CYC-Online 118 DECEMBER 2008
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Administration of a Children's Organisation: Concepts and Guidelines (1)

Geoff Pawson

The premise of this paper is that administration and leadership can be synonymous. The importance of philosophy, mission, and values are discussed as constant themes that guide the work of the board, CEO, and staff in the delivery of quality programs to clients. It is argued that agencies that are philosophically aligned at all levels of organization tend to focus on training, communication, planning, standards, accountability and evaluation as major elements in the development of services. To highlight these concepts, anecdotal examples are used that reflect both successful and unsuccessful initiatives of the Ranch Ehrlo Society in developing its residential treatment services to children and youth over the past 28 years.


The purposes of this article are to consider administrative concepts and guidelines for building quality services within a children's organization, with specific reference to residential treatment, and to build an understanding that administration and leadership can be synonymous. Five areas are considered in connection with these purposes: the need to control organizational environments surrounding children's agencies; the positive interconnectedness of governing boards and agency services; the role of the chief executive officer; the role of staff; and the impact of services on agency credibility.

A series of terms needs to be defined in order to provide a frame of reference. Organizational environment refers to community attitudes directed toward specific services (Vinter, 1974) that may affect internal structures, autonomous decision-making, program effectiveness, public image, and ability to compete (Evan, 1971). Governing boards refers to incorporated, nonprofit agencies that have a voluntary board of directors. The term chief executive officer (CEO) refers to the top manager, whether this person is called executive director, director general, president, superintendent, or some other title.

Examples are used throughout the body of this article to highlight various concepts and key ideas. These examples are drawn from the experience of the writer as an executive director for the past 28 years at the Ranch Ehrlo Society, a treatment centre for children, youth, and young adults comprising residential and community-based programs. It is believed that the successes and failures described reflect the realities that many agencies have experienced in the development of their services.

Organizational environments

It is necessary to understand the unique structures inherent in any human service organization in order to recognize the differential impact of the environment surrounding social agencies in comparison to business and other organizations. Two basic differences characterize human service organizations: first, the providers of service (staff) and the recipients of service (clients) belong to the same organization; and second, the provision of services requires interaction between the providers and the recipients (Hasenfeld and English, 1974).

These two differences are critical, because the success of human service agencies results from an ongoing interplay between clients and staff. To use an industrial analogy, the clients are the raw materials of these organizations. They are highly complex in their nature and nurture and they are protected in a variety of ways through legal and social structures. At the same time, clients are the end-products of the work of agencies, and their successes or failures help to create the attitudes of acceptance or rejection of agency services by funders and the community.

Human service organizations can classify their services along two dimensions: people-processing agencies (for example, juvenile courts, diagnostic clinics) that attempt to confer a status or label on the client; and people-changing agencies (residential treatment centers, hospitals, prisons) that attempt to alter the behaviour of clients (Hasenfeld and English, 1974). People-changing agencies are placed in the most jeopardy by clients, and the risk increases as the organization provides services to more dysfunctional persons. Community attitudes harden toward agencies according to the perceived severity of dysfunction in the people served and the number of minority groups represented in the client population.

The CEO must always be sensitive to the tension that exists between demands of the surrounding community for safety and the organizational mission to serve troubled people. An administration that is guided by commitment must find ways to respond to community concerns without relinquishing the agency mission, while realistically appraising the organization's ability to respond effectively to the needs of clients. In so many cases of nonprincipled leadership, the process of “skimming” occurs, where the better-quality clients are accepted for admission and the more problematic clients are rejected. A philosophy of practice and agency values derived from the mission statement must guide policy to serve those in greatest need.

Administratively, the effectiveness of people-changing agencies will be determined by the treatment and change technologies they develop and operate (Hasenfeld and English, 1974). Agencies serving severely dysfunctional clients must recognize the clients' potential resistance to change, their explosiveness and unpredictability, and their propensity toward violence that could be directed toward themselves, the staff, or the community. A key administrative issue in these organizations is the implementation of effective change technologies. Such changes must be structured on utilizing the most current knowledge available and on addressing the issue of safety for all concerned, within the philosophical parameters of the agency.

When the problems of human service organizations are coupled with the current political and social ideologies across Canada about welfare programs, the existing environment can be classified as turbulent (Emery and Trist,1973). There is a general community sense that many of these organizations are unresponsive to their clients, their services are ineffective, the means of helping are often degrading and insensitive, and the costs of these organizations are expensive. Such information is predicated upon inaccurate information or reports about poorly operated services. But human service organizations are indispensable, because they act as a major means of socialization for the clients, they act as control agents, and they assume a social integration function for the client back into the mainstream of society (Hasenfeld and English, 1974).

How does a human service agency control the turbulent environment in which it finds itself? The balance of this paper attempts to answer this question in a variety of ways. Basic to the discussion that follows, however, is the fundamental belief that quality services can rise above the turbulence. For this to occur, all parts of the organization must be aligned in the commitment to achieve quality, it must be guided by a common philosophy and value system, and it must have trust in all levels of leadership that operate within the organization. Agencies that actively move out to control their own destiny, rather than being controlled by external forces, will be the survivors in a changing and turbulent environment. This achievement is a total organizational effort.

Leadership and agency governance

The governing board of an nonprofit agency is one of the critical links in building quality services. Boards of directors are volunteers that assume tremendous responsibility around policies that affect resources, personnel management, and program delivery and content. Successful agencies are controlled by knowledgeable boards that are carefully nurtured by a CEO and his or her staff to develop policies based on quality information designed to facilitate leadership throughout the organization.

Three roles are necessary for boards: linkages to constituencies to whom the board is accountable, either directly or indirectly; explicit governing policies predicated upon values intrinsic to the organization; and assurance of executive performance as part of an evaluation of the total agency (Carver, 1990). These three roles guide the interaction of board members in carrying out their functions.

Board members must be clear on the agency’s mission, so that linkages to constituencies are possible (parents, neighbors, funders, special-interest groups). This concept does not mean that board members must be drawn from the constituencies represented; rather, it means that the members are committed to helping those people they serve, regardless of the problems presented. Board membership cannot be used primarily as a means to further the personal ends of the members. Caring attitudes need to be combined with knowledge and understanding about how the application of policies affect recipients. Board members need to utilize their wisdom, competence, and experience to ensure that the value base of the policy fits with the agency’s mission and that the policy is attainable within the limitations of agency resources, both financial and human.

When such commitment is combined with clearly defined guidelines for CEO performance, the possibility exists of creating a powerful governing structure for the agency. It is essential that a positive working relationship between the board and the CEO is in place, based on the following criteria: respect for jurisdictional domains; clearly defined functions for board members that allow them means of fulfilling their social and legal responsibilities; and access to information in the development of policy or the review of new service proposals, so that all concerned can make knowledgeable decisions within their areas of responsibility.

The role of the board in policy development can be one of strategic leadership that defines ends to be achieved, the board-executive relationship, and the processes by which the board exercises its leadership (Carver, 1990). In turn the CEO must be granted unfettered authority to put into practice the policies of the board without interference by the governing body. For all intents and purposes, the CEO is the only employee of the board, and the end result of an agency’s work rests with this person. The operational aspects of agency life is the responsibility of the CEO – not the dual responsibility of the board and CEO.

An excellent example of strategic leadership by a board of directors involved the establishment of a sexual offender program by the Ranch Ehrlo Society. A proposal was written for the board of directors detailing a needs study, literature review, and program outline that considered training needs, safety issues, site location, staffing requirements, and costs. Underpinning the proposal was the value base of the agency that emphasized serving the most seriously troubled children and youth in a community setting, without the use of locks or punishments. Supervision would be maintained through an increased staffing component, but the use of relationship, activities, and small group interaction would be the central means of maintaining control. The board agreed to proceed with the project by a unanimous vote.

This decision reflected the trust between the board and the CEO to deliver a quality program; in turn, the confidence of the CEO was based on the trust he held for his staff. The sexual offender program has grown from one unit for 7 youth to four units for 28 children, youth, and young adults. To date, the agency has not had a serious community incident, but we remain vigilant without giving up our community-based approach to care and without the use of lockups or punishments, despite problems presented by a difficult group of young people. At a time of declining resources, the decision to develop this specialized service resulted in expanded operations. Meeting needs with quality programs helped to calm the turbulent environment.

Leadership and the CEO

The CEO is the bridge between the governing board and the staff (Carver, 1990). This person must participate at two levels of agency operations: the day-to-day operations of the organization and the future operations of the agency as guided by his or her vision of what is possible. The competence of the CEO can be measured by the ability to maintain operations while systematically implementing organizational change in a strategic manner.

For these two activities to be maintained, the CEO must be able to rely on senior staff within the organization. Such reliance is predicated on trust and the past performance of these persons to achieve end-goals. In turn, senior staff must rely on their people to provide the commitment, creativity, and quality of activities required to achieve established goals. Administrators and managers must draw from their people the capacity to contribute ideas, think innovatively, focus on details, and analyze the variables at work in their environments. This process of empowerment is the means by which the work of employees can be improved, overall supervisory effectiveness can be enhanced, and organizational well-being can be maintained (Covey, 1992). Empowerment of people starts at the top of an organization.

The CEO must be knowledgeable of the areas in which the agency operates, but he or she does not need to be “the expert.” This responsibility is the role of key program staff upon whom the CEO is reliant. Such relation ships build interdependence and trust, and it is highly empowering for staff to be called upon to explain a service in detail at the request of the CEO. As well, outside participants in meetings quickly comprehend that knowledge and expertise are located throughout the agency and not just lodged at the top with one person or a select few.

The willingness of the CEO to allow staff to project their competence publicly is personally empowering, but it also holds the potential to unleash previously unrecognized creative abilities. Thoughts and ideas that may have been percolating for years are now given sanction to come forward for consideration. The CEO who is threatened by new ideas and creative thought will likely move to control this process as it threatens his or her security; a mature CEO will welcome such developments, recognizing that these ideas, which may be beyond his or her personal ability to implement, are the parts of administration that can contribute to quality and add to client well-being.

Part of the role of the CEO is to move staff ideas from thoughts to action, and writing is one of the fundamental tools by which this occurs. The CEO must be able to listen carefully to ideas, conceptualize these ideas, put them into written form, and move proposed programs through a series of reviews for funding. In many ways, this process is the “art” of administration, requiring sensitivity, knowledge of needs, and understanding about how to lever funders into supporting programs.

An example of these various roles of the CEO involves the development of a solvent abuse program at the Ranch Ehrlo Society. A key staff member was given responsibility to research this project; his interest was based on experience caring for youth who chronically abused gasoline and other inhalants. The committee that was struck included the agency president, CEO, and senior staff, and these people met routinely with a variety of public agencies. The response from government was basically negative, but line workers in the social service community and members of the Aboriginal community were highly supportive, with both groups recognizing this problem as a serious community need.

The Ranch decided to proceed with the project despite the fact that no public funder was prepared to back the project, seriously weakening the business plan. The board allocated money to renovate an existing unit to accommodate this program, and they approved staff increases and training costs in order to initiate the service. Response to the new program was initially slow, but referrals began to trickle in systematically as the result of pressure from line workers in the community. Three years later, this program is a highly regarded service that is constantly expanding. Interestingly, this initiative has led the agency into providing a consultation service to help communities initiate social development projects as part of a primary and secondary prevention program targeting solvent abuse.

Part of the direction enunciated several years ago for this agency by the CEO was the development of specialized services. The proposed solvent abuse program that was stimulated by staff fit this direction. A detailed proposal that clearly outlined the problem was accepted by the board, despite concerns about funding. Faith that the program was needed and knowledge that line workers would force its utilization were elements that sold the service. Both elements proved correct.


Carver, J. (1990). Boards that make a difference. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.

Covey, S.R. (1992). Principle centered leadership. New York: Simon and Schuster.

Emery, F.E. and Trist, E.H. (1973). The causal textures of organizational environments. In J.S. Jun and W.B. Storm (Eds.). Tomorrow’s organizations: Challenges and strategies (pp. 141-151). Glenview, IL: Scott Foresman.

Evan, W.M. (1971). The organizational-set: Toward a theory of interorganizational theory. In J.G. Mauer (Ed.). Readings in organizational theory: Open system approaches (pp. 31-45). New York: Random House.

Hasenfeld, Y. and English, R.A. (Eds.). (1974). Human service organizations. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press.

Vinter, R.D. (1974). Analysis of treatment organizations. In Y. Hasenfeld & R.A. English (Eds.), Human service organizations (pp. 33-50). Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press.

This feature: Pawson, G. (1994). Administration of a children's organization: Concepts and guidelines. Journal of Child and Youth Care, 9, 3. pp. 11-26.

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