5 Ways Nonprofits Can Build Social Capital...and Boost the Economy!

Last year's National Conference on Citizenship (NCoC) report highlighted the link between civic health and lower unemployment figures. This was certainly exciting news for an organization dedicated to increasing social capital and civic engagement. Now, the new NCoC report, Civic Health and Unemployment II: The Case Builds, released this week in conjunction with today's NCoC conference reaffirms the civic engagement and jobs link, and digs deeper into the dynamics that explain the relationship. The report highlights two aspects of civic health that seem to be particularly important for building community resilience during this difficult economic time: 1) social cohesion, the extent to which citizens trust one another and have a local network of friends, and 2) nonprofit density, that is, the presence of a thriving nonprofit sector.

The number of nonprofits per capita was the basic metric the study considered to determine nonprofit density. The report also showed that the type of nonprofit matters for mitigating unemployment. The categories of nonprofits that had the most predictive power related to unemployment were those that provide direct benefit to members and, in various ways, actively engage the group members in decision making and that foster peer to peer relations. In a word, nonprofits that build social capital as a key part of their work make a difference on unemployment. The report cites examples such as veterans groups and recreational associations that foster participation as a core part of what they do.

While some nonprofit types may build social capital naturally as part of how they do business, we at SCI believe that any nonprofit can incorporate practices into their work to build social capital and thus contribute to a better economic climate. We focus on training emerging leaders to become "Social Capitalists" who connect and engage others. Based on our experience, we offer the following tips for nonprofits interested in doing more to build social capital. These tips apply especially to nonprofits that have a paid staff and an office or perhaps a building; in other words, somewhat larger nonprofits that might have capacity to nurture grassroots connections in the community.

1) Engage, don't just serve: Of course, nonprofits must provide crucial services to meet the immediate needs of community members. But if we can shift to viewing those served as asset rich participants and finding ways to engage them in helping themselves and others, we can generate more social capital. For instance, a job training program could provide participants an opportunity to practice skills they are learning as volunteers.

2) Create opportunities for mutual support: At an AGM panel I blogged about earlier, 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. 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.

3) Nurture networks among residents & businesses: This year's NCoC study shows clearly the important link between social cohesion in protecting against unemployment. Nonprofits can build simple things into our practice, like spending time with introductions, get acquainted activities and other relationship building processes. Furthermore, the study points to the importance of those in position to invest in local jobs being connected to and trusting local people; another good reason to engage with local businesses beyond asking for resources. Bring local business leaders into the work of your organization, and find ways for them to meaningfully connect with your constituents. For example, ask business leaders to talk to your youth about careers in their line of work, or give a workshop providing tips to job seekers.

4) Support associations & grassroots groups: Groups that operate without any or very limited staff, relying on volunteer leadership, are particularly rich sources of social capital. Yet such groups can run into practical constraints on their success, which larger nonprofits can help address. Some ways larger nonprofits can be allies for the grassroots: offer meeting space and facilities like a gym or pool; serve as a fiscal agent for neighborhood groups; or provide leadership training. When we were starting to work in the city of Lynn some years ago, residents in one neighborhood were keen to create an initiative to improve their urban environment. We provided the group with some technical assistance, a mini-grant, and a place to store their supplies between projects.

5) Share the good news: Social trust and positive community perceptions were key factors in explaining positive outcomes the NCoC study as well as the earlier Knight Foundation Soul of the Community work. In addition to the relationship building tips above, nonprofits can help highlight the positive stories of the community's people and places. At SCI we've found people in urban neighborhoods, often negatively portrayed in "mainstream" media, are hunger to see more of the positive stories of their neighborhood. So we have simple features on our community websites & e-newsletters like the MyDorchester photo of the week contest and a local business of the month recognition.

Those are some quick tips that came to mind in reading the NCoC report. We look forward to hearing more ideas during the conference today--we will be tuning into the livestream and Twitter conversation via hashtag #NCoC--and in the months ahead. We would love to hear your ideas!