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Sarah Christa Butts, MSW, Executive Director of the Grand Challenges for Social Work

Sarah Christa Butts, MSW, is the Executive Director of the Grand Challenges for Social Work and Senior Administrator within the Dean’s office at University of Maryland, School of Social Work. Ms. Butts is the founding administrator of the American Academy of Social Work and Social Welfare (AASWSW) and played a significant role in the organization’s development as a 501c3 and launching of Grand Challenges from 2013-2017. She is a co-author on the AASWSW working paper to End Homelessness and contributing author on a new book, Grand Challenges for Social Work and Society, published by Oxford University Press. Prior experience include roles at the Family League of Baltimore, Maryland Department of Human Services, Social Services Administration and Baltimore County Department of Social Services. Ms. Butts holds an MSW from University of Maryland Baltimore and a BSW from University of Maryland Baltimore County, where she is currently pursuing a PhD in Public Policy.

Number of years in management: 10 years

Tell us about your path to management:
At 14 years old, I began working in the restaurant industry. For over a decade, I worked as a server and bartender before graduating with my BSW, learning important lessons about communication, collaboration, and labor intensive work. This experience, and balancing work and parenting responsibilities as a young mother while pursuing higher education, laid a strong foundation of my path to management.

In my BSW and MSW programs, I participated in the Title IV-E Education for Public Child Welfare program because I was interested in understanding the interworking’s of the child and family serving systems. After a BSW clinical field placement as a foster care case manager at Baltimore County Department of Social Services, I interned under the Director of the Social Services Administration in Maryland in my MSW program.

Upon graduation, I was hired as a Policy Analyst within the Maryland Department of Human Services, Social Services Administration. For nearly four years, I worked on statewide child welfare reform through the Place Matters Initiative and my experiences offered a very fast track to leadership. While working at SSA, I drafted testimony to support a bill on alternative response, worked with the Annie E. Casey Foundation to implement a program called Transitioning Youth to Families, in Baltimore and Washington counties, and had the privilege of managing a Health and Human Services grant to Implement MD KEEP, a foster parent support intervention developed by Oregon Social Learning Center.

I eventually left state service to work for the Family League, a quasi-public nonprofit chartered by Baltimore City government, where I worked on community schools and out of school time programing and managed contracts for the entire organization. In 2013, I was hired by University of Maryland, School of Social Work to focus on developing the American Academy of Social Work and Social Welfare and launching a Grand Challenges for Social Work campaign, which I have served as the first administrator and director.

From early in my career, I have had the privilege of working for and being mentored by skilled executives and luminaries in the field of Social Work. I have been determined to put these opportunities to good use, learning from the management styles of others, developing my own leadership style and reputation for producing high quality work.

What leadership qualities do you find to be the most effective in reaching your organizational or career goals? 
There are many leadership qualities that contribute to achieving my goals. Fairness, integrity, competence, and accountability are certainly at the top of my list. I also believe in leading with kindness and having a generous spirit, as these attributes are highly motivating, foster good will, and contribute to the health of organizations.

How do you motivate your team members?
I respect the unique contributions of each person and try to rally the team around a collective mission and goals. My interest is in helping each team member to feel valued, have growth opportunities and build confidence through shared success.

Is there a leader or mentor who has inspired or assisted you along your professional journey?
I have benefitted from generous mentorship and leadership lessons imparted by many professionals in my career journey. I know that I can learn something from each person who I interact with and I welcome those lessons.

How has networking impacted your career?
I continue to build a network of colleagues and contacts and I am open to meeting new people wherever I go. For me, a significant benefit of networking and strong relationships is the ability to call on others for advice and guidance.

What are you reading and/or following now (book, blog, social media groups, etc)?
Since I am studying part time in a PhD program for Public Policy, these days most of my reading includes textbooks, journal articles and other material from disciplines like economics, public administration, and sociology.

A book that I have recently read and highly recommend is The Long Shadow: Family Background, Disadvantaged Urban Youth, and the Transition to Adulthood, by Karl Alexander, Doris Entwistle and Linda Olson.

What advice do you have for those beginning their professional journey or who are already in leadership positions? 
For those beginning their professional journey: 1) work hard, 2) don’t worry too much about working with one specific or narrowly defined population—learning opportunities will be more rich if you are flexible 3) be open and responsive to feedback, 4) take on challenging assignments and 5) focus on building your skill set and demonstrating your value.

For those in leadership positions: use your power to lift others—mentor your staff, help them to build their skill set, and reward hard work and productivity. Address critical areas for improvement, like ensuring diversity of staff and board members, pay equity for social workers at all levels, and leadership opportunities for women and minorities.

Do you have an initiative or project you would like to tell our readers about?
I am deeply focused on the Grand Challenges for Social Work, an initiative developed by the American Academy of Social Work and Social Welfare and being advanced by the social work profession. The 12 Grand Challenges are a science supported social agenda, intended to galvanize the profession and inspire innovation and interdisciplinary collaboration. GCSW are a call to action and include some of our most vexing societal problems like homelessness, economic inequality, isolation, health equity and climate change. To learn more, please visit the website Click here to sign up for the GCSW newsletter.

I’ve also recently learned about a National Association of Social Workers (NASW) campaign to Elevate Social Work, which seeks to educate the public about the contributions of social workers and to begin a conversation on how to boost social work salaries. Equitable Social Worker compensation is important to me and I definitely encourage colleagues to check out the campaign and participate.  To learn more about NASW Social Work Elevate, please visit the website at

What do you wish you had known before you started your career?
MACRO social work managers have an uncertain career path that is both rewarding and sometimes difficult to navigate. Interdisciplinary training is necessary to be successful and there is competition for positions with individuals who have credentials in law, public policy, public health, public administration and business. The perception of social work as a clinical degree can work against MSW trained managers who have to overcome misunderstandings about our training and ability to lead and mange teams.

Share a mistake or failure that provided the most growth in your career.
I have made a fair share of mistakes over the years. When I make a mistake, I take responsibility and move quickly to bring resolution. In recovering from a mistake, a priority for me has been to maintain a professional reputation for high quality work and positive working relationships with colleagues.

Where can people reach you for questions (LinkedIn, Facebook or Twitter)?
Sarah Christa Butts, MSW
E-Mail Address:
LinkedIn: Sarah Butts, MSW

The views expressed herein are those solely of the author and not necessarily endorsed by the Network for Social Work Management.

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