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The Pay-Offs of Social Capital

A recent event hosted by the National Human Services Assembly focused on the value of effective civic engagement and mobilization for non-profits. The event, “Authentic Engagement: Policy, Advocacy, & Community Mobilizing from Main Street to Capitol Hill,” featured panelists and presenters working on mobilization, activism, and civic engagement in a variety of forms: from online petitions to rallies at the Supreme Court.
For organizations with tightly restricted resources, as many non-profits often are, the return on investment for civic engagement activities can seem vague at best. Encouraging people in your community to be engaged, empowered, and passionate may intuitively feel like a good thing to do; but is it worth redirecting scarce resources toward civic engagement and mobilization activities when they could go to important direct services like housing, job skills training, food, child care, and so on?
We believe that the answer is ‘yes.’ Authentic engagement of community residents can have transformative impact on neighborhoods and cities. This is especially true in under-resourced or disadvantaged communities (read: “Measuring the Impacts of Civic Engagement”). Becoming civically engaged increases someone’s social capital and connectedness to his or her community. This in turn makes engaged residents more resilient, better-resourced, and more participatory in community change.
Service providers need a shift in thinking from one-off transactions to whole-person and whole-community impacts. Being civically engaged is not something that people do just because they think it’s a good idea. There are multiplier effects for increasing residents’ social capital. Linda Nguyen, Director of Civic Engagement at the Alliance for Children and Families and a panelist at the event, said, “Organizations can and need to shift their thinking from viewing people they serve as ‘clients’ to ‘community leaders.’  Only then can we even begin to think about truly achieving mission. Service providers are often trusted places of mutual benefit and community. We should harness that trust to collectively address the root causes of social ills and injustice.”
In cities and neighborhoods all over the country, there are places where someone can go if they have trouble with food security, or education needs, or housing, etc. But there’s no brick-and-mortar place where someone can go to increase their social capital. Authentic engagement achieves this, and all of the other incipient benefits that come to an individual, a family, a community, and (ultimately) a democracy.

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Blog | by Dr. Radut