How one foundation is investing in connectivity and measuring progress with the Impact Genome Project
Think… “Who can you rely on in a pinch? Who is that person you can call? Who comes to you for assistance, or for help, or for advice?” This is where Dennis Duquette, president of the MassMutual Foundation, grounds his own understanding of social capital. It’s the reciprocal value you get out of the relationships in your life – a neighbor watching your child, a friend picking up groceries for you, or a friend of a friend connecting you to a job opportunity.
Social Capital describes the extent to which people are connected to each other and their communities, and the resources they get from these relationships that help them meet their needs, achieve their goals, and navigate systems and institutions in our society.
And while ‘social capital’ might seem like a new term, it was popular in the late 1990s because of Robert Putnam’s book “Bowling Alone.” Social capital is now making a resurgence as we think more comprehensively about all the factors that contribute to a person’s, a family’s, and a community’s well-being.
Why should philanthropy care?
Social capital is a critical lever in economic mobility, yet millions of Americans feel like they don’t have the personal, professional, or community connections they need. In early 2021, the Impact Genome Project, with support from the MassMutual Foundation, conducted a survey with AP-NORC to examine the state of social capital in America. We found that 18% of U.S. adults say they have just one person or no one they can trust for help in their personal lives. And 28% say they have just one person or no one they can trust to help in professional aspects of their life. These percentages increase for Latinx and Black adults. Social capital has also declined for many since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic.
Recognizing how important social capital is for the financial well-being of communities and their residents, the MassMutual Foundation’s Live Mutual Project actively seeks out opportunities to build community interconnectivity. “It all comes back to social capital,” says Duquette. “I just think it’s foundational to so much of what we need to do as a country to help some of these communities.” He urges others in and outside of the financial sector to consider how a focus on social capital might further their own work as well: “I would encourage other funders to think about social capital and what it could do to accelerate and amplify your efforts in whatever it is you’re doing…look at the level of connectivity that exists in your community.”
This framing of social capital as a funding stream in its own right is somewhat novel. While most of us could pull an example of social capital from our own lives, it is rarely measured in social programs. This makes it difficult to see the returns on investment, track progress, and understand how we can improve social capital programs to see lasting change.
To tackle this challenge, the MassMutual Foundation partnered with the Impact Genome Project to identify measurable aspects of social capital. The IGP worked with expert advisors and nonprofit programs to standardize four individual-level social capital outcomes that boil down to these questions:
- Do participants have people they can rely on for help? (Access to Trustworthy Personal / Professional Networks)
- Have participants been able to leverage their relationships to meet their goals? (Use of Personal / Professional Networks)
- Have participants gained the confidence to navigate the resources and supports they need? (Navigation of Institutions)
- Have people had opportunities to engage in their community? (Civic Engagement)
Many social capital programs focus their energy on the ‘who you know’ aspect, or ‘Access to Trustworthy Personal / Professional Networks,’ working to expand the number of contacts that people feel they can turn to. But it is also critical to build the skills necessary to leverage those relationships – ‘Use of Personal / Professional Networks.’ How can you activate your network to get what you need and meet your goals?
Related to network building (‘Access’) and activation (‘Use’) is the social capital concept of ‘Navigation of Institutions.’ When initially building the social capital outcomes, we encountered research focused on how programs and interventions can build people’s trust in different institutions (health, law enforcement, etc.). However, some of our partners noted that this assumes that all institutions (and the people working for them) are worthy of trust. Acknowledging this, the ‘Navigation’ outcome focuses on direct service programs helping people with what is in their control – building relationships that increase their confidence and knowledge so that they can better navigate systems and get the supports they need. While this doesn’t remove systemic barriers, this type of social capital can help people figure out how to interact with current systems to get what they need now.
Broader engagement in communities is also critical for connectivity. ‘Civic / Community Engagement’ is a very common concept – picking up trash in a local park, serving meals, volunteering at a retirement home, etc. – but it’s an important piece of the social capital puzzle. The more someone is engaged with their community, the more likely they are to know about resources for themselves and their families, as well as help others navigate those supports.
A key idea here is that social capital is not something you have or don’t have, but something that can be built and activated. And while ‘who you know’ is important, we can’t focus efforts solely on growing people’s networks – all four aspects of social capital are critical to well-being.
What’s does investing in social capital look like?
The Live Mutual Project is working to make impacts across these outcomes – access, activation, navigation, and community engagement. In their work with two communities, Springfield, MA and Frayser, TN, they’ve realized how critical these connections are not only for individual and family financial well-being, but to help communities thrive. For example, the MassMutual Foundation provided a grant to the Springfield Public School System in support of City Connects, a national program focused on supporting students and their families more holistically by addressing out-of-school challenges that affect student success, including connecting them to the school community and other resources. Similarly, the MassMutual Foundation provided a grant to Boston Medical Center (BMC) in support of their health equity efforts. BMC recognized the power of bringing services into the same space and providing the support to navigate these services, going well beyond traditional healthcare.
While these examples highlight how the MassMutual Foundation and its community partners have moved beyond talking about the importance of social capital to actively figuring out how they can influence it, Duquette also acknowledges that we can’t tackle this one program or one funder at a time:
“It’s a huge problem and it’s so vast that we can’t do it on our own…we truly believe that engaging others is the way we bring scale to this approach, to concepts like social capital, the value of social capital, and the ultimate programs that emanate out of that.”
Social capital doesn’t have to be an ethereal concept; we can define it as a set of concrete outcomes and program strategies that nonprofit programs can measure with the support of funders. Equipped with standardized outcomes and program strategies, organizations can now report on the progress they’re making on social capital. Funders, like the MassMutual Foundation, can tangibly grasp the impact of their investments. Together we can expose critical equity gaps, highlight bright spots, find what works, and make meaningful change together.
If you’re interested in leveraging the Impact Genome Project to better understand your impact or to be part of the collective driving towards outcome-driven, sustainable change, reach out to Heather King, VP of Evidence and Implementation at: firstname.lastname@example.org.
For additional background information, see the Social Capital White Paper, published June 2021