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Strengthening Human Services through Social Capital

The Office of the Assistant Secretary for 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 partnered together on the project, which seeks to understand how local, state, faith-based, and nonprofit human services programs and organizations can create and use social capital to increase employment, reduce poverty, and improve child and family wellbeing.

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What is social capital?

Social capital refers to connections, networks, or relationships among people and the value that arises from them and can be accessed or mobilized to help individuals succeed in life. It produces information, emotional or financial support, and/or other resources.

This project uses expert consultations, a program scan, and case studies to better understand how human services organizations help participants build and leverage social capital to improve economic opportunity.

The ncIMPACT Initiative, along with our partners, set out to answer the following specific questions for this project:

  1. How do organizations, including faith-based, non-profit, and public agencies, in low-income communities currently build and leverage social capital to reduce poverty, increase employment, and improve child and family well-being?
  2. How can human services programs and HHS policies better build and leverage social capital?

The partnership aims to answer these questions through a variety of methodologies:

  1. Expert consultations – We are consulting with 13 experts, including researchers, practitioners, and state and federal policymakers at every stage in the project.
  2. Program Scan – We will be conducting a scan of human services programs using social capital and findings from about 30 strong program examples.
  3. Case Studies – We’ll do a deeper dive to understand how some of the programs are helping program participants create or use social capital.
  4. Identification of Emerging Practices – We’ll use project learnings to identify emerging practices that other human services and faith-based agencies could use to help program participants build or leverage social capital.
  5. Site Visits – We’ll visit some reentry programs to understand how they use social capital to strengthen their programming and improve participant outcomes.


  • Case Studies – Below are a series of case studies about human services programs that are helping participants build and use social capital in diverse ways. They cover a range of human services domains and have different emphases on bonding, bridging, and linking social capital. These case studies were selected for their focus on incorporating strategies to help participants build and use social capital, and not for other aspects of their programming.
    • Family Independence Initiative – Detroit (PDF) partners with families to form small cohorts that meet regularly to hold each other accountable toward achieving their goals by leveraging their existing social capital, tracking progress through technology, and using small grants from the program;
    • CAP Tulsa (PDF) uses a two-generation approach that intentionally creates opportunities for families to build and use social capital by using a peer-to-peer cohort model that encourages families to connect with each other and develop a peer support network;
    • Roca, Inc. (PDF) “relentlessly” engages high-risk young people in Maryland and Massachusetts to help them tap into new, positive social networks, including with employers in the community;
    • Teen Challenge Arizona (PDF) offers faith-based residential drug and alcohol recovery centers that foster relationships with others going through similar experiences to build and leverage participants’ social capital; and
    • Connections to Success (PDF) helps individuals in the St. Louis and Kansas City, MO regions build lasting social capital ties with their peers and others in the community through the use of one-on-one mentoring and professional development classes to support employment and other goals.


  • FREE PODCAST SERIES: Networks that Work, a podcast about the networks and relationships that make up social capital. So, what is social capital? It’s the relationships, connections and networks you have with other people and the value you get from them that you can use to help you succeed in life. Your connections are a source of information, emotional support and even financial support. Throughout Networks that Work, you’ll hear meaningful conversations with health and human service experts discuss how to better help participants in human service programs create and access social capital in order to improve their lives and program outcomes. Podcasts are hosted by Anita Brown Graham, Director of the ncIMPACT Initiative, a data-driven policy initiative at The University of North Carolina Chapel. ncIMPACT has partnered with RTI International and the Office of the Assistant Secretary for Planning and Evaluation at the US Department of Health and Human Services (or HHS) for this series. Tune in and listen as we go on this journey of learning more about what practitioners find has and hasn’t worked to help their program participants build and use relationships to improve their situations. We invite you to join and connect with us. Like and subscribe to Networks that Work and follow us @ncImpactsog on Twitter.
  • FREE CURS PODCAST focuses on the value of social capital during the pandemic. 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. The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill’s Center for Urban Studies gathered a collection of viewpoints they hope will elevate the visibility of creative state and local solutions to the underlying equity and resilience challenges that COVID-19 is highlighting and exacerbating. To do this they asked experts at UNC to discuss effective and equitable responses to the pandemic on subjects ranging from low-wage hospitality work, retooling manufacturing processes, supply chain complications, housing, transportation, the environment, and food security, among others. Anita Brown-Graham is a professor of public law and government at the UNC School of Government and director of the ncIMPACT project. She’s been working for the past year with a team at the UNC School of Government, RTI International and the Office of the Assistant Secretary to Planning and Evaluation at the United States Department of Health and Human Services, to identify ways to strengthen human services through social capital.


  • If you work with individuals returning to their communities from incarceration, you know the relationships you develop with participants – and those you help participants develop outside of your organization – matter.
  • Many programs recognize the power of “social capital” – or the value that arises from relationships – in achieving program outcomes. However, it can be hard to develop strategies to increase participant connections and track how they contribute to program outcomes. This virtual training series for managers of programs working with individuals with criminal records:
    • Provides an overview of social capital and describe why it can be so valuable to increase the social capital of individuals with criminal records;
    • Offers concrete examples of ways programs across the country are working to develop and foster relationships for this population and the outcomes they are seeing as a result; and
    • Explores ways and considerations for measuring social capital and relationships in programs.
  • Find more, including full recordings of all four webinars here.

HANDBOOK: The Value of Relationships – Improving Human Services Participant Outcomes Through Social Capital

This handbook is a go-to resource for human services providers looking for practical ways to implement social capital building practices to improve participant outcomes. Building on findings from over a year of research on ways human services can build and leverage participant social capital, or the value that arises from connections, networks, and relationships, this handbook details five principles undergirding social capital practices and eight emerging social capital practices. Included in the description of each emerging practice are real world examples of how they have been implemented across the country and a worksheet to help human services providers think about how they can implement these practices in their own work. Editable versions of these worksheets are available. The emerging principles and practices identified are:

Emerging Social Capital Principles

  1. People at the Center
  2. Relationships as Assets
  3. Staff and Participants as Partners
  4. Cultural Competence
  5. Emotional Intelligence

Emerging Social Capital Practices

  1. Use Peer Groups to Engage Participants: Peer group or cohort approaches can help participants share experiences, build stronger networks, and develop more personal relationships.
  2. Help Participants Build Quality and Meaningful Relationships: Human services providers can build meaningful connections with participants through time or intensity of interactions.
  3. Tap into Organizational Social Capital to Increase Participant Social Capital: Organizations also have social capital which can be accessed to create and build connections for participants.
  4. Use Technology to Build Participant Relationships: Technology can be used as a tool to enhance communication and help build community among participants.
  5. Use Data and Logic Models for Social Capital Decision Making and Evaluation: Data and logic models can be helpful to understand how social capital building activities support participant outcomes.
  6. Create Space and Opportunities that Foster Organic Connections: Organic connections are often the most meaningful and organizations can foster these relationships through creating environments and times for them to develop.
  7. Include Qualified Individuals or Alumni in Programming and Staffing: Hiring individuals with similar experiences to participants can help participants develop trusting relationships with staff.
  8. Emphasize Accountability: Social capital grows when individuals hold each other accountable and organizations can promote this through written or verbal agreements.

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