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Emerging Social Capital Principles and Practices

Principles Undergirding Social Capital Approaches

According to our expert advisors, before individual practices are put in place, certain principles – referred to by those involved as ideas, convictions, or values — need to exist in programs first. They should be recognized and used by staff. All aspects of a social capital-based approach rely on these principles.

People at the Center

Many social capital programs we studied explicitly aim to center individuals or families, viewing participants as the experts, inviting them to drive the goals and services, and using staff as facilitators and supporters instead of directors. Person-centered programming is also trauma-informed, including understanding how trauma may impact participants’ engagement and rapport development. When participants are listened to, and/or given autonomy to drive the process, they may be more likely to feel cared for and respected, and trusting, reciprocal relationships may be more likely to develop among them and with program staff and volunteers.

Relationships as Assets

Programs that are successful in helping their participants leverage social capital often think of social capital as a critical asset. It has value, as important as the organization’s building or bank account. As such, program leaders seek to build, nurture, leverage, and monitor social capital that results in high levels of trust.

Staff and Participants as Partners

Some of the programs we reviewed offer participants agency to use  program’s shape and scope in ways that work for the participants. One way of doing this is to put participants and staff or volunteers on equal footing, attempting to minimize any sense of an uneven power dynamic so that participants feel empowered to set their own goals and take the lead in developing a plan to achieve them.

Cultural Competence

Programs that reflect cultural competence promote “positive and effective interactions with diverse cultures” through “a set of attitudes, perspectives, behaviors, and policies.”[i] This is often very challenging work for human services agencies, as staff and volunteers often have very different lived experiences and represent different cultures than program participants. However, it is an important value to many programs that significantly value relationships.

Emotional Intelligence

Some programs we reviewed screen for emotional intelligence in their hiring practices or provide ongoing emotional intelligence training for staff or volunteers. Emotional intelligence involves the capacity to effectively navigate emotions and use emotions to improve, rather than hinder, decision-making.[ii] It can lead to stronger bonds and trust (for example, by naming our emotions or accurately recognizing others’ feelings) and may be a particularly important quality in the staff and volunteers of social capital-building programs by helping them navigate sensitive interactions.

Emerging Practices  

By emerging practices, we mean the practices found to be promising for social capital development in health and human service organization. Below are findings synthesized from our national program scan, expert panel, case studies, site visits, and literature review. These are briefly overviewed in this section and will be further expanded in sections that follow.

Use Peer Groups:   Peer group approaches help program participants generate a shared experience, stronger networks, and more personal relationships. They also tend to foster greater accountability among program participants, leading to more encouragement and, in at least some cases, a sense from participants of increased progress toward their goals.

Engage with Participants Meaningfully: The programs we examined tend to use longer-term, meaningful engagement to build trust and stronger communities of support, providing ways for participants to build deep, positive, interpersonal relationships to improve outcomes. Relationship quality and intensity, providing reciprocal benefits, seem to be more important than a particular time period.

Build and Leverage Social Capital among Organizations: Service providers’ relationships with other organizations in the community may open doors for participants, allowing them to more easily build their own one-on-one bridging or linking connections. Organizational relationships may also reinforce organizational accountability, with administrators not wanting to damage their personal or organizational connections by not preparing their program participants well.

Use Technology: Some programs use technology as a tool to help build community among the people they serve, such as youth, or as an easy way to communicate with and support peer participants, such as facilitating parents’ coordination of childcare or rides to school. Other programs are experimenting with using technology to work with participants or enabling data and technology use by participants directly.   For example, on-line journaling about how participants have helped others and what they have received in return reinforces recognition of how they are building and using social capital — trusting and reciprocal relationships.

Use Data for Social Capital Decision-Making and Evaluation:  Most programs we spoke with are making efforts to employ stronger data practices for building social capital, no matter their starting capacity.  Organizations are also using categories  that exhibit social capital building to communicate results to funders and community members (thus potentially building organizational social capital), and some use technology and data to determine the most effective aspects of their social capital programs.

Create Space and Opportunity for Organic Connections to Happen: Programs intentionally use tools such as physical space, events, and program structure to facilitate the opportunity for organic personal connections to develop. Whether structured, formal group interactions or more informal mingling or introductory opportunities, engagement may include everyone from peers to board members, volunteers to meal delivery drivers.

Include Qualified Individuals or Alumni in Programming and Staffing: The intentional hiring of former participants and others with similar life experiences as participants may often add to the authenticity of social capital programs.  The shared history can allow participants to develop trust and rapport more easily with the staff, reinforcing the participants’ confidence in building social capital, starting in a safe environment.

Emphasize Accountability: Explicit written or verbal agreements or commitments about the nature of a programmatic relationship may offer participants and others greater clarity and accountability around what is expected from all involved and how specifically people will relate and interact with one another. Accountability must be mutual and involve the program’s commitment. For participants who have experienced repeated broken commitments in their lives, it is especially important for organizations to fulfill their side of the agreement.

[i] U.S. Department of Health and Human Services,

[ii] Mayer, J. D., Roberts, R. D., & Barsade, S. G. (2008). Human abilities: Emotional intelligence. Annual. Rev. Psychol.59, 507-536.