin of today’s social casework and counseling services.

“Approach these poor women as sisters. Learn lovingly and patiently—aye, and reverently, for there is that in every human being which deserves reverence, and must be reverenced, if we wish to understand it; learn, I say, to understand their troubles, and by that time they will have learned to understand your remedies.” (Charles Kingsley, writing for the London Charity Organisation Society in the 1860s)

The charity organization movement spread rapidly throughout England. Englishman Reverend S.H. Gurteen had studied the London Charity Organisation Society and was instrumental in the creation of the Buffalo organization in 1877. An ardent advocate for the movement, Gurteen urged that similar societies be created in every large city in the United States, and also that a national and international society be created to exchange ideas and share methods. Within just four years, 19 charity organization societies were created in the United States. By the turn of the century, there were almost 140 charity organization societies throughout the country.

Few of these were organized as relief-granting agencies, although many of the older agencies had begun providing relief in the aftermath of the Civil War and depression of the 1870s. Rather, their goal was to bring some control to relief efforts and philanthropy provided by other organizations. They promoted cooperation and efficiency, collected and shared data, raised standards, and eliminated duplication and fraud among existing charitable organizations in the local community.

“Throughout the earlier part of the nineteenth century there had been numerous attempts to suppress pauperism by inducing the rich to exercise greater care in the bestowal of charity. After the Civil War the crusade against pauperism was continued by a sizable group of men and women who addressed themselves with utmost seriousness to the task of applying rigorously systematic principles to charitable work.” (“Scientific Philanthropy,” Robert H. Bremner, The Social Service Review, Vol. 30, No. 2, University of Chicago Press, June 1956)

The Reverend Oscar McCulloch, president of the Indianapolis Benevolent Society (today’s Family Service of Central Indiana), presented a paper entitled “Associated Charities” in June 1880 at the seventh annual meeting of the National Conference of Charities and Correction. His paper detailed the operation of the Indianapolis Charity Organization Society, which was established in 1879. He painted an inspiring picture of charity organization societies’ ability to expose abuses of the poor and helpless and to initiate social action to correct causes of pauperism. Among his points:

  • Pauperism is increasing
  • Paupers, imposters and frauds are carrying off at least half of all charity
  • The larger part of “charity” is doing actual harm by encouraging idleness, shiftlessness, and improvidence
  • Little effort is being made to inculcate provident habits or to establish provident schemes to aid the poor to be self-supporting
  • Little is being done to check evils arising from overcrowded and unhealthy tenements or to suppress the causes of bastardy, baby-farming, and other evils

(A History of the Family Service Association of Cleveland and its Forebears, 1830–1952, Family Services Association, Cleveland, 1960)

Although rooted in the ideals of humanitarianism and social justice, the charity organization movement recognized that relief was demoralizing and often led to dependence and pauperism. The movement was grounded in the new “scientific philanthropy.” Its proponents not only wanted to be sure that those who needed relief received it; their purpose was to uncover and prevent the root causes of poverty and personal distress—and ultimately prevent them. Their work led to countless social reforms in child welfare, health care, housing, labor and other areas.

Humane Animal Societies Evolve to Include Child Welfare

“The child protection movement arose out of a case in Massachusetts where a child named Mary Ellen was being severely abused but the only way she could be protected was to define her as an animal because there were no formal protections for children at the time,” says Terry Steeno, retired president and CEO of The Family Partnership (formerly Family & Children’s Service) in Minneapolis. While animals were a valuable resource to the agriculture economy, gradually, due to cases like Mary Ellen’s, it was recognized that children too needed to be protected from cruel and inhumane treatment.

Like many child and family service agencies, The Family Partnership originated as a society to prevent cruelty to animals. One of the agency’s founding predecessors was the Minneapolis Branch of the Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals, founded in 1878.

“Animals had rights. Children did not,” says Steeno. “There was no legal precedent or official advocate to protect children.” The society soon merged with a volunteer women’s organization, the Moral and Humane Education Society, and expanded its mission to include children and women.

The Family & Children’s Center in La Crosse, Wis., too, began as a Humane Society. It was founded in 1881 as the Wisconsin Humane Society of La Crosse. “As the oral history was related to me, people began to realize we were taking care of animals and then had the secondary realization that there were children in just as dire straits as animals,” says John Burgess, president and CEO. “There wasn’t a human services structure at the time, so the Humane Society became the logical place to begin that mission to protect indigent, neglected, and abused children and women.”

A second predecessor organization of Family & Children’s Center was founded in 1888. The Young Ladies Mission Band formed the La Crosse Home for Friendless Women and Children. During the course of Burgess’ tenure (1978 – present), the board has included two women who grew up at the home. They emphasized that, unlike an orphanage, most of the children were displaced because one parent had died and the surviving parent couldn’t care for all the children. But that surviving parent routinely came to visit their children at the home. Most children did not feel abandoned; they felt part of a caring family at the La Crosse Home.

Turn-of-the-century San Antonio, Texas was both a Spanish mission and a frontier town. The largest town in Texas, San Antonio boasted flour mills, breweries and banks, an arsenal, bars, and a convent. Growing prosperity hid the burgeoning ranks of neglected, abandoned, and abused children. And in a community where frontier individualism reigned, many citizens were inclined to reject anything that threatened to exercise control over their freedoms—including national charity movements.

A group of civic leaders founded the San Antonio Humane Society in 1910 to protect both children and animals from the cruel realities of life. In the society’s first recorded report, the executive secretary described attending court eight times, investigating three cases of child abuse, nine cases of child neglect, and making seven visits to place children in local institutions. There were nine cases of animal abuse, including seven horses, one donkey, and a cat. Within several years, the society began focusing on the urgent needs of children, emphasizing legislation, planning, and coordination with other agencies. The society fought for a juvenile court system that would help troubled youth instead of punishing them. Today’s The Children’s Shelter in San Antonio continues to advocate for and protect children through a continuum of emergency shelters, foster care, adoption, residential treatment, child abuse prevention, youth development, and teen pregnancy programs. (Our First Century, 1901 – 2001, The Children’s Shelter)

In Buffalo, there was a movement in 1914 to combine the society for the prevention of cruelty to children and the society for the prevention of cruelty to animals. In some cities, this work had been combined from the beginning. In others, the two functions only recently were combining. “What may seem to us to be obvious today is still not patent in every section of the United States where Humane Societies work with both children and animals, often with greater budgets for animal care than for children’s care. Animals are an economic advantage; children sometimes are a liability,” (H.H. Persons’ of Buffalo’s Queen City Society report)

Settlement House Movement Takes Shape

The settlement house movement developed in the United States concurrently with the charity organization movement. Both relied on investigation and scientific method. The settlement focus was not on charitable relief, but centered on reform through social justice. Settlement workers directed their efforts toward an entire neighborhood or group rather than on individual needs.

Like the charity organization society, the settlement house movement began in 19th century England. It was based on the radical idea that social and economic conditions, rather than personal weakness, were the root causes of poverty.

During the Industrial Revolution in England, dramatic advances in technology, transportation, and communication caused a massive population movement from rural to urban areas. City slums emerged where families lived in crowded, unsanitary housing. Health care was nonexistent; disease was rampant. There were few schools, and children were sent to work in factories.

It was in this environment that the world’s first settlement house, Toynbee Hall, opened in East London in 1884. University students lived onsite with neighborhood residents. They provided classes, social gatherings, summer camps, arts programs, clean-milk stations, baby clinics, nursery schools, and other innovative programs. They helped to organize their neighbors into community groups that could leverage more power than they could alone. Student residents and neighborhood residents were equals. This marriage of social justice and the practice of living among the poor, or “settling,” came to be called “the settlement way.”

These ideas found a welcome reception in the United States, where many social reformers focused on prevention of the causes of poverty, not on dispensing charitable relief. The University Settlement Society of New York was founded in 1886. Jane Addams and her friend Ellen Gates Starr founded Hull House in Chicago in 1889 (today’s Jane Addams Hull House Association). The Henry Street Settlement and Lenox Hill Neighborhood House in New York soon followed. The pioneering ideas and values of the settlement house movement spread quickly, and by 1910 more than 400 settlements were established in the United States. Most were centered in the nation’s largest cities to serve indigent immigrants. The National Federation of Settlements was founded in 1911. It is today’s United Neighborhood Centers of America, part of the Families International group of organizations.

At the heart of the movement was a belief in community building. Healthier communities could be built by first fostering healthy relationships among all of its members, not simply by dispensing charity. Rich and poor lived side by side in fellowship. Rather than asking residents, “What can we do for you?” settlement workers asked, “What can we do together?”

Each settlement house provided activities and programs based on the unique needs of its neighborhood. Kindergartens, nurseries and daycare centers, schools, classes for adults, health care, gymnasiums, parks and playgrounds, and cultural activities were common. Many of these ultimately spun off into independent organizations such as urban leagues, legal aid societies, public health clinics, and community centers.

Jane Addams and other leaders of the settlement house movement were fervent social activists. They were pioneers in the fight against racial discrimination. Their work contributed to progressive legislation on housing, child labor, work conditions, health and sanitation, and countless other social policy measures. Julia Lathrop, a Hull House resident, helped found the Cook County (Illinois) Juvenile Court, the first of its kind in the world.

Late 19th century Minneapolis mirrored other rapidly growing cities of the time. New immigrants and factory workers attracted by the mills lived in crowded slums. Poor sanitation caused illness and death. Prostitution, gambling, alcoholism, and crime filled the neighborhoods.

In 1879, Plymouth Congregational Church started the Plymouth Mission to address these concerns. It was reorganized as the Bethel Settlement in 1897. Bethel offered a free kindergarten, day nursery, industrial training, and sewing classes. When the settlement outgrew its space, John and Charles Pillsbury, brothers who owned flourishing flour mills, donated funds for construction of a new facility. Opened in 1906, Pillsbury House soon added a health clinic, women’s employment office, home economics and arts classes, and boys’ and girls’ clubs. Across town, another settlement house was growing quickly. Established in 1897, Unity House served nearly 95,000 people each year by the 1920s, offering many of the same kinds of programs offered at Pillsbury House.

For many people, these settlement houses provided the first safe, clean, and inviting place they had ever been. It enabled many mothers to go to work for the first time. Countless children made friends, found mentors, and learned skills that would benefit them for the rest of their lives.

As social work became more professionalized, it focused more on behavioral issues than systemic social problems. Reliant on community chest or United Way funding, settlement houses no longer could support full-time residents or round-the-clock services. Many evolved into today’s neighborhood or community centers, and they are as relevant in today’s context as they were 100 years ago.

A descendant of these two Minneapolis settlement houses, Pillsbury United Communities adheres to its founding principles. Pillsbury United Communities is currently the largest settlement house-based organization in Minnesota, and one of the largest in the country. With multiple locations in Minneapolis’ inner city neighborhoods; four neighborhood centers in the Phillips, Powderhorn/Central, Cedar-Riverside, and North Minneapolis neighborhoods; two satellite locations with the PUC Interpreting Agency and the new Urban Institute for Service and Learning in North Minneapolis; and a professional live theater, Pillsbury United Communities serves more than 35,000 people each year. “Although we are a large organization, we continue to be small where it counts,” says Tony Wagner, president and CEO. “Settlement house values and ideals are a crucial part of our mission to create choice, change, and connection—one person at a time.”

The Jacob A. Riis Neighborhood Settlement House was established in 1888 to assist newly arrived immigrants to New York City. Riis’s book,How the Other Half Lives, used the relatively new medium of photography to raise unprecedented awareness of pressing social problems. In its early years, the Jacob A. Riis Neighborhood Settlement House, also a member of today’s United Neighborhood Centers of America, offered sewing classes, mothers’ clubs, health care, a summer camp, and a penny provident bank. The mission expanded over the decades and today its five neighborhood centers offer youth development programs, services for immigrants and seniors, technology and arts education, health and recreation, counseling, advocacy, and other services. As in 1888, the resources provided are a catalyst for community members to reach their greatest potential and achieve social and economic self-sufficiency.

Generations of families in the Quad Cities area of Iowa and Illinois have found Friendly House in Davenport, Iowa to be a haven, a social center, a giver of counsel, an extender of the helping hand, and a catalyst to involvement since 1896. Like other settlement houses of the day, its services were targeted to immigrants and the urban poor, including food, shelter, help with basic needs, higher education, English language, and citizenship classes. The model has changed over the years, but Friendly House, a member of United Neighborhood Centers of America, remains a community-focused, family-based neighborhood center. From penny movies in the depression era to today’s infant through senior care, food pantry and emergency assistance, recreation programs, and arts and wellness classes, the common goal throughout the years is to bring self-esteem and mutual respect to everyone who enters its doors.

(Archival records, Pillsbury United Communities; Mobilizing the Human Spirit: The Role of Human Services and Civic Engagement in the United States 1900 – 2000 and Jane Addams: The Founding of Hull House 1889 – 1920: Telling the Story and Showing the Way; monograph by The Human Spirit Initiative in partnership with The Extra Mile – Points of Light Volunteer Pathway; records of the United Neighborhood Centers of America)

Volunteer Role Evolves to Include Professional Techniques

Careful investigation of individual cases through use of “friendly visitors” enabled the societies to discover who was worthy of charity and who was not. It was thought that this kind of casework enabled charity workers to uncover and foster the unique strengths and resources of individual recipients so they could become self-sufficient. The early friendly visitors had no formal training and little knowledge about psychology and emotional problems. Their role was to help strengthen their clients’ moral character by providing counsel, offering friendship and modeling behavior. This, in turn, would lead to improved circumstances. The “not alms, but a friend” philosophy adopted in 1879 by the Associated Charities of Boston, which is today’s Family Services of Greater Boston, was the motto for most charitable organization societies.

“We have this image of social reformers as being sort of soft and cuddly,” says David Jones, president and CEO of Community Service Society of New York in New York City. One of its predecessor organizations, the Charity Organization Society of New York, was founded by Josephine Shaw Lowell in 1882. “Shaw Lowell’s group was rather tough-minded. They were as concerned with maintaining social control as with helping the poor. Part of their goal was to break the control of the political machine over the poor. But they were pioneers in investigation of systemic causes, and their work led directly to development of the field of social work.

”Friendly visitors exercised a certain amount of social superiority and moral judgment. It was recognized that casework needed to be more empirical and scientific. As the charity organization movement rapidly grew, volunteer support couldn’t keep up with demand. Many towns and cities began to employ district agents to do this work. Agencies and universities began to provide training for this new field. Volunteer friendly visiting rapidly evolved into professional, salaried workers—the precursor of today’s professional social workers.

Mary E. Richmond, considered the founder of the social work profession, was one of the founding leaders of the National Association of Societies for Organizing Charity, the antecedent of today’s Alliance for Children and Families. She directed the Baltimore Charity Organization Society, and then moved to the Philadelphia Society in 1900. Richmond advocated for professional training and standards, and then she began to arrange formal instruction for friendly visitors and district agents. The New York Charity Organization Society hired Richmond in 1898 to develop curriculum and teach courses at its new Summer School of Applied Philanthropy. The summer institutes, organized by Richmond and the New York society’s Edward Devine, were the country’s first professional social casework instruction. They were grounded in the charity organization techniques: assess the situation carefully; collect evidence through methodical, uniform research; get a clear, consistent picture; and put the identified problems into the larger context.

By 1904, the New York Charity Organization Society expanded the training to a full-time course of graduate study. Its school evolved into today’s Columbia University School of Social Work, the first school of its kind in the United States.

Creation of the Exchange Branch

As voluntary organizations of goodhearted people, charity organization societies were disorganized and isolated from one another; no central body existed to encourage and strengthen the work of existing societies.

Leaders of the charity organization societies met informally each year at the National Conference of Charities and Correction. In 1879, the charitable organization societies were so numerous and their issues so complex that the National Conference created a standing committee on charity organization.

The movement … has drawn to itself some of the most active and intelligent workers for the poor in the whole country; and at the National Conference the section on charity organization has secured an amount of attention outside of all proportion to the extent of the funds used by these societies… it is the only section of the National Conference that has set itself with earnestness to gather statistics as to the causes of destitution. If persons concerned are loyal to present principles, they will continue to have a part in the development of new ideals and better method of service. (American Charities and Social Work, Fourth Edition, Amos G. Warner, Stuart A. Queen, Ernest B. Harper, J.J. Little and Ives Company, New York, 1937)

By 1883, the committee was encouraging formation of a national organization to exchange information and experience.

It has seemed to many of the Committee that the time is ripe for an organized effort to plant the approved modern methods of charitable administration … throughout the entire country. Such a missionary movement should be pushed by an organized executive force dedicated to the purpose … to undertake a broad, energetic movement to bring order out of the unorganized charitable chaos. (Proceedings of Section on Organization of Charities of National Conference, 1897)

In his presidential address at the 1901 National Conference, Robert W. de Forest, president of the New York Charity Organization Society, a predecessor of today’s Community Service Society of New York, urged rapidly growing municipalities to start charity organization societies by calling them “the natural foundation on which all kinds of more specialized charitable effort can be afterwards built up.”

At the 1905 National Conference, executives of 14 charity organization societies agreed to more formally exchange records, information, and suggestions. Through an arrangement with Charities and the Commons, (later called The Survey, a periodical issued by the New York Charity Organization Society), along with the newly-created Russell Sage Foundation, they formed the Exchange Branch. This work was facilitated by Mary Richmond, Charities and the Commons editor, and secretary of the Philadelphia Charity Organization Society.

For a $30 annual fee, members exchanged letters, forms, records and other printed materials. They also received a subscription to Charities and the Commons and numerous charity organization pamphlets to improve their work and promote extension of the movement.

Over lunch at the 1907 National Conference in Minneapolis, members of the Exchange Branch discussed employing a field secretary to advise existing charity organization societies and extend the movement nationwide. The Russell Sage Foundation provided funding for a field secretary to perform this work and to facilitate correspondence among societies. Francis H. McLean, superintendent of the Brooklyn Bureau of Charities, agreed to take on this position.

Two years later, the Russell Sage Foundation took over responsibility for the Exchange Branch, creating the Charity Organization Department with Richmond as chair and McLean as chief executive. The department focused on nationwide extension and field work to promote better investigation and treatment. A monthly bulletin focused on casework, investigation, and case record reviews enabled younger organizations to improve their technique.

McLean dedicated himself to extending the movement. He understood that just as individual clients had unique situations and needs that must be discovered through thorough casework, so too did individual communities differ in their condition and character. There were no wholesale, one-size-fits-all solutions. McLean had participated in the landmark Pittsburgh Survey and used the field survey technique to uncover the individual characteristics of a community. Field work typically included a personal visit of a week or more. McLean assessed the living conditions in the poorest sections of a city, met extensively with civic and charity leaders, and interviewed citizens. He then prepared a report detailing the community’s needs, current resources, potential public and private support, and suggestions for reform.

In his report for the two-year period ending October 1909, McLean outlined the key elements in a successful charity organization society: a trained, paid worker; a strong, representative board; close cooperation with existing charity organizations; and “a program of casework and civic service that aims not only to alleviate distress, but prevent it.”

National Organization Formed

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. The committee studied the YMCA, National Consumers League, National Playground Association, Federation of Woman’s Clubs, and other national movements to help craft the best model for the new organization.

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.

The goals of the association were extension of the charity organization movement, casework to help individuals and families attain self-sufficiency, and research and dissemination of knowledge to prevent the causes of poverty and other social ills. The association was founded, and continues to exist, as a membership federation of and for its members. Members were afforded full participation in all association activities.

The new organization was supported by membership dues and contributions. The Russell Sage Foundation provided a $7,500 grant in the first year and $10,000 the second year that enabled the fledgling organization to get off the ground. The foundation also provided a national office for the association.

From the beginning, the association was concerned with ensuring that its members upheld high standards. A committee on membership and credentials reviewed and voted upon applications for membership. It had the authority to recommend higher standards for admission and could drop from membership any societies that did not maintain minimum standards.

All societies for organizing charity were eligible for membership provided they met minimum requirements. Upon the association’s founding, these included:

  • A paid, full-time agent or secretary in cities with a population of 10,000 or more
  • Maintenance of individual records and exchange of information
  • Signing of the rules governing the issuance of transportation by charitable societies and public officials; national legislation had disallowed the common practice of passing hobos from town to town for charitable relief
  • An agreement to answer inquiries sent by societies for organizing charity in other cities

Read the next chapter from A Century of Service.

Resources Used

Stories from the Network

Charity Organization Society Created in 1882

The Charity Organization Society of New York City, predecessor of the Community Service Society of New York, was founded in 1882 by Josephine Shaw Lowell. At the time, Shaw Lowell served on the New York State Board of Charities as its first female commissioner. The board hoped that the Charity Organization Society of New York City’s scientific investigation of need would eliminate the rampant spoils system. In an attempt to curtail the power of Tammany Hall, which controlled the New York City democratic machine, the city reorganized the relief system. Outdoor public relief was abolished and relief put under the jurisdiction of private charity organizations subsidized by the city.

“If a family is burned out I don’t ask whether they are Republicans or Democrats, and I don’t refer them to the Charity Organization Society, which would investigate their case for a month or two and decide if they were worthy of help about the time they are dead from starvation. I just get quarters for them, buy clothes for them if their clothes were burned up, and fix them up til they get things runnin’ again. It’s philanthropy, but it’s politics, too—mighty good politics. Who can tell how many votes one of these fires brings me? The poor are the most grateful people in the world, and let me tell you, they have more friends in their neighborhoods than the rich.” (Plunkett of Tammany Hall: A Series of Very Plain Talks on Very Practical Politics, William Riordan, E.P. Dutton, New York, 1963) (“Reformers and Charity: The Abolition of Public Outdoor Relief in New York City, 1870–1898;” Barry J. Kaplan, Social Service Review, University of Chicago Press, June 1978) 

Northwood Children’s Services

From 1881–1886, the population of Duluth, Minn., grew from 3,400 to 26,000. Sarah Stearns was concerned for young women left alone in this pioneer community, many of them with babies, with no means of livelihood, and without families to care for them.

Stearns formed the Ladies Relief Society in the back of a fancy goods shop. In 1885, the society opened a shelter, the Home for Women and Children. The society also trained and found employment for the young mothers, and educated their children while they were at work. Known today as Northwood Children’s Services in Duluth, Minn., the organization provides residential and day treatment, family mental health, therapeutic foster care, special education, and other services.  

Children’s Home Society & Family Services

They arrived by train from New York and other Eastern cities: tens of thousands of abandoned, orphaned, and homeless children. From the 1880s until the Great Depression, the orphan trains brought children from the slums of the city to the Midwest plains, stopping from town to town so farm families could choose from among the children. Those children who weren’t wanted reboarded the train and continued the journey for a new home.

Children’s Aid Society of Minnesota in St. Paul, Minn., like other organizations of this time, was created in 1889 to find homes for these and other deserted children. By its 25th anniversary, the society had found homes for more than 3,600 children. What began 120 years ago in response to the needs of orphaned and neglected children and immigrant families continues to this day at Children’s Home Society & Family Services.

Family Service Agency

The pioneer town of Phoenix often was the end of the line for travelers seeking gold and silver along the river and in the mountains of Arizona. The railroad arrived in the recently incorporated city in 1887. Maie Bartlett Heard, wife of one of the most prominent businessmen in town, observed that people often disembarked the train in Phoenix too sick or too poor to continue their journey. These travelers were without family or friends. Homelessness and poverty swelled. Although the town was thriving, there were no social services to support its burgeoning population.

Heard founded the Associated Charities in 1902, the oldest social service organization in the “valley of the sun.” Begun primarily as a travelers aid organization, Associated Charities provided the charitable social services for the entire county until the early 1940s. It was influential in bringing together a broader network of support that formed the community chest and numerous other social service agencies. Today’s Family Service Agency in Phoenix was among the original founders of the National Association of Societies for Organizing Charity, predecessor of the Alliance for Families and Children. 

Family Services of Greater Houston

With the discovery of oil in 1901, the city of Houston almost doubled in population between 1900 and 1910. A small pox epidemic in 1903 spurred recognition of the urgent need for social services in Houston. Twelve civic leaders held a carnival to raise money, and with the proceeds they founded Houston’s first social service organization, United Charities, in 1904. The carnival funding enabled the fledgling agency to hire an investigator to identify worthwhile causes in the city—an early needs assessment.

In response to the North Side Fire of 1912, the agency distributed nearly $20,000 in relief. United Charities again responded to disaster in 1918, providing assistance during the worldwide influenza epidemic.

By 1920, United Charities was Houston’s primary relief and social services agency, providing a wide array of services from kindergartens to overseeing a humane society. Many social service programs were created and spun off the original agency, including the community chest, juvenile probation department, visiting nurses, the child welfare department, and the city of Houston’s kindergarten system.

Today, United Charities is Family Services of Greater Houston. Among its services are case management, counseling, parent and marriage education, substance abuse prevention, and family reintegration. And the agency is still lending hand and heart when disaster strikes—most recently in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina in 2005.

Mary E. Richmond

Raised in a Baltimore orphanage, Mary E. Richmond was a leading social reformer and is considered the founder of modern social work.

Her books were among the earliest and most influential in the field. Richmond was general secretary of the charity organization societies in Baltimore and Philadelphia before joining the New York society to teach in its Summer School of Applied Philanthropy, the forerunner of the Columbia University School of Social Work.

She also led the field department at the Russell Sage Foundation. Richmond was influential in creating the National Association of Societies for Organizing Charity (today’s Alliance for Children and Families). “She was a glorious inspiration to us and made the philosophical analysis of casework so effective that our foundation dates from there,” said her friend and colleague, Francis H. McLean. 

Francis H. McLean

Francis H. McLean is heralded as the pioneer of field service, an innovative idea for the time.

He believed that the fundamental work of charity organization societies was not only casework with clients, but cooperation between charitable organizations. Sharing knowledge and experience would, ultimately, lead to prevention of poverty and other social ills.
McLean led the charity organization societies in Montreal and Brooklyn before joining the field department of the Russell Sage Foundation. He then became general secretary of the Exchange Branch. From this platform, he was instrumental in formation of the National Association of Societies for Organizing Charity.