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Social capital gains in Triad

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By Todd Cohen

WINSTON-SALEM, N.C. — After a national survey in 2000 found lower rates of volunteerism in Forsyth County, lower levels of informal socializing there and in Greensboro, and a lower degree of social trust in the region, compared to the U.S. overall, community foundations in both locales stepped up efforts to engage more people in civic life.

The efforts may have helped: A new survey shows increases in the rates of volunteerism and informal socializing in both communities, which now score higher in many categories of civic participation than the U.S. overall.

The new survey suggests that civic connectedness, or “social capital,” is stronger in both communities based on some metrics, and weaker in other categories, community foundation leaders say.

Rates of giving and volunteering grew in both communities, compared to rates found by the 2000 survey, the new survey says, while the level of social trust and of some types of political engagement fell in Greensboro and remained flat in Forsyth County.

The level of social trust in both communities trailed that of the U.S. overall.

“We’re pleased to see some positive improvement,” says Scott Wierman, president of the Winston-Salem Foundation, a sponsor of both surveys, which were overseen by the Saguaro Group headed by Robert Putnam of Harvard University. “However, we’re quick to point out we’ve got a long way to go and a lot of work yet to be done.”

Walker Sanders, president of the Community Foundation of Greater Greensboro, says that while the higher rates of giving and volunteerism represent progress, the growth in giving rates seems to have been among people who make bigger contributions.

In the new survey, conducted last year by the Saguaro Seminar at the John F. Kennedy School of Government at Harvard University, a bigger share of each community’s population than in the previous survey said they had given at least $500 to a nonprofit or given over $500 to a religious organization in the previous year.

Social capital has become an increasing focus of community foundations, roughly three-dozen of which worked with Harvard professor Robert Putnam on the initial survey, with roughly half of those participating in the follow-up survey.

Doug Easterling, an associate professor at Wake Forest University School of Medicine and a consultant on the surveys, says the rates of giving in Forsyth County and Greensboro were among the highest for all communities surveyed.

The increase in giving rates in Greensboro was particularly significant, he says, because average income in the region has stagnated.

The new survey suggests that people in Greensboro seem to be getting more involved in “localized” groups like neighborhood associations, Easterling says, but less involved in community-wide groups, particularly those involved in the political process.

Greensboro also posted declines in the level of trust that people overall have for local government, the police and one another, he says.

But Greensboro saw increases in the percentage of African Americans in Greensboro who believe most people can be trusted, and in the percentages of whites with black and Latino friends, and of blacks with white and Latino friends.

“The trend we’re seeing is that people are looking towards their own groups, and the groups are less formal,” Sanders says. “And there seems to be a decline in people participating in larger community-wide groups that tend to be more formal in their structure.”

Sanders says the foundation will hold a series of community meetings on the survey results, and will be “much more intentional about using social capital as a way of defining community leadership,” specifically to try to get more diverse groups into positions of leadership.

The foundation, for example, is working with the City of Greensboro to develop a program to encourage friendship, understanding and cooperation among people of different races and ethnicities, he says.

Wierman says the Winston-Salem Foundation, which also will host sessions on the survey, will continue to integrate the idea of social capital into its strategy and grantmaking, particularly for civic engagement, volunteerism and development of community leadership.

As research by Harvard’s Putnam has found, Wierman says, communities with higher levels of social capital typically work better.

“Citizens are healthier, economic development is strong, communities are safer, kids perform better in schools,” he says. “Investing in building social capital has some very tangible results that will impact lives and the quality of life.”

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