Wellspring Archives: Associated Charities of Seattle, 1917-1919

  • By Deborah Townsend
  • Posted 4/23/2012
  • HistoryLink.org Essay 10078
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This People's History is based on the early records of Wellspring Family Services, a private, non-profit organization helping families and children in Seattle and King County overcome life’s challenges. Founded in 1892 as the Bureau of Associated Charities, Wellspring Family Services has operated under a succession of names. At the time of the events described in this essay, it was called Associated Charities of Seattle. This essay examines the organization's objectives during the brief period when it operated under that name. Wellspring’s archives illuminate the development of social work as a profession, the growth of the non-profit sector, and the relationship between private non-profits and governmental agencies. They offer glimpses into aspects of Seattle history not well documented elsewhere, examining attitudes toward poverty, need, illness, and addiction -- all of which have altered considerably since Wellspring's early days. This is one of a series entitled "Out of the Archives," and appeared in July 2011 in Wellspring's monthly internal newsletter, The Fiddlehead. It was written by Wellspring Family Services executive assistant Deborah Townsend.

Associated Charities Of Seattle, 1917-1919

Our agency was called the Associated Charities of Seattle for only two years, and our archives have scarcely any items showing that name. One interesting piece is a carbon copy of a two-page typed document that might be a draft for a public information brochure of some kind. We’ll never know exactly how these pages were used, but we’re glad to have them as a window into that brief period of our history.

After a couple of introductory paragraphs about incorporation and governance, the document gives a list of objectives, sort of a mission statement:

To diminish vagrancy and pauperism.

To prevent indiscriminate almsgiving and overlapping relief to the needy.

To produce proper relief for cases of destitution.

To secure the public from imposture and needless expense.

To make employment the basis of relief, so far as is possible.

To encourage thrift and self-reliance.

To prevent children from growing up paupers.

What’s striking here is the mix of positive and negative. Three of these seven objectives are easy to accept today: we do want to help our very-low and no-income clients, we do try to help clients find and keep jobs, and we do encourage thrift and self-reliance. In contrast, two of the objectives are pretty clearly aimed at keeping society safe from poor people. "Prevent ... overlapping relief to the needy," for example, was code for "don’t let people double-dip by going from church to church and agency to agency," and "secure the public from imposture and needless expense" played to the same sentiment then as "welfare queen" stories do in our time. We see here an agency that helped poor clients for their own sakes and also reflected the concern of a society that didn’t like how many poor people it saw on the streets every day.

Much of the first page of this document is a list titled "What Do We Do?" which is much more positive in attitude.

  • Non-sectarian and non-political the Associated Charities stands ever ready to help those who need, and all who require help need some intelligent thought given to their problems, not mere pity and a hand out.
  • We investigate, not as a detective, but as a friend that we may know how to help. (Always a trained worker.)
  • It may be rent, fuel, food, or clothes.
  • It may be medical care in hospital or home.
  • It may be to strengthen family ties.
  • It may be to draw from those whose duty it is to help.
  • It may be work.
  • It may be an opportunity for an education.
  • It may be to encourage the weak.
  • It may be to reveal to the ignorant the way to better living.
  • It may be to stimulate habits of common decency.
  • It may be to save a child from an immoral and perverted environment.
  • It may be to remove a feebleminded inmate from a normal family.
  • It may be to force the wage earner to shoulder his own responsibility.

Some of these sound a bit patronizing and one or two may make us gulp, but most are recognizable needs that our client families still face today, and we still put our "intelligent thought" into providing that help.

A statement at the end of this What Do We Do? list deserves special attention:

"To the Associated Charities there are no unworthy poor. Which is less expensive in the end, a depraved and pauperized family or a paid visitor who helps that family above the need of assistance and stimulates self respect."

Separating the worthy from the unworthy was a big deal to the agency in its earliest years, so the first sentence here represents a significant new attitude toward clients. The second sentence shows that the agency is still using the Friendly Visitor [volunteer] model but is moving away from volunteers toward paid, professional staff -- social workers, in fact.

This document also includes a description of the office and organizational structure:

  • The Associated Charities as a social service bureau must have an office where its collection of information may be of use to those who have a right to ask it.
  • A central registration bureau for all cases needing attention by the benevolent agencies of the city must have files kept up to date for reference to be of any value. [Note: this indicates that the Associated Charities was still a general clearinghouse for referrals]
  • Books must be kept of all receipts and expenditures.
  • Office work means stenographer and bookkeeper.
  • It costs to maintain a school board office; it costs to maintain an office for the Associated Charities.

This sounds almost apologetic, as if people had been questioning the need to have an office at all. Non-profit organizations still wrestle with this issue today, as some grantors and donors want all their funding to go into direct service and not to "administrative overhead" like support staff.

The second page of this document consists of statements that sound something like answers in a Frequently Asked Questions list, something like a fundraising campaign aimed at the business community. There is particular concern that community donors are supporting the Red Cross (the U.S. has entered World War I by now) instead of the Associated Charities:

  • The Red Cross needs abroad and its disaster relief work must be met, "but not by withdrawing support from the needs of charity at home" [quotation marks in the original].
  • Disasters in the common everyday life: accidents, under-employment, occupational disease, child labor, tuberculosis, insanity, blindness or impaired sight, feeblemindedness, desertion, non-support, old age, illiteracy, immorality, vice and crime -- the Associated Charities stands ready to relieve as far as possible.

That’s an astonishing list of family "disasters" that the agency is ready to address! The point was to show that needy families here still needed attention as much as the field hospitals and Prisoner Of War camps of Europe did. Reading between the lines, it seems that our agency was struggling because the philanthropic community of Seattle was experiencing "donor fatigue."

The document ends with some client statistics and a rather blunt statement of need.

"LAST YEAR the Associated Charities cared for 534 families, 151 single men, and for 141 family inquiries by organizations throughout the country [should be “county,” maybe?.

"Seattle with its increasing population and its increasing social problems should be able to support the Associated Charities so that its work shall not be crippled for lack of funds. We need twenty five thousand dollars for 1918"

In 1919, the agency changed its name to Seattle Social Welfare League, and turned its focus more firmly in the direction of social work for families.

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