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Triad funders team up – Effort aims to boost civic work

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By Todd Cohen

In an ambitious and unusual collaboration, the Greensboro and Winston-Salem community foundations are teaming up to get residents more involved in fixing the region’s social problems.

The Community Foundation of Greater Greensboro and the Winston-Salem Foundation are among 33 community foundations throughout the United States that are launching an initiative to build local “social capital.”

Social capital refers to informal networks, such as neighborhood groups or recreational leagues, that connect people in a community.

The 33 foundations have hired Harvard professor Robert Putnam to measure their communities’ social capital. The goal is to better understand each community’s social links and make it easier for people to take part in civic life.

The national project, which includes the Foundation for the Carolinas in Charlotte, also aims to establish national standards that individual communities can use to compare their local social networks’ strengths and weaknesses to those of other communities.

Putnam’s Saguaro Seminar at Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government will conduct phone interviews with 500 people each in the Greensboro area and in Winston-Salem.

Each survey, to be conducted this summer and released this fall, aims to identify and increase residents’ level of involvement in civic life.

Scott Wierman, president of the Winston-Salem Foundation, says he hopes the survey will help people – as individuals and in groups – become more involved in meeting the region’s needs.

Based on the work of Putnam – whose essay, “Bowling Alone,” called attention to Americans’ increasing isolation – the foundation also has launched a, five-year grant initiative of at least $2.5 million designed to boost civic participation.

Grants will be made to nonprofit groups or to informal associations of people who are committed to undertaking programs or projects to increase the Winston-Salem’s social capital.

April 3 is the deadline for submitting applications for the first round of grants. Send applications to the foundation at 860 West Fifth St., Winston-Salem, N.C. 27101-2506.

An academic partner will help both foundations prepare for Putnam’s survey – and will evaluate the impact of Winston-Salem Foundation’s new grant initiative.

H. Walker Sanders, president of the Community Foundation of Greater Greensboro, says the social-capital project is driven by the idea that “to effect change, people need to be engaged in the process, and they need to be engaged in the process from the start.”

Roughly a dozen Greensboro organizations will help underwrite the $25,000 cost of the foundation’s benchmarking study. They include The Joseph M. Bryan Foundation, Moses Cone-Wesley Long Community Health Foundation, Tannenbaum-Sternberger Foundation, Weaver Foundation and The News & Record.

The Winston-Salem Foundation will pick up the total cost of its study.

Putnam will be the featured speaker May 4 at the annual meeting of the Winston-Salem Foundation, which will take the form of a community picnic that starts at noon at the Benton Center.

Putnam also will speak Nov. 9 at the annual dinner of the Community Foundation of Greater Greensboro.

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