Joanna Carver Colcord was born on a ship at sea in the southwest Pacific near New Calendonia, with help from her father, the ship's captain. Her parents were Jane French Sweetser and her husband Lincoln Alden Colcord. Both her parents came from Maine families with generations of seagoing history. Her father often took his family along on his voyages, so Joanna spent much of her childhood at sea and abroad. She attended high school through correspondence courses, and then went to the University of Maine, where she earned B.S. and M.S. degrees in chemistry. She held several jobs in applied chemistry but was unsatisfied with the work, and as a woman, she had little chance of obtaining an academic post. In 1911, she got a job as a social worker with the New York Charity Organization Society (COS), a position she held until 1925. After serving as general secretary of the Family Welfare Association of Minneapolis, she returned to New York City in 1929 to head the Charity Organization Division of the influential Russell Sage Foundation. From this position, which she held until 1945, she became one of the most influential social work leaders in the nation.
She wrote books that included Broken Homes: A Study of Family Desertion and its Social Treatment (1919); Community Planning in Unemployment Emergencies (1930); Setting Up a Program of Work Relief (1931); Community Programs for Subsistence Gardens (1933), with Mary Johnston; Cash Relief (1936); Your Community, Its Provisions for Health, Education, Safety, and Welfare (1939). She also wrote two books on sea songs and culture: Roll and Go, Songs of American Sailormen (1924), republished as Songs of American Sailormen (1938), and Sea Language Comes Ashore (1945).
In 1950, at age 68, she married Frank Bruno, a recently widowed friend and coworker of 40 years.