Jennifer Zelnick, Touro Graduate School of Social Work – Managerialism

Do for-profit values have a place in non-profit work?

Jennifer Zelnick, professor at the Touro Graduate School of Social Work, examines this question.

Jennifer Zelnick, Professor & Social Welfare Policy Chair at the Touro College Graduate School of Social Work, holds a master’s degree in social work, and a doctorate in public health, and conducts research in the U.S. and South Africa.Dr. Zelnick is a public health social worker committed to bringing social work skills into public health research and services.  Her research and scholarship investigate topics of importance to the health and social service workplace, beginning with the premise that quality health/social services and successful outcomes depend on sustainable work environments. She is trained in community organizing and occupational health and safety policy. Her research is geared towards useful input into policy development.

Co-Author: Mimi Abramovitz

Bertha Capen Reynolds Professor of Social Policy

Silberman School of Social Work @Hunter College, CUNY



The trend toward using for-profit values like productivity and efficiency in the public and non-profit sectors, known as managerialism, began in the 1980s and continues today. Supporters say this approach cuts costs and improves quality. But our research shows that relying on the business model to deliver human services can be harmful to frontline social workers and their clients.

Our survey of more than 3,200 human service workers from across New York City revealed disturbing patterns in workplaces with a managerialist slant. Employees at these agencies reported more stress and burnout, and were more likely to admit to bending the rules to meet performance goals.

We asked survey respondents to rate their organizations on a “commitment to managerialism” scale we created based on four areas: productivity, accountability, efficiency and standardization.

The more closely an agency adhered to the business model, we found, the more difficulty workers had doing their jobs. They reported more ethical dilemmas, and were especially troubled by the focus on performance outcomes rather than on outcomes that mattered to their clients. Some said their agency’s drive to standardize services meant they were providing “cookie cutter” care.

Workers at high-managerialism agencies were also more likely to say that their organization did not prioritize its mission and that it chose clients based on their ability to succeed.

The good news is that social workers at agencies that scored lowest on our managerialism scale reported more commitment to the mission of social work, fewer workforce issues, and better service delivery. Even in today’s competitive environment, agencies can protect the social work mission.

Read More:

The Perils of Privatization: Bringing the Business Model into Human Services
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