COVID-19 updates and resources, learn more here

More than Money: Building Community Wealth with Social Capital


July 08, 2021

By Sarah Hultine Massengale, Community Engagement Specialist in Community Economic Development, University of Missouri Extension in Dent County

The holidays aren’t yet on the horizon, but let’s talk a minute about the tale of Ebenezer Scrooge: If we only consider his finances, he was successful, right? He ran a strong business, made lots of money and employed lots of people. But we know there was more to the story.

His employees were struggling, and his community needed help. He was isolated, unhappy and had lost relationships because of his obsession with money. The ghosts of Christmas showed him success and well-being is defined by more than money.

In community work, we encourage a broader evaluation of resources, too. We encourage communities to think about wealth using eight “community capitals,” defined as resources in a place that may not have financial value but contribute to the social and economic well-being of residents.

We want our communities to have things like safe sidewalks and a fire station (built capital); parks and open space to play (natural capital); good leaders and opportunities for our voice to be heard (political capital); libraries, job training and good schools (human and intellectual capital); festivals, art parties and annual pancake days (cultural capital); and places to go to church, volunteer or join a club (social capital). These community capitals, plus traditional financial capital, can be important assets to value and leverage and grow through community development efforts.

One of the most important “capitals” to develop is social capital, or “reciprocity, trust, leadership and group membership and networks” (Flora et al, 1993). There are two types of social capital: bonding and bridging capital. Bonding is the close personal relationships and networks, such as family, friends and neighbors, and community groups inside a community. Bridging capital is relationships built between groups of different interests, distant communities, or other diverse groups or individuals. We need both kinds of social capital to be resilient and supported as individuals and as communities. It’s essential for community development, and here’s why:

It helps our communities be more economically viable

In a 1998 study of community leaders in two rural communities, researchers found that the community with stronger social networks and a history of leaders working together had a stronger local economy than the community with limited social capital. Trusting relationships between local businesses, organizations and leaders can create partnerships for new investment and leverage local resources. Communities with bridging relationships outside their own community can connect to additional resources and opportunities. 

It helps us access new opportunities and resources

Building social capital takes work to create trust, share leadership and continually support relationship development. Social capital itself gives our communities the volunteer time, shared resources, cooperation and sense of responsibility that can benefit us all, even if we can’t participate in every social network. Activities like the garden club’s spring flower planting in downtown, the food pantry, church picnics and the chamber of commerce annual parades all rely on strong social capital to provide a wide range of things we need for safe, health and vibrant community well-being.

It helps us stay healthy

Investing in social capital – through actions like mentoring, joining a community walking group or getting to know your neighbor – can improve individual mental and physical health. Robert Putnam argued that “… happiness is best predicted by the breadth and depth of one’s social connections” (Putman, Bowling Alone, 2000, page 32).

It takes ongoing investment of time and trust to create and maintain strong social capital. University of Missouri Extension can be a local resource to find tips and opportunities for building social capital in communities. The new program “Becoming an Engaged Neighbor” offers easy first steps and a free monthly Neighboring 101 virtual network to give ideas for improving social networks in your neighborhood and community.

Programs like Master Gardener or 4H offer opportunities to volunteer around interest areas and serve the community. MU Extension also supports the development of social capital by facilitating leadership trainings that build networks of leaders locally and around the state and serves as a bridge to the extended resources of the University of Missouri System. There’s an MU Extension specialist in every county of the state, and we look forward to continuing to build strong relationships with partners throughout Missouri communities.

To learn more or contact a local specialist, visit www.extension.missouri.edu.