Charity Organisation Society

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The Charity Organisation Societies were founded in England in 1869 following the 'Goschen Minute'[1] that sought to severely restrict outdoor relief distributed by the Poor Law Guardians. In the early 1870s a handful of local societies were formed with the intention of restricting the distribution of outdoor relief to the elderly.

Also called the Associated Charities was a private charity that existed in the late 19th and early 20th centuries as a clearing house for information on the poor.[2] The society was mainly concerned with distinction between the deserving poor and undeserving poor.[3] The society believed that giving out charity without investigating the problems behind poverty created a class of citizens that would always be dependent on alms giving.[4]

The society originated in Elberfeld, Germany and spread to Buffalo, New York around 1877.[5] The conviction that relief promoted dependency was the basis for forming the Societies. Instead of offering direct relief, the societies addressed the cycle of poverty. Neighborhood charity visitors taught the values of hard work and thrift to individuals and families. The COS set up centralised records and administrative services and emphasised objective investigations and professional training. There was a strong scientific emphasis as the charity visitors organised their activities and learned principles of practice and techniques of intervention from one another. The result led to the origin of social casework. Gradually, over the ensuing years, volunteer visitors began to be supplanted by paid staff.


Charity Organisation Societies were made up of charitable groups that used scientific philanthropy to help poor, distressed or deviant persons. The Societies considered themselves more than just alms givers. Their ultimate goal was to restore as much self-sufficiency and responsibility as an individual could manage. Through their activities, the Societies tended to be aware of the range of social services available in their communities. They thus became the primary source of information and referral for all services. Through these referrals, a Society often became the central agency in the social services of its community. For instance, the Charity Organization Society of Denver, Colorado, the forerunner of the modern United Way of America, coordinated the charitable activities of local Jewish, Congregational and Catholic groups. Its work under the leadership of Frances Wisebart Jacobs ranged from work with tuberculosis patients[6] to the care and education of young children[7] and was funded in part by direct assistance from the city itself.[8]

Settlement House movement[edit]

The Charity Organization Society can be compared to the settlement house movement which emphasised social reform rather than personal problems as the proper focus of charity.

Efficacy and criticism[edit]

Despite its claims that private charity would be superior to public welfare because it improved the moral character of the recipients, records from the COS' Indianapolis branch show that only a minority of its relief recipients managed to become self-reliant, with the exit rate declining sharply the longer people were on relief. The exit rates are similar to those in late-20th-century public welfare programs, despite the fact that COS only granted relief only to recipients it deemed worthy and improvable. Furthermore, journals kept by the COS case workers and "friendly visitors" indicate that they were not on friendly terms with the relief recipients but described them in disparaging terms and interacted with them in an intrusive and presumptuous way.[9]

The COS was resented by the poor for its harshness, and its acronym was rendered by critics as "Cringe or Starve".[9]

Britain's Charity Organisation Society[edit]

In Britain, the Charity Organisation Society led by Helen Bosanquet and Octavia Hill was founded in London in 1869[10] and supported the concept of self-help and limited government intervention to deal with the effects of poverty. Alsager Hay Hill was prominent from its foundation, acting as honorary secretary of the council until July 1870, and as an active member of the council until 1880:[11]

Mr. Alsager Hay Hill joined the Society in its first year. He was one of its first Hon. Secretaries, and the life and soul of Council meetings in the early days of struggle. A man of rare natural wit, something of a poet, and the brightest of companions, he threw himself eagerly into the Society's work, and more particularly devoted his time and energy to an attempt to deal with the problems of unemployment. His 'Labour News' of thirty years ago anticipated the Labour Exchanges of today.[12]

The organisation claimed to use "scientific principles to root out scroungers and target relief where it was most needed".[13] Annie Barnes joined the organisation and used her own background that people objected to accepting "Charity".[14] The Charity Organisation Society was renamed Family Welfare Association in 1946 and still operates today as Family Action, a registered family support charity.

See also[edit]


  1. ^ Poor Law Board; 22nd Annual Report (1869–70), Appendix A No.4. Relief to the Poor in the Metropolis. PP XXXI, 1871
  2. ^ (1895). "Charity's Clearing House." The Washington Post. December 15.
  3. ^ (1900) "Commissioners of the District of Columbia." Washington Government Printing Office.
  4. ^ (1887). "Lots of Chronic Paupers." The Washington Post. October 21.
  5. ^ Welfare, National Conference on Social (1 January 2005). Official proceedings of the annual meeting: 1880.
  6. ^ (1903) Albert Shaw, The American Review of Reviews. Radcliffe Library, 1903: 701.
  7. ^ (1903) Benjamin Lindsey Collection, Box 85, Manuscript Division, Library of Congress; letters from Izetta George dated February 11 and February 14, 1903.
  8. ^ (1900) Isabel C. Barrows, ed. The Social Welfare Forum. The Proceedings of the National Conference of Charities and Correction at the Twenty-Sixth Annual Session Held in the City of Cincinnati, Ohio, May 17–23, 1899. Boston: George H. Ellis, 1900, page 376.
  9. ^ a b Ziliak, Stephen (2004), Self-Reliance before the Welfare State: Evidence from the Charity Organization Movement in the United States. Journal of Economic History, Vol. 64, No. 2, pp. 433–461
  10. ^ "1800s". Family Action: About Us. Archived from the original on 18 July 2011. Retrieved 17 November 2010.
  11. ^ Lee, Sidney, ed. (1912). "Hill, Alsager Hay" . Dictionary of National Biography (2nd supplement). London: Smith, Elder & Co.
  12. ^ Bosanquet, Helen (1914), Social work in London, 1869 to 1912: A History of the Charity Organisation Society. New York, E P Button & Co.
  13. ^ Rees, Rosemary (2001). Poverty and Public Health 1815–1949. London: Heinemann.
  14. ^ Elizabeth Crawford, ‘Barnes , Annie (c.1887–1982)’, Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, Oxford University Press, 2004 accessed 28 July 2017