Public Administration & Policy

How to Become a Social Work Planner

How to Become a Social Work Planner
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Christa Terry profile
Christa Terry August 16, 2019

Not all social workers are case managers or clinicians working with individuals or families. Some work with populations, programs, and systems to meet the needs of entire communities.

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How to Become a Social Work Planner

Ask most people what social work looks like and they’ll probably describe a scene in which an overworked social worker is scrambling to find resources for a family that can’t make ends meet, an individual with mental health challenges, or a victim of domestic abuse. That is, in fact, the most common manifestation of social work, but there are also other types of social workers out there helping people—many of whom never work directly with people in need. 

A social work planner, for instance, doesn’t direct individuals toward social services programs. Instead, she:

  • Designs or redesigns those programs
  • Finds ways to meet the needs of more people with existing programs
  • Lobbies for policies that would make those programs obsolete 

Social work planners are leaders and administrators in the field of social work, and what they do makes clinical social work possible. For programs and resources to work, there have to be people who can look at social problems from a 30,000-foot perspective and build sustainable services that address community or population needs

Some of the skills and qualities social work planners must possess: 

  • A talent for research
  • The ability to communicate clearly
  • Problem-solving skills
  • Compassion 

When you become a social work planner, you’ll also engage with social problems in a way that’s very different from that of your clinical colleagues. They’ll pull out all the stops to get one person or family all the available resources, while you will have to look at those same resources and decide whether they are genuinely effective or sustainable.

In this article, we’ll cover:

  • Pros and cons of becoming a social work planner
  • The differences between micro, macro, and mezzo social work
  • Understanding the role of a social work planner
  • The educational commitment to become a social work planner
  • Further accreditation and education for a social work planner
  • The average income for social work planners


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Pros and cons of becoming a social work planner

Social work is not easy, and there are pros and cons of becoming a social work planner. 

Pros of becoming a social work planner

  • Tangible results: You’ll make a real difference in people’s lives when you become a social work planner. 
  • Meta impact: Your work won’t just impact the lives of one client or group of clients; it will affect change for entire programs and populations. For a ‘big picture’ person, that’s a huge plus.

Cons of becoming a social work planner

  • Difficult compromises: There will be times when addressing social problems via research and data-driven program development require tough judgments. Sometimes you’ll have to choose between an approach that will help fewer people but receive overwhelming support and a more effective one that’s unlikely to be implemented.
  • Unintended consequences: Some initiatives look great on paper, but don’t work out in practice or financially.
  • Ups and downs: There will be days when you feel like you’re making an impact and days when you feel like your work doesn’t matter.
  • Left on the table: Like their licensed clinical social worker counterparts, social work planners can only accomplish so much, even though they often feel driven to do much, much more.
  • Low pay: According to Glassdoor, the average social work planner earns about $43,000 a year. It’s not terrible, but as pay for trained professionals goes, it’s definitely on the low side. 

Here’s what you’ll need to know to embark upon this challenging career path. 

What’s the difference between micro, mezzo, and macro social work?

When your goal is to become a social work planner, you must understand the different levels and types of social work. Your area of interest can help you make smart decisions when you’re looking at degree programs and future career opportunities. Broadly, social work tends to be divided into three overlapping practice categories: micro, mezzo, and macro. 

Micro social work

Micro social work is the most common type of social work and focuses on individuals or families. One clinical social worker engages with one person or one family to solve one or more problems, such as lack of housing or health care. 

You’ll find micro clinical social workers in:

  • Schools
  • Social services offices
  • Hospitals, soup kitchens
  • Homeless shelters
  • Organizations that work with disabled people and vulnerable populations

Mezzo social work

Mezzo social work involves small groups, such as residents of a specific neighborhood, students at a school, or people who live in a community housing project or shelter. Social workers at the mezzo level connect these groups with services or help give them a voice in local politics. 

Some examples of job titles held by mezzo level social workers are: 

  • Parenthood educator
  • Support group counselor
  • Community group leader
  • Substance abuse specialist

In both micro social work and macro social work, social workers will work directly with the individual or the people affected by an issue. 

Macro social work

Macro social work, on the other hand, usually involves working with systems to create sweeping change versus working with people to fix individual or group problems. 

Social workers at the macro level may be involved in lobbying and activism and may work with: 

  • Cities 
  • Legislators
  • Large institutions

Roles at the macro level typically include leadership positions in nonprofit organizations or government agencies, though social workers at this level may also be involved in grassroots community initiatives.

A social work planner is a type of non-clinical social worker who operates at the macro level, analyzing systemic problems and the programs designed to address them to determine what is and isn’t sufficient. 

Their goal is to address individual challenges across populations by creating high-level strategies designed to solve the social problems that are at the root of those challenges.  

Where do social work planners typically work?

Social work planners work in a variety of settings, like:

  • Nonprofit organizations 
  • Human rights groups 
  • Government agencies at the local, state, and federal levels 
  • Think tanks 
  • Universities 
  • Health centers 
  • Community organizations
  • Law firms 

Generally, social work planners operate as part of an interdisciplinary team, which means collaborating with: 

  • Mezzo and micro-level social workers
  • Lawyers
  • Legislators (and other policymakers) 
  • Activists
  • People representing the interests of those in need 

If these lists seem huge, it’s because they are. Social work planners do a lot! 

Examples of initiatives that a social work planner might work on include:

  • Support programs designed to address child hunger or homelessness in a community
  • Plans to ensure that the elderly population of a city can safely age in place
  • Career development programs for people with disabilities 

It’s worth noting that social work planners are within the populations they help. As part of a data-driven approach to fixing the systemic issues causing population-wide problems, a social work planner will spend time conducting field research; part of that field research will involve speaking with the people affected by broken or unfair systems. 

The educational commitment to become a social work planner

Bachelor of Social Work (BSW)

To become a social work planner, you will need to earn a Bachelor of Social Work (BSW) or a Bachelor of Arts in Social Welfare (BASW) degree from a Council on Social Work Education-accredited university.

Typical on-campus BSW programs (like the one offered by the University of Wisconsin – Madison School of Social Work) take four years to complete and include both core courses and classes focused on social welfare policy, research, working with people and families, sociology and human behavior, social justice, and group practice methods.

Most bachelor’s degree programs in this field also include a practicum component, in which students conduct fieldwork under the supervision of a social worker in the local community before earning their degree.

In general, the coursework required to earn a BASW—which, confusingly, can also stand for Bachelor of Arts in Social Work—will be nearly indistinguishable from that of a BSW program. Often, different schools will use these terms interchangeably, or the BSW at one school will be the same degree as a BASW at another.

Make sure you understand what a degree program is offering, and be sure the Council on Social Work Education accredits any programs you’re considering. 

Don’t discount online BSW programs like the ones offered by the University of Utah and the University of North Dakota, as these can make it easier for you to earn your degree.

Most BSW programs are broad, and train students to provide services to underserved or oppressed people, families, or communities. With a BSW in hand, you could take an entry-level micro social work position and potentially work your way up to a policy and planning position. However, if your goal is to get into macro social work and become a social work planner, a graduate degree will help you do it more quickly and will also be an asset when you’re searching for jobs.

Master of Social Work (MSW)

While any accredited Master of Social Work (MSW) program will prepare you for a career in social work, look for MSW programs with a specialized macro focus or even a specific planning concentration.

At the University of Michigan – Ann Arbor School of Social Work, for instance, students can choose community and social systems as a practice area. Western Michigan University offers an MSW with a policy, planning and administration concentration. And the University of California – Berkeley School of Social Welfare offers a planning and management specialization. 

The skills you’ll learn in a master’s degree program will include: 

  • Power analysis
  • Community development
  • Systems thinking
  • Community needs assessment
  • Asset assessment
  • Outreach
  • Financial management
  • Strategic planning
  • Human resource management
  • Leadership
  • Research
  • Advocacy
  • Lobbying
  • Coalition building
  • Conflict resolution
  • Proposal writing
  • Bargaining and negotiating

As if that wasn’t enough, you’ll also learn more about your chosen area of specialization.

Students in Master of Social Work programs with a macro focus or a focus on social work planning may choose to specialize even further in:

  • Behavioral health
  • Trauma and violence
  • Children and families
  • Human service management 

Depending on what specialization or specializations you choose, you may complete interdisciplinary coursework in: 

  • Public health
  • Urban planning
  • Government operations
  • Economics
  • Nonprofit management
  • Marketing 

Some on-campus and online MSW programs also offer students the opportunity to earn certificates before graduation, so they exit the degree program with additional qualifications.

A typical on-campus master’s program in social work takes two years to complete, though there are accelerated MSW programs like that offered by Fordham University (which takes as little as 16 months to finish). Fast-track master’s degree programs are often open only to those who have completed accredited BSW programs.

Social Work Doctorate (DSW)

Some social work planners who want to pursue administration or research will go on to earn degrees at the doctoral level—either a Ph.D. in social work or a Doctor of Social Work (DSW) degree.

The DSW is the more clinical/practice-focused degree, so many social work planners find the PhD in social work the more appropriate degree for their purposes. 

DSW and Ph.D. candidates both study policy analysis, administration, research, and program development, but DSW candidates will also explore advanced clinical practice methods.

In contrast, most Ph.D. in social work programs focus more on research and academia. PhDs are well-equipped to create policy, work in community organizing, or become leaders in the nonprofit sector. They can also, if they choose, enter the academic sphere and train the next generation of social workers. Which degree path is right for you will depend both on your long-term career goals and the doctoral programs that seem most interesting to you. 

Further accreditation and education for a social work planner

In every state, a social worker must have at least earned an MSW and have a license to work legally. Beyond that, the licensing requirements for social workers vary significantly from state to state and depend on an individual social worker’s focus.

In some states, a social work planner must have the same licenses and certifications as a clinical social worker, but in other states, non-clinical social workers generally apply for different licenses and must pass the generalist exam given by the Association of Social Work Board (ASWB). Macro social workers may also have to complete an additional period of supervised work experience before they can be licensed. 

The ASWB has developed and administers social work licensing examinations for five common licenses. Each state regulatory board has different licensing requirements, but if you decide to become a social work planner, the chances are that you will apply for the Licensed Master Social Worker-Advanced Generalist license—which is the highest-level license for non-clinical or macro social workers.

Your state may have regulations concerning what types of work you can do with the schooling and credentials you have, so be sure you understand these rules when you’re applying for licensure. 

After you become a licensed social work planner, you can also pursue voluntary certifications offered by professional organizations in specific specialty areas for those opting to take the continuing education route. The National Association for Social Workers offers a number of certification tracks focused on different populations, and the Network for Social Management has certification programs designed to address the needs and competencies of social workers at the macro level. 

Social work planning is non-clinical, but still puts people first

Despite what you’ve read her up to now, don’t assume that building a career in non-clinical social work at the macro level means you’re not going to engage directly with people in need. 

Social work planning that follows a top-down format (i.e., run the numbers to create solutions) is one approach, but it’s not the only approach. Many social work planners find more success pursuing community-driven social initiatives that are built from the bottom up with input from those affected by the problems planners are trying to solve.

As a social work planner, you can’t base policy development on historical patterns or statistics alone. You have to be deeply familiar with the populations you want to help.

That means learning about: 

  • Cultures
  • Economic realities
  • Lives
  • Struggles 

In short, social work planners need to see the world the way their clients see it. Your university studies will give you some insights into these areas, but there’s nothing like engaging with people directly.  

Plus, you have to follow up with your focus population. A policy or initiative that looks great on paper can have unintended consequences in communities, and if you’re not working closely with clinical social workers and people in the affected populations, you might never see the ripple effect of your initiatives or changes you make to existing initiatives. Sometimes there is a considerable gap between how things work in theory and how things work in reality. 

As a result, part of your work will involve conducting research that engages the populations you’re trying to help. Remember that citizen participation will be a massive asset to you at every level of your career.

How much do social work planners earn?

The unfortunate reality of a social work career is that the stereotype of the overworked, underfunded social worker isn’t an exaggeration. Most social workers aren’t in it for the money, however, even at the macro administrative and policy levels. They come to work each day because they feel driven to make the world a better place for the people in it. 

As Ashley Katz-DeJong, a graduate of the University of Texas at Austin Steve Hicks School of Social Work, put it in a recent interview, “I have always had a passion for and interest in politics and government. I enjoyed my clinical experiences in grad school, but I knew that in order for life to change for my clients someone had to be advocating for them at the top that really understood their challenges but could also speak like a policy wonk and be creative about political barriers.”

So, is a career as a social work planner for you?

When you become a social work planner, there may be times when you wonder if you’ve made the right career choice. But on those days when the roadblocks seem smaller, and you can see that what you’re doing is making a difference, it will feel like the very best job in the world. 

(Last Updated on February 26, 2024) 

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Tom Meltzer spent over 20 years writing and teaching for The Princeton Review, where he was lead author of the company's popular guide to colleges, before joining Noodle.

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