Clinical vs. Administrative Social Work: A Case Manager and Part-Time Consultant’s Perspective

Melanie Carlson wears two hats as a social worker: working full-time as a case manager helping homeless individuals get back on their feet, and also in a part-time administrative role providing data integrity analysis to a non-profit organization.  On the surface, these jobs couldn’t seem more different – however, Carlson believes that truly impactful social work requires equal parts clinical and administrative duties.

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As clinical case manager, Carlson uses a holistic approach – both person-centered and evidence-based – to help clients take the steps they need to get off the streets and become more self-sufficient members of society. As a data integrity consultant, Carlson taps into her administrative social work skills to make sure non-profits are maximizing their service programs for people in need while still maintaining quality. 

Although she started her education with a BA in Film Studies and Sociology, she went on to specialize in social work by earning her MSW with a specialization in Community Empowerment Program Development from University of Georgia. During her graduate studies, she was honored with James D. Horne Memorial Scholarship, which provides financial assistance to BSW and MSW students who are interested in working with the homeless.

At the University of Georgia, Carlson was named a Who’s Who nominee in 2011. She has earned certifications including Nonprofit Management Certification from University of Georgia, ASIST certification (Applied Suicide Intervention Skills Training), and Frontline Domestic Violence Certification from the Georgia Coalition against Domestic Violence.

Enjoy our full interview with Carlson to learn more about the differences between clinical and administrative social work, and how both are crucial to helping social workers forge stronger, healthier communities.    

GradSchools: How did you get initially get involved in social work?

I started working as a social worker doing overnights and weekends at a domestic violence shelter while I was in school full time for my Masters in Social Work. I was inspired to become a social worker after needing social work services myself for my disability. I wanted to dedicate my life to helping others after seeing the benefits of the profession.

GradSchools: Typically, what are some of the major differences between the clinical social work and macro graduate programs?

My social work graduate program didn’t differentiate between clinical and macro tracks until the second year. The clinical track generally is going to focus more on working with individual clients, such as learning therapeutic techniques and learning about various mental health diagnoses in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM).

The macro concentration generally focuses on community development and program administration. You will have the opportunity to learn the “business side” of operating a nonprofit, which can entail learning about funding streams (such as grant writing and fundraising) and how to manage nonprofit programs, such as analyzing tax forms to assess a nonprofits solvency or compiling services rendered to report back to funders. You also have the opportunity to learn how to assess communities, in terms of what the needs are and how to build community in order to service those needs.

GradSchools: In your experience what are the primary differences between working as a case manager versus an administrator?

I find that when I work as a case manager there is a lot more variety in the day-to-day work responsibilities. My case management experience comes from working in shelters and residential programs have unique qualities due to clients living on site. So one day I might be assessing a hotline call for imminent danger to see if a potential client qualifies for our program, while another day I might be mediating between clients who are finding it challenging to be in a communal living situation together. Case management entails mostly working with individual clients and helping them come up with their own goals while in the program and no two clients are going to have the exact same needs or personalities. So case management is very dynamic, but it can be a triage system as crises arise so you have to be flexible.

As a consultant for a nonprofit my specific role is to run reports from the client database and ensure data integrity. I ensure that demographic and service related information is entered comprehensively so that the nonprofit can accurately represent who they served and what the services provided were. Most nonprofits have a wide variety of funders that often have different criteria of what kind of data reports they want. It is essential to streamline data collection to be able to demonstrate to a funder their specific criteria. Not only does the process of reporting ensure fiduciary responsibility; it also demonstrates where there may be gaps in services or if a service is not being utilized enough to justify the expenditure. Nonprofits have to always be aware of how to maximize service provision while maintaining quality, because typically there is usually more need for a service than there is available funding. I enjoy this administrative role in a different way than case management. It allows me to use my analytical side and help ensure that the mechanics of the nonprofit are sound. Being a case manager is more about empowering the client and using a strengths-based perspective, while being holistic with a person centered approach. I really try not to over analyze individual clients and break down their weaknesses, because I’m trying to work with them as they are and trust their expertise in their own life.

GradSchools: Do you prefer clinical work to administration duties? What do you think are the biggest pros and cons to each?

I like each role for different reasons, but the overall goal of each role is to support efficient services to people in need. I think the pros to being a case manager is really supporting a client as they regain their footing and sharing in their success. On the converse side though, is that there will be clients that are still not ready to make the significant changes they need to or there are not enough programs that meet their highly specific needs so they won’t be successful in your program. It does embolden you too see those failures in the social safety net and advocate to the wider community to fill those programmatic gaps.

The pros to working an administrative role is that I have more autonomy to complete my work, while still being dependent on the case managers to input their data. I enjoy being able to streamline case managers jobs so that they can spend more time with clients. The role has really lead me to have a far clearer picture of how to document services rendered and the importance of that documentation for ongoing funding.

GradSchools: Are there any particular challenges to working with the homeless? Do you think inaccurate societal perceptions negatively affect the population?

Well the are two definitions of people who are homeless. And I use people first language because experiencing homelessness is not the defining aspect of a person’s life. There are some people who experience homelessness in a temporary way, they might have lost a job, gotten sick, or been evicted those clients usually can stabilize in shelter and they do well.

There are other people who are defined by HUD (Department of Housing and Urban Development) as chronically homeless. “HUD has defined chronic homelessness as an individual or family with a disabling condition who has been continuously homeless for a year or more or has had at least four episodes of homelessness in the past three years.” (https://www.hudexchange.info) These clients really need supportive services on an ongoing basis and it can be a really long waiting list to get them into permanent housing. The hard part of working with people who are homeless is seeing people slide through the cracks in the social safety net.

GradSchools: You mentioned your ultimate goal was to become the director of a nonprofit program. How do you think your coursework and job experience helped prepare you to pursue this role?  

I would like to start my own organization one day. I think having a clear picture of every aspect of administering a nonprofit and providing services will help me have a better insight into having a smoothly operated nonprofit. The hardest decision for me will be deciding what kind of services I want to offer!

GradSchools: Are there certain traits or qualities that you think might make a person while suited to social work?

Well obviously people enter the profession to do good work and uplift the most marginalized people in society. The most important thing is not to let the work consume you so that you burnout. You have to be able to shut off your work brain and enjoy your own personal life. While you may say your end goal is to eliminate the need for your services the reality is that there is a significant need out there so you have to be able to feel satisfied with what is in your capacity to accomplish. You also have to fundamentally understand that your clients have free will and be able to accept their decisions. We are here to support and provide referrals, not to change someone else’s world.

GradSchools: Is this a good time to enter the field? Why or why not?

I think it is a good time to enter the field. There is now mental health parity through the Affordable Care Act and with 25% of the population experiencing a mental health disorder in a given year that could keep increasing the service providers needed, especially as mental health diagnoses are increasingly being de-stigmatized. There is also an increased effort and funding to help veterans who experiencing homelessness.

GradSchools: What is some advice you have for students who are considering pursuing their graduate degree in social work and are not sure which track to choose?

I will say that you will see far fewer job postings for a macro social worker. You might be titled a program assistant, development assistant, grant writer etc. Don’t let that dissuade you so that you think there are no jobs as a macro social worker. I think you have to analyze whether you want to focus on working with communities or groups. There is going to be a little bit of macro in clinical and vice versa, like the ying and the yang. Also, there is a lot of people with macro degrees that have more clinical jobs as case managers, and vice versa. You should really think about if licensing is something you probably want to pursue later down the line and weigh that heavily when making your decision.

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