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The Lab-Social Capital: What’s Leadership Got To Do With It?

Janice Epstein

Over the 100 plus years of its use, the term social capital has acquired different meanings depending on the context of its usage-economics, politics, sociology. At the risk of oversimplifying the concept, I like Wikipedia’s succinct definition of social capital: “the advantages available to a person or group of people through their position in a network of relationships.” Impact Brokers (IB) is very interested in the social capital of both its members and its members’ constituents.

A growing body of research suggests that IB member organizations’ marginalized clients could benefit from the advantages of improved social capital. For example, Brookview House works with people dealing with homelessness for whom Robert Rosenheck et al. said that housing outcomes are improved when service delivery systems are designed with social capital in mind. In Social Capital and the Educational Performance of Latino and Non-Latino Youth, Elias Lopez reports that social capital is very important in determining educational outcomes of the youth LASI serves. Research is also showing that organized youth programs (like Youth Enrichment Services) can be a reliable way to increase social capital for youth.

But, what about the organizations themselves? If their clients need assistance building social capital as a service, then doesn’t it stand to reason that these organizations need to know something about developing social capital for themselves? And, that maybe those who are practiced in identifying it, building it and utilizing it for their own benefit are in a better position to facilitate it for others?

Research has already found this to be true for the poor. In Neighborhood Institutions as Resource Brokers: Childcare Centers, Inter-organizational Ties, and Resource Access among the Poor, Mario Small reports “findings suggest that resource access among the poor should be understood as an organizationally embedded process, and that true disadvantage may result not merely from living in poor neighborhoods, but from not participating in well-connected neighborhood institutions.” (1) This statement begs the question, what disadvantage could be alleviated by having well-connected neighborhood institutions available?

This research also suggests that the improved social capital of an organization benefits the people the organization is designed to serve. But what benefits could an organization achieve by improving its own social capital? In Social Capital and Nonprofit Leaders Nancy King describes social capital as integral to a laundry list of organizational effectiveness objectives. “Nonprofits and their leaders must foster social capital in order to recruit and develop board members, raise philanthropic support, develop strategic partnerships, engage in advocacy, enhance community relations, and create a shared strategic vision and mission within the organization and its employees. Nonprofit executives have a pivotal role in carrying out these functions, but they do so through relationships and networks with others”. (2)

Given the enormity of responsibility non profit leaders take on these days, its easy to see how maintaining the relationships that build the best social capital can be put on the back burner. But consider this statement by King: “Because of its ability to leverage social capital, the [organization] operates from a framework of choice, not crisis, from abundance, not scarcity, and from furthering the mission, not preserving it.” (3) This makes investing in social capital a real stitch in time, saves nine idea.

Questions to ponder:

  • Can developing the social capital of an organization’s constituents be separated from development of that of the organization or do they go hand in hand?
  • With competing demands on non profit leaders’ time, how can they keep their eye on the social capital ball? Do you have advice? A personal story?

1. Small, Mario L. “Neighborhood Institutions as Resource Brokers: Childcare Centers, Inter-Organizational Ties, and Resource Access among the Poor.” Social Problems. 53(2): 274-92.
2. King, Nancy K. “Social Capital and Nonprofit Leaders.” Nonprofit Management & Leadership. 14(4): 471-486.
3. King, Nancy. "How Nonprofit Organizations Develop and Leverage Social Capital"

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