Guidelines for Ethical Practice in Community Organization

Article excerpt

Community organizers often encounter ethical dilemmas in practice. Most organizers engage on a regular basis with community residents, constituency groups, local institutions, and government decision makers. Consequently, most practice activities occur outside traditional agency settings and are not directly addressed in the Code of Ethics of the National Association of Social Workers. Although community practice principles such as self-determination, informed consent, and protection of confidentiality are identified in the Code, situational factors make their application different than in direct practice. This article identifies the values inherent in community practice, describes ethical issues encountered by organizers, and examines tools available to organizers for resolving common ethical dilemmas.

Key words: community organization; macro practice; social change; social work ethics; values


Social work is built around an ethical code that makes it distinct from other professions. The Code of Ethics of the National Association of Social Workers (2000) primarily focuses on the context of clinical practice with individuals. The Code does not cover many of the practice situations a typical community organizer can encounter (Reisch & Lowe, 2000). For example, social action organizing often involves confrontation tactics. Picketing, demonstrations, strikes, and boycotts can be potentially harmful to members of the target group, causing humiliation, social ostracism, or loss of employment (Fisher, 1994).

Little discussion has taken place in schools of social work about the ethics of using such tactics. There are no specific provisions in the NASW Code that help the organizer sort out these "means versus ends" dilemmas (Reisch & Lowe, 2000). Consequently, efforts to resolve ethical dilemmas are made on a case-by-case basis (Hardcastle, Wenocur, & Powers, 1997). This can cause con fusion for entry-level social workers in community practice.

In this article I explore ethical issues inherent in community organization practice and identify the values inherent in the ethical dilemmas faced by social workers who engage in community practice. Concepts such as "informed consent" and "conflict of interest" as they apply to community work are discussed. In addition, I discuss the ethical implications of using confrontation tactics. Ethical frameworks that can be used in community practice and resources available to help social workers resolve ethical dilemmas that occur in community practice are described.

Basic Community Organization Values

Lowenberg and Dolgoff (1996) distinguished between values and ethics (Hardina, 2002). Values are statements of an ideal that we try to achieve, whereas ethics offer us directives for action derived from the desired outcomes. The NASW Code of Ethics identifies a number of values, such as self-determination, protection of confidentiality, equal distribution of resources, and promotion of cultural diversity in service provision that social workers must uphold. Ethical practices, most often activities that pertain to clinical work with individuals, are also identified in the Code. However, community organization can be viewed as a unique field of practice requiring an ethical code and a theoretical framework that commits the organizer to the struggle for social justice (Reamer, 1999). Such a commitment requires that an organizer fight to improve economic conditions and civil rights for members of marginalized groups (Rivera & Erlich, 1998). Although the NASW Code of Ethics is explicit about the responsibility of social workers to promote social justice (NASW, 2000, Standards 6.01 and 6.03), it does not specify actions that social workers must take to achieve it (Bull, 1989).

The NASW Code of Ethics (2000) primarily focuses on the context of working in or managing a social services agency. The chief limitation of the NASW Code for organizers is that most of their work takes place in a context outside of the agency in collaboration or conflict with individuals, small groups, and organizations. …


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