9 Tips for Putting Social Capital Into Action

Over 80 Massachusetts philanthropists gathered this week at Brandeis Unversity to explore the topic "Social Captial in Action", the theme of this year's Associated Grantmakers of Massachusetts annual meeting. Needless to say, I was pleased that the local funding community is focusing on this topic. I was happy to have a chance to moderate a panel following Tom Sander's excellent keynote presentation on the subject. Tom is the Executive Director of the Saguaro Seminar for Civic Engagement. He got everyone up to speed on some of the basic social capital definitions and trends, then focused on implications for funders. Tom also previewed some disturbing new data suggesting a widening "opportunty gap" among social classes in America. (This live blog of a recent talk by Robert Putnam provides more information on this research.) After hearing Tom's talk, we were all ready to think about ways we might build social capital and address the problems he framed.

We had a great lineup of panelists who had diverse experience upon which to draw. It was comprised of Pat Brandes, Executive Director of the Barr Foundation; Derek Lumpkins, Executive Director of Discover Roxbury; Bill Traynor, Strategic Advisor, Lawrence CommunityWorks; and Mayor Lisa Wong of Fitchburg. One could easily write a substantial paper on the great insights shared; but I'm going to boil it down to nine practical tips that we can glean from the discussion. Some are more geared to funders, but I think there are good lessons for all of us:

1) Invest the time needed to build relationships: Social capital is, of course, about building relationships. Thus, we need to invest the time needed to nurture relationships, particularly when we are talking about bridging differences. Pat Brandes referenced research suggesting that it requires the equivalent of approximately two weeks of 24/7 contact to create bridging relationships. This concept is built into the design of the Barr Fellows program, well-described in a recent Stanford Social Innovation Review article. As noted in the comment below, it's just a matter of spending a certain amount of time; adding a disruptive element has been key to the Barr Fellows experience.

2) Invite people into your kitchen: As Bill Traynor put it, "Opening up your kitchen to neighbors is the revolutionary act of the 21st century." Moving outside of the organizational sphere, and encouraging informal sharing among neighbors, is key for building relationships that last. Not to mention countering the downward trend in people having neighbors over for dinner!

3) Integrate social capital into your practice: Social capital doesn't need to be a stand-alone program; there are plenty of opportunities to build it into things you are already doing it. Find ways to integrate relationship building into your meetings, For instance, we typically start meetings with people doing an intro that includes a bit more personal sharing than the simple name and organization.

4) Leverage the power of the arts: Derek Lumpkins shared examples of the many ways Discover Roxbury uses the arts as a way to foster people's ties to each other and their community. This definitely resonated with me, as art and cultural projects have been a significant part of the mix here at SCI. In particular, events that encourage sharing and learning about different cultural traditions, such as our recent WorldFest, can foster bridging ties.

5) Start with a conversation: Mayor Wong talked about how her successful first campaign for Mayor of Fitchburg was built upon many conversations about "Legos and tattoos". In other words, she needed to listen to what was on people's minds as she visited with them in their homes. In the process, she was able to get insights about their interests and build trust.

6) Measure: Pat Brandes urged her colleagues not to shy away from trying to measure social capital just because it may seem hard to quantify. The Barr Foundation has certainly found ways to do so, including some creative use of social network analysis to determine how relationships were being built and documenting some of the new collaborations that emerged from the network.

7) Take a systemic approach: As someone said during the discussion, for funders and others to focus on social capital, we must move from an organizational to a system focus. Most funders think of their investments in a series of individual grants to an organization. To enhance and assess a social capital focus requires looking systematically at the web of relationships among organizations (grantees and others) in a community. From that perspective, we can consider how to nurture ties among organizations and foster meaningul collaboration on key issues. 

8) Create opportunities for mutual support: Bill Traynor shared a practice Lawrence CommunityWorks uses whereby about 20 minutes of a resident member meeting is devoted to sharing of needs and resources. For instance, someone might say," I drive to the grocery store every Friday if anyone needs a ride." Encouraging people to help each other is very empowering, and can help reduce the extent to which relationships aren't dependent on the organizing group.

9) Consider your options: Tom Sander wrapped up his presentation with some suggestions on how funders can best encourage social capital development through their grantmaking. He suggested funders might either integrate social capital into their other grantmaking or have special social capital funding streams as some community foundations have done. They also can support and share social capital building tools and help with measurement.

Want more than nine ways to put social capital into action? Check out 150 things you can do to build social capital from Better Together, and 8 Community Building Lessons from the Farm. And of course, keep reading this blog and following @socialcap on Twitter!


It's time plus DISRUPTION

Thanks for this great summary. Adding to your first point from our learnings from the Barr Fellowship that was just featured in SSIR. Time is key, sure, but so is how that time is spent. Two weeks 24/7 of cocktail parties or world cafes or zip lines and trust falls or whatever will only build social capital that runs so deep. To really forge bonds of trust and respect, the Barr Fellowship invests in disruptive experiences that get participants together and truly AWAY from their day to day - both for facilited overnight retreats and for week or longer learning journeys to places like Haiti. More here - http://www.barrfoundation.org/fellows.

time plus DISRUPTION

Good additional point about how that time is spent! Will update the post to reflect that.