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Investment spurs civic enterprise

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By Todd Cohen

WINSTON-SALEM, N.C. — Habitat for Humanity of Forsyth County has expanded beyond working with volunteers to build affordable houses.

Now, thanks to support from a five-year-old fund at the Winston-Salem Foundation, Habitat also works to connect people and help them form networks to strengthen the community.

So after their members volunteer to build houses, for example, some religious congregations take part in “pulpit exchanges,” with their pastors speaking to one another’s congregations.

The change at Habitat for Humanity illustrates the impact of the ECHO fund the foundation launched five years ago, says Scott Wierman, the foundation’s president.

Following up on a pledge it had made a year earlier, the foundation in 2000 said it would invest $2.5 million over five years to strengthen “social capital,” or civic connections in the community.

Since then, the foundation’s Everyone Can Help Out program, or ECHO, has made 71 grants totaling nearly $2.1 million.

A soon-to-be-released study by Wake Forest University School of Medicine will show those grants have helped “move the needle” in raising awareness of social capital and its benefits, as well as supporting specific efforts to build civic ties, says Wierman.

But the grants also have spawned additional social-capital ventures like the expanded focus at Habitat for Humanity, he says.

And while the ECHO grants program is ending, he says, the foundation’s commitment to social capital will continue.

Thanks to gifts earmarked for ECHO projects, the foundation will make another $600,000 or more in ECHO grants.

It also will continue to make social-capital investments.

And it is investing in a new survey to follow up a Harvard-led national effort in 2000 that assessed social capital in 40 communities, including Winston-Salem.

While Winston-Salem scored high in the first survey on charitable giving and faith-based involvement, it fell short of expectations on social-capital indicators such as social trust, interracial trust, inclusive leadership, widespread volunteerism and informal socializing.

The new survey will look at changes in social capital over the past five years in eight communities that may include Greensboro.

The survey will include phone interviews with at least 500 residents in each community, plus a national phone interview, says Doug Easterling, associate professor in the department of public health sciences at Wake Forest University School of Medicine who will advise the Winston-Salem Foundation on the survey.

Participating communities will be able to see how their civic connectedness has changed, and compare it to other communities and to national trends, says Easterling, who also has been principal investigator for an ongoing evaluation of the ECHO initiative.

Harvard’s Saguaro Seminar, which is headed by Robert Putnam and oversaw the 2000 study, will handle the new survey.

The ECHO initiative also has spawned a leadership summit, an ECHO Council that carries on continuing social-capital efforts, and eight conversation groups that focus on a range of social-capital issues.

And it has led to plans for a new volunteer center, and could prompt creation of a new charitable hub, likely to be announced in 2006, that might house groups like the Winston-Salem Foundation, the volunteer center, public gathering places and efforts to provide leadership training.

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