Charity Organization Movement

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CHARITY ORGANIZATION MOVEMENT emerged in the United States in the late nineteenth century to address urban poverty. The movement developed as a reaction to the proliferation of charities practicing indiscriminate almsgiving without investigating the circumstances of recipients. Inspired by a similar movement in Great Britain, the movement held three basic assumptions: that urban poverty was caused by moral deficiencies of the poor, that poverty could be eliminated by the correction of these deficiencies in individuals, and that various charity organizations needed to cooperate to bring about this change. The first charity organization societies (COS) in the United States were established in the late 1870s, and by the 1890s more than one hundred American cities had COS agencies. Journals like Lend-a-Hand (Boston) and Charities Review (New York) created a forum for ideas, while annual meetings of the National Conference of Charities and Corrections provided opportunities for leaders to discuss common concerns.

Supporters of the movement believed that individuals in poverty could be uplifted through association with middle-and upper-class volunteers, primarily Protestant women. Volunteers employed the technique of "friendly visiting" in homes of the poor to establish helping relationships and investigate the circumstances of families in need. Agency leaders were typically middle-and upper-class men, often clergymen. COS agencies did not usually give money to the poor; rather they advocated a more systematic and "scientific" approach to charity, coordinating various charitable resources and keeping records of those who had received charity in an effort to prevent duplicity and duplication.

Josephine Shaw Lowell, a national leader of the movement, was convinced that COS agencies were responsible for "moral oversight" of people in poverty. Although many leaders in the COS movement were religious persons, leaders cautioned against mixing evangelism with charity. Stephen Humphreys Gurteen, a clergyman and COS leader, warned workers in his Handbook of Charity Organization (1882) not to use their position for "proselytism or spiritual instruction."

As the movement grew, an insufficient number of volunteers led COS agencies to employ "agents," trained staff members who were the predecessors of professional social workers. Modernizers like Mary Richmond of the Boston COS and Edward T. Devine of the New York COS led the movement to train workers, which gave rise to the professionalization of social work in the early twentieth century. In 1898, Devine established and directed the New York School of Philanthropy, which eventually became the Columbia School of Social Work. The case method, later used by the social work profession, is rooted in charity organization philosophies and techniques.


Boyer, Paul S. Urban Masses and Moral Order in America, 1820– 1920. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1978.

Katz, Michael. In the Shadow of the Poorhouse: A Social History of Welfare in America. 2d rev. ed. New York: Basic Books, 1996.

Popple, Phillip, and Leslie Leighninger. Social Work, Social Welfare, and American Society. 5th ed. Boston: Allyn and Bacon, 2002.

Richmond, Mary. Friendly Visiting among the Poor: A Handbook for Charity Workers. New York: Macmillan, 1899. Reprint, Montclair, N.J.: Patterson Smith, 1969.

T. LaineScales

See alsoPoverty ; Social Work ; Volunteerism .