Skip to main content

A Note to Human Service Programs: Three Practices for Building Social Capital During COVID-19

Written by: Anita Brown-Graham

As you read through the following social capital practices, remember there is no one-size-fits-all approach to helping participants build social capital in a human services program.  Every program has a different context and different values and goals. You, the program managers and directors, know best the population you are trying to serve. That said, here are some questions and practices that might help you.



Co-Authors: Maureen Berner, UNC SOG; Phillip Graham, RTI; Justin Landwehr, RTI; Brooklyn Mills, ncIMPACT

In the first installment of this blog series, A Note to Human Service Programs: You Can Still Build Social Connections in a Time of Social Isolation, we shared the definition of social capital. In the second, A Note to Human Service Agencies: Think About What Type of Social Capital You Most Need to Build Online, we shared insights on different types of social capital and general principles that human service programs seeking to build social capital should consider.

As you read through the following social capital practices, remember there is no one-size-fits-all approach to helping participants build social capital in a human services program.  Every program has a different context and different values and goals. You, the program managers and directors, know best the population you are trying to serve. That said, here are some questions and practices that might help you.

Following are the first three practices. [NOTE: Blog Four in this series, A Note to Human Service Programs: Three Practices for Building Social Connections in a Time of Social Isolation, covers four more practices.]

How and Where Will We Connect? – Use Peer Groups to Engage Participants

When peers work together, each person’s individual network becomes part of the joint network, ideally forming a peer-based safety net and resource web. In this time of stress and uncertainty, networks can be especially valuable, but you may not have time to build your own virtual platform. Moreover, virtual peer groups work better when using platforms that program participants already use. Facebook groups, WhatsApp, Next Door, and text message-based groups may be particularly helpful in leveraging the bonding social capital that exists among program participants. You can use “live events” on some of the platforms to replace in-person meetings that had to be canceled due to COVID-19 related restrictions on the size of gatherings. Whether “live” or not, expect in these challenging times that, in addition to your program content, participants will use the opportunity to seek needed information about resources from others. This may also be a time to see whether someone close to them is willing to barter some toilet paper in exchange for some other resource.

The long term social and economic effects of this pandemic will be significant. Now is the time to connect participants to the people and institutions that will be able to help them. Email, Twitter, and LinkedIn are useful tools for making connections to people who are needed for bridging and linking capital.

Some virtual groups include millions of people. However, virtual peer groups that are focused on building bonding capital for human services may often benefit from being small enough to allow participants to get to know each other meaningfully. A manageable size can provide opportunities to notice when someone is missing or just lurking rather than participating.  Also, virtual groups may in some cases do better when they have active facilitators who encourage participation and keep the group on task.  They generally require a strategy for capturing program participants’ attention, especially in a time such as this.

Before you launch a virtual peer group, ask yourself, “Do we have someone to get the group started? Have we determined when there will be live activities that require everyone to be online at the same time and when the activities will allow people to check in at their own convenience? If the group is closed (predetermined membership), have we decided when or whether to allow new members into the group?”

How Will This Make a Difference? – Help Participants Build Quality and Meaningful Relationships

Social capital involves building trusting connections, but trusting relationships take time and energy, whether they are in person, by phone or online. Some research suggests that trust may be hardest to build online, but it can be brokered. Your program may be well positioned to help participants know who they can trust online.

While there is no standard number of times a group might need to connect online, the interactions will generally benefit from being frequent enough for social bonds to develop. Interactions need to be meaningful to increase trust and connections. As such, this may be a good time to ask about challenges participants are facing. It can help to have participants who already have strong relationships with each other model this type of meaningful online dialogue for others.

For programs that seek to stay connected to alumni, this pandemic may provide an important opportunity to check in with them virtually or by phone.   

Is What’s Yours Mine? – Tapping into Social Capital in Organizations to Increase Participant Social Capital

Organizations have their own social capital, which may be embodied in their positive reputation in the community or referral networks. Building and accessing organizational social capital can improve a program’s ability to focus on participants’ individual-level social capital. This is a good time for you to explore how your organization can build connections that help individual participants be a part of networks to achieve their goals, such as partnering with the local workforce board, or a childcare agency.

In the midst of this COVID-19 pandemic, human services programs have the opportunity to get on the phone or online and tap into the networks of their stakeholders, including staff, volunteers, board members, congregations, and others to identify resources. By working remotely to reach out, you will be able to identify resources, open doors, and create connections for participants. This could be a good opportunity for some targeted matchmaking.

Listen to the Podcast

The COVID-19 pandemic is causing people around the world to question how this virus will affect the many public and private systems that we all use.  Click here to hear more thoughts from a podcast about Social Capital from ncIMPACT’S director, Anita Brown-Graham, as part of a series of Viewpoints on Resilient & Equitable Responses to the Pandemic from UNC’s Center for Urban and Regional Studies.

 

The material for this blog series has been adapted from content based on: information gathered by engaging a panel of national experts for interviews and focus groups; conducting a national program scan of notable human services programs using social capital; visiting agencies in person, and writing in-depth case studies with selected programs, and augmented by research on virtual communities conducted by Anita Brown-Graham. The team responsible for that original content includes The Office of the Assistant Secretary to Planning and Evaluation at the United States Department of Health and Human Services, RTI International, and the ncIMPACT Initiative at the School of Government at UNC-Chapel Hill. All images are stock photos. This does not necessarily represent the views of the Department of Health and Human Services. Nothing in this blog series should be construed as endorsing any company or platform.

3 Responses to “A Note to Human Service Programs: Three Practices for Building Social Capital During COVID-19”

  1. A Note to Human Service Programs: You Can Still Build Social Connections in a Time of Social Isolation - Facts that Matter

    […] the third installment, A Note to Human Service Programs: Three Practices for Building Social Capital During COVID-19, we focused on three questions and corresponding […]

  2. A Note to Human Service Agencies: Think About What Type of Social Capital You Most Need to Build Online - Facts that Matter

    […] be ready to implement the strategies identified in the next two installments of this blog series, A Note to Human Service Programs: Three Practices for Building Social Capital During COVID-19, and A Note to Human Service Programs: Four More Practices for Building Social Capital During […]

  3. A Note to Human Service Programs: Four More Practices for Building Social Capital During COVID-19 - Facts that Matter

    […] the third installment, A Note to Human Service Programs: Three Practices for Building Social Capital During COVID-19, we focused on three questions and corresponding […]

Comments are closed.