Providing Social Capital: Enhancing Community Presence and Civic Progress

Customer Relationship Management / December 1999

By Jeanan Yasiri

Did you vote in the last election?

When was the last time you participated in a public hearing or meeting on an issue of local importance?

Have you donated time in the past year to a cause or community-based group you deem important?

Once you've considered your answers to these questions, stop and reflect on how the other employees in your organization might answer them as well. Do those answers reflect an organization in touch with its community… or not?

Our Collective Decline of Social Capital

Individual involvement in the social and political issues affecting our communities has been on a steady decline in recent decades. Since 1973 the number of Americans who report attending a public meeting on town or school affairs has fallen by more than a third (from 23 percent in 1973 to 10 percent in 1993).

In fact, a series of Roper Organization surveys since the 1970s indicates that every year millions more Americans have withdrawn from the affairs of their communities. Ironically, the number of Americans who say they "trust the government in Washington" only "some of the time" or "almost never" has risen steadily from 30 percent in 1966 to 75 percent in 1992.

And, how about bowling? Harvard University Professor Robert Putnam suggests there is a greater likelihood that you bowl more than you vote, and this, he says, is evidence of our dramatic disengagement in community issues. The bowling parallel goes even deeper. In fact, more Americans are bowling today than ever before, but bowling in organized leagues has declined 40 percent since the mid-1980s. Putnam points to the trend as indicative of the fact that we are disengaging in once popular forms of interaction with other community members.1

The move away from community involvement means we are a population running solo and hence making fewer contributions to the issues that face our communities in the form of providing individual or organized opinion and assistance. Putnam says this disengagement as a society means we are no longer offering our "social capital". In fact, Putnam points out that in 1993 nearly 80 million Americans went bowling at least once, which represented a third more than voted in Congressional elections the following year. Some might say as a nation, we are throwing gutter balls.

How the Disengagement Affects Us All

Why care? Because there is a close correlation between social trust and civic engagement in our communities. A recent World Values Survey demonstrates that across 35 countries, the greater the density of association membership in a society, the more trusting its citizens. And, trust and engagement are two facets of the same underlying factor - social capital.

It means if organizations are to be engaged in the civic process, their employees must be aware and involved in the issues associated with the needs and the need for change in their communities.

"As an employer, you want to care about how you and your employees engage in your community because it provides a sense of permanence," says Nan Cnare, senior vice president for Community Initiatives, United Way of Dane County, WI and a member of the Board of the Morgridge Center for Service Learning located on the University of Wisconsin campus.

Cnare's position often involves helping corporations identify how they can be meaningfully involved in community issues through projects with public sector partners.

"We are seeing a significant decrease in government funding to the organizations and services that address problems and needs in our community," Cnare says. "The loss of revenue is compounded by the shortage of workers. As workers become less accessible, the need to think of new sources of workers and other resources becomes necessary for these organizations."

Getting Creative with Your Civic Contributions

More corporations are becoming community minded to the extent that they are willing to engage in charitable giving and even develop internal efforts that promote awareness of community needs. However, there is more of a need today for businesses to work with community-based organizations, public sector agencies and other groups to develop creative strategies that tackle those issues. Corporate America brings valuable assets that go well beyond financial contributions to these collaborative efforts.

"The nonprofit network is dependent on the labor and skills that come from the business world," Cnare says. "They don't always have strong skills in management and strategic planning and the assistance business partners offer is quite valuable."

One way of raising awareness and contributing to a cause is to establish a volunteer network of employees who are willing to share their expertise to the effort. Local United Way chapters or Corporate Councils can help identify an appropriate issue of local concern. These councils usually involve a group of companies whose leaders openly communicate and promote active problem solving.

"Start with a single event that involves a volunteer effort that gets people to think about engaging in their community," Cnare suggests. "That might be serving a meal or staffing a youth group or making a contact with a senior group. You don't have to make a long-term commitment at first."

Although there is not the expectation that all employees participate, the positive energy generated from these initial efforts often translates into easy recruiting tools for future projects to involve additional employees later. It's also imperative that corporate leadership become role models by not only supporting the cause but being visibly involved whenever possible.

Aside from volunteering armies of employees, targeting an issue with community partners through strategic planning sessions can also be a meaningful contribution of your organization's expertise. Perhaps a key employee or small group of representatives can be made available to an appropriate community cause or organization that is tackling an issue that requires the skills of strategic thinkers.

Coalition for Neighborhood Child Health

A case example in Dane County, WI has provided great learning opportunities for all involved. In 1992, public health agencies were documenting low usage of well-child exams and immunizations by low income families. A group of public and private health providers were encouraged to look at the issue together. Seven years later, a community-based collaborative of 20 public/private partners now hosts neighborhood-based clinics for low income families throughout the county. These "Health Check" clinics are now recognized across the community and promoted by local media as well as through targeted outreach by the Coalition for Neighborhood Child Health. The coalition continues to meet monthly, organizing the clinics and addressing other related issues that affect well-child care in Dane County, WI. Each organization provides volunteers for the efforts. Other community businesses offer food, transportation and other important resources. The result is an increase in the number of children receiving necessary physical exams and an increased understanding of how non-traditional partners can tackle a seemingly impossible issue together. The collaborative effort has enjoyed "spin off" projects in recent years targeting other health and social service issues affecting this growing population. Government agencies are considering replicating some of those projects in other parts of the state.

Recognizing Shared Needs

Another example of a successful collaborative effort involves the partnership between the EDS Corporation and the Detroit Symphony Orchestra (DSO). At the same time EDS was hoping to broaden its marketing efforts through expansion of its community involvement, the orchestra was struggling to upgrade its information systems.

What came of the recognition of shared needs was that each organization had something of great value to offer the other. Now EDS provides the orchestra with a full range of technological support, including products and training for orchestra staff. EDS employees with specific expertise in financial, marketing and development areas also provide their assistance to DSO. In return, EDS receives the market exposure it was seeking through DSO mailings, concert hall promotions and corporate presence in international tours and on the DSO board.2

Partnering Through Volunteerism

Macy's "Partners In Time" effort is a cornerstone civic awareness lesson for employees of Macy's/Federated Department Stores, according to Tom Zapf, director of consumer and government affairs.

"The program allows employees to participate in volunteer efforts that are near and dear to their hearts," Zapf says. "The program lets us get down and dirty in the communities where we work. It has helped us dramatically increase our community presence."

Zapf says sometimes his organization will partner on a particular project with a larger community organization, like the American Cancer Society, but for the most part, "Partners In Time" honors the organizations that employees choose to serve.

"None of this stuff involves a lot of money," Zapf says. "It involves effort. It involves emotion. It allows you to establish a presence (in your community) in a way that you might never have otherwise had a chance to do."

The Value of True Collaborative Efforts

The economic realities of working with more diverse populations and more challenging issues in our communities spell the need for collaborative action. Not to be discounted are the learning opportunities that come from working closely with public sector and community-based agencies. What each of the organizations brings to the table in terms of experience and expertise can easily be turned into vehicles that shape public policy. By identifying mutual interests and communicating those points to legislators, regulators and advocates, you can ensure your organization's voice is heard in conjunction with partners who also hope to mold changes that will affect the welfare of the community at large.

When engaging in collaborative efforts, it is important to recognize them as serious and sustaining obligations on the part of the partners involved. Many people throw out the term "collaboration" when they're really referring to a forum that requires far less of its membership in terms of commitment in time, intellect and other resources. In reality, collaboratives should define specific objectives and strategies to initiate change.

The essential elements of any collaborative project include the following:

1. A good cross-section of organizations that are aware of the commitment up front and are prepared to meet regularly.

2. The commitment of organization executives participating in the project. Although other representatives from your organization may work on the day-to-day process, administrative leaders must be kept apprised of developments, so they can recognize the substantial commitment and learning opportunities gained.

3. A stated mission and set of common goals that are identified early in the process and reviewed over time.

4. A structure that identifies specific roles that represent a fair division of labor and use of all members' skills.

5. Shared leadership and control among representative organizations.

6. A plan in which resources are pooled to feed the long-term goal of the group. Particularly when public/private collaborative relationships are built, the focus on resources contributed by member organizations should not be in terms of quality or quantity, but in the value each provides in helping to achieve the common goal.

Keep the Process Alive

Collaborative projects require constant attention and nuturing as well as a mindset that is open to alternative processes and viewpoints. In many cases, you are facilitating the discussion of difficult issues between parties that do not commonly sit down together and work toward solutions. Know that as you start the process.

The challenge may be even greater as competing organizations are sometimes called to the table to work on issues of civic importance. In a true collaborative relationship, all organizations must leave their logos at the door, focusing only on the common good promised by the defined agenda.

Sustaining Benefits

Identifying and collaborating on issues of community importance serves more than just the immediate civic process. "It raises a new generation of well-connected workers," Cnare says. "We know that a lot of corporate leaders have been involved in community projects. Involvement in these efforts can improve employee morale and team work skills, increase productivity and certainly improve company pride and loyalty."


  1. "Bowling Alone: America's Declining Social Capital", Journal of Democracy, Volume 4, Number 1, January 1995
  2. "How the Arts Can Prosper Through Strategic Collaborations", Harvard Business Review, January-February 1996.