Category Archives: NPR

City-wide social capital building efforts [UPDATED 3/2/12]

Connector Project

People frequently ask me of examples of city-wide efforts to build social capital.  The are several examples in Better Together of Tupelo, MS and what Portland did with city boundaries. Beyond this, Seattle had an interesting program called the Seattle Department of Neighborhoods’ Neighborhood Matching Fund (that provided mini-grants for neighborhood improvement efforts where residents provided matching sweat equity), Minneapolis’ Neighborhood Revitalization Program (where city power was devolved to local neighborhoods to set priorities), and the interesting Front Porch Alliance under Indianapolis Mayor Steve Goldsmith (which has not been as vigorously advocated in subsequent administrations).

NYC Service

I’m aware of several more contemporary examples:  NYC Service (and the Cities of Service effort to replicate this), Philadelphia’s Connector Program, and Social Capital, Inc.

NYC Service

Inspired by President Obama’s call for a new era of service, Mayor Bloomberg in his January 2009 State of the City address announced that New York City would lead the way in responding.

After consulting with volunteer groups that worked in the arts, with students, and with seniors to learn what was most needed, they launched NYC Service with Diahann Billings-Burford as their inaugural Chief Service Officer.  NYC Service would enable NYC  to do more with less (since economic times were tight) and help harness volunteers in “impact service”.

NYC Service, in its several years, has achieved impressive results.  They have used citizens to vaccinate over half a million individuals against H1N1; engaged over 400,000 students in school-based volunteering; trained over 10,000 people in CPR who then trained additional New Yorkers; and coated two million square feet of rooftop under their “Cool Roofs” program with reflective white material to lower building’s cooling costs in the summer and help alleviate global warming.

They also launched the Civic Corps, a full-time group of AmeriCorps stipended volunteers who work in the Mayor’s Office or with city non-profits to help those non-profits mobilize volunteers.  The Civic Corps in FY11 recruited almost three quarters of a million volunteers, raised $1 million in cash and $6 million in non-cash donations, such as professional services, clothing, food and books.

Over 2,500 volunteer opportunities have been posted to NYC Service (their volunteer clearinghouse website) and they have garnered over 600,000 unique website visitors looking for volunteer opportunities.   Between their website and the Civic Corps, NYC Service has mobilized over a million NYC volunteers.

Although NYC Service does not directly track this, one of the most important outcomes (above and beyond how many success mentors they train or how many square feet of roofs they paint white), is the social capital and civic engagement that NYC Service instills.  Studies have shown that for many governmental objectives (say keeping streets safe or increasing academic performance), a civic engagement strategy (through neighbors knowing each others’ first names or parents being more involved in their kids’ learning) is more efficacious than a top-down government-funded approach.

NYC Service is undoubtedly increasing citizens’ sense of efficacy (that they can and are making a difference on issues like the environment or school readiness or dealing with truancy).  This increased efficacy is likely to cause more New Yorkers to intervene elsewhere (e.g., when someone has fallen on a street or is having a heart attack, or when a neighbor needs assistance).

Implicitly, much of what government does is remediating for gaps in civil society.  For example, social service and safety nets step in where family and neighbors don’t.  Police are necessary where social sanction and control is insufficient to police social norms.  Paid Fire Departments are needed when all-volunteer fire departments can’t fulfill their duties.

The social capital created by NYC Service is likely to have a significant impact, way above and beyond the value of volunteer hours (which are important and sizeable in-and-of themselves).  Greater local participation down the road is likely to lead to: a) better crafted and more responsive local policies; b) better performing and less corrupt government since the civic engagement and transparency will hold government officials accountable; c) greater net ability to change citizen behavior relative to an approach that relies on mandates (which are harder to get enacted and less popular); and d) potentially less of a need for government down the road, if engaged citizens do their jobs effectively.

Replication of NYC Service: NYC Service is already being replicated. Mayor Bloomberg held a competition (funded by Rockefeller) and a selection panel chose 10 cities from the cities that applied in June 2010.  These winners received $200,000 each to cover some of costs of a Chief Service Officer (which they had to hire) and received wraparound technical assistance (with work-planning, and project management).  Rockefeller and Bloomberg Philanthropies  announced a second grant round with 10 winners and awarded them in June 2010.

Bloomberg Philanthropies created a “learning community” around these 20 cities [see Cities of Service] with the goal of cross-fertilizing learning, experience sharing, and developing best practices.  The CSOs came together face-to-face 2-3 times during the first year, engage in bi-weekly group conference calls, and receive individual technical assistance.

Bloomberg Philanthropies created a “Cities of Service Playbook” that specifies a process they recommend for Cities of Service in coming up with a service plan.  CSOs in the first round were hired by May 2010 and these 10 were first convened in June 2010 and provided technical assistance.  The first group developed service plans in Sept. 2010.  The second group developed service plans by March 2011.  [The first group consisted of Chicago, Detroit, Los Angeles, Nashville, Newark, Omaha, Philadelphia, Sacramento, Savannah and Seattle.  The second group consisted of Atlanta, Austin, Baltimore, Baton Rouge, Chula Vista, Houston, Little Rock, Orlando, Pittsburgh, and Richmond.]

New cities have also agreed to develop high-impact service plans that were not grantees in these two competitive rounds.   Some of the original cities  now have the CSO position supported by their budget or have indicated  they will include the CSO in their budget.

We’ll look forward to hearing more about NYC Service and their replication efforts.

Philadelphia’s Connector Program:

Started by Liz Dow in 2005 as the Connector Project and based on Bowling Alone and Malcolm Gladwell’s work on connectors and the Tipping Point, they are now in their third iteration, and have renamed themselves Creative Connectors. They identify leaders who use arts, culture and design to build community and create economic vitality.  Liz was struck by the observation in Malcolm Gladwell’s “Six Degrees of Lois Weisberg” that “poverty is not deprivation, it is isolation.”

From their three years they have identified 10 traits in connectors (what they call “the Connector Competency Model”) and convened these connectors to connect them with each other.

Liz wrote up her experience in 6 Degrees of Connection and a fuller description of the ten competencies which cutely spell out “CONNECTORS”:

  1. C: Community Catalyst
  2. O: Other-oriented
  3. N: Network Hub
  4. N: Navigating Mazes
  5. E: Empowering Passion
  6. C: Constantly Curious
  7. T: Trustworthy
  8. O: Optimistic
  9. R: Results Achiever
  10. S: Self-Starter.

The list of creative connectors was generated by an online survey circulated by partner organizations and through an article in the Philadelphia Inquirer.  While these connectors are important in Philadelphia, 3 out of 4 of the leaders identified had moved to Philadelphia from somewhere else, and they generally work in the non-profit sector.  Creative Connectors also looks for leaders who:

  • “are hubs of trust, seen as trustworthy and credible.
  • use art and design to mobilize people around an issue.
  • foster one-to-one linkages among people they know.
  • engage with diverse groups.
  • consider the common good as well as personal agendas.
  • convey a vision that generates excitement.
  • think strategically, act decisively.
  • have founded an organization or program.”

Each Connector was profiled and NPR will do a video on each one weekly over the next year.

Philadelphia’s Creative Connectors is being replicated by some other groups including Leadership Louisville and the Portland Connector Project.  [And I’ve learned that a Boston connector network already exists, no relation to the effort in Philadelphia, see comment below about Boston World Partnerships.]

Last week, Leadership Philadelphia convened all of the Connectors since 2005 to thank them for their contribution to the community, to connect them with the newest connectors, to have them brainstorm on an issue raised in Knight’s Soul of the Community report, and to send them out into the community to make a Pay It Forward contribution.  The latter was a gift of $50 cash with the instruction that they give it to someone in Philadelphia who needs it, and to report back to Leadership, stirring up some grassroots goodwill during the holidays.

Leadership Philadelphia has also initiated a This I Believe project, partnering with the local NPR station to have leaders and then other citizens write and then read their belief statements on air.

Read a news report on their most recent meeting of all their Connectors.   The group that launched Creative Connectors, Leadership Philadelphia has a website here.  The Connector Project website available here.

Social Capital, Inc.

Inspired by reading Bowling Alone, David Crowley, whom I regard as an unofficial mayor of social capital, decided to launch Social Capital, Inc.

David was moving to Woburn, MA (his home town) at the same time as he was inspired to see what he could do at a local level to rebuild social capital.  He launched SCI and focused on trying to increase social capital in Woburn.

As David puts it: “The process of reconnecting to his home community after some 12 years of living elsewhere provided tangible examples of barriers to building social capital in today’s society, but also suggested that there were many community assets that could be harnessed through collaborative, community-wide social capital building initiative. The basic idea of developing a local model that could be replicated in order to address the decline of social capital and civic engagement was born.”

SCI Woburn was launched in summer 2002. In 2004, SCI expanded to Dorchester and in 2006-07, SCI began work in Lynn.  They have now expanded to Fall River and Milford.

SCI sees their mission as developing new “social capitalists” and believes it can train young people in the “unique set of skills and attitudes that enables them to collaborate effectively, make connections, bridge differences, and nurture social networks to make a difference. David is an ardent evangelist for social capital.  They are in the process of developing tools for would-be social capitalists and we will let you know when those become available.

In 2010-2011, here are some of SCI’s accomplishments.

  • SCI AmeriCorps members recruited over 2,500 community volunteers and a almost 70,000 residents of  Dorchester, Boston, Fall River, Milford, Lynn and Woburn have benefitted from their service. The AmeriCorps members & volunteers served almost 50,000 hours with a market value of $1.25 million (based on Independent Sector’s rates for volunteer service)
  • 240 youth and other emerging leaders developed Social Capitalist skills with SCI this year.
  • Over 4,015 food & clothing items have been generated by SCI AmeriCorps members and volunteers for people in need during these difficult economic times.
  • Over 12,500 individuals use an SCI community portal every month to connect with local civic happenings.

Good interviews with Putnam/Campbell about religion in America

Two interesting interviews with American Grace co-authors Robert Putnam and David Campbell, describing the sweeping changes occurring in the American religious landscape over the past half century and their social consequences: on politics, on youth, on tolerance, and on civic engagement.

Brian Lehrer interview available here

MSNBC “Morning Joe” interview available here.

For more on American Grace, see the American Grace blog including interviews about American Grace on BBC, NPR Weekend Edition, PBS NewsHour, Wall Street Journal, New York Times, L.A. Times, Talk of the Nation, etc.

6 degrees of separation now 4.74 on Facebook [REVISED 4/12/12]


A 2011 examination by Facebook and the University of Milan of all 721 million Facebook users (over 10% of the world’s population) found that Facebook users were less than five degrees of separation from anyone else. “While 99.6 per cent of all pairs of users are connected by paths with five degrees (six hops), 92 per cent are connected by only four degrees (five hops)” and was even lower if the searcher and the target lived in the same country.  As more users get onto Facebook, the degrees of separation are dropping; the average was 5.28 three years ago and is 4.74 today.  See studies “The Anatomy of the Facebook Social Graph” and “Four Degrees of Separation“.  [Of course, as many users of Facebook know who get “friended” by people who are not their friends or whom they have never met, this 4.74 degrees of separation no doubt includes a lot of “friends” along with real ones and this pushes down this theoretical level of interconnectedness that the researchers found.]

This runs against the grain of other work that has cast doubt on the “6 degrees of separation” theory for the population as a whole.  NPR had an interesting discussion on Talk of the Nation (January 25, 2008) regarding whether it is true that we really are no more than 6 degrees of separation apart from anyone on the planet. They invited on Judith Kleinfeld and Steven Strogatz (a professor in network theory).

Background: “6 degrees of separation” got its conception from a study by Stanley Milgram in the 1950s testing how many links it took to connect a random mid-Westerner from Omaha or Wichita with a random person from Boston. The study seemed to show that subjects were on average 6 path links away from each other. [Each recipient of a letter was supposed to send to the target recipient if he/she knew the target directly, or forward on the person who the subject thought would be most likely to know the target; this procedure was iterated and the number of links were totaled.] The Milgram methodology has been criticized by some. This has been generalized into the claim that any two people in the world are 6 degrees separated, although Milgram never used the phrase ‘degrees of separation’ and he only showed that the median chain link was 5.5 not that all chain lengths were 6 or less.  Some links took as many as 12 links although it is possible that in reality there were much shorter links possible.] . The ‘6 degrees notion’ was recently tested in a Small World experiment by Duncan Watts at Columbia which has found an average path length of worldwide volunteers of five, although there are some problems with their methodology (since they only took volunteers who might have volunteered because they wanted to test whether they were as cosmopolitan and as well-connected as they believed).

Note: Albert-Laszlo Barabasi  in his interesting book Linked reveals that Milgram had a Hungarian father and a Romanian mother and notes that in 1929 a very famous Hungarian writer Frigyes Karinthy wrote a story entitled “Lancszemek” (or “Chains”) in which a member of a group proposed a test to show that the world’s people were closely connected: he bet that through at most five acquaintances any of the then 1.5 billion inhabitants of the earth could be linked.  While it is unclear whether Milgram ever read this story, his Hungarian lineage suggests that perhaps through his father he might have heard of this first known conjecture of “five degrees of separation.”

Kleinfeld, in trying to digitally recreat Milgram’s experiment, found problems with the experiment (detailed in the current issue of Discover magazine with the wonderful title “If Osama’s only 6 degrees of separation away, why can’t we find him?“) Among them were that Milgram only counted the path length of the letters that actually reached their recipients, not the majority of letters that never reached them.  (Kleinfeld notes that only 3 of 60 letters reached their target in Milgram’s original study and the following study had a completion rate of only 29%.) Strogatz admits that this was a problem that Milgram was aware of and observed  that it is challenging to figure out how to interpret the letters that didn’t make it to the final person since it could be that one of the intervening links simply didn’t forward on the letter rather than the fact that the path length would have been much longer if completed.  [Kleinfeld in the article suggests that the fact that Milgram recruited participants by buying mailing lists skewed the partiicpants to be more high-income.  Because most American friendships are same-class, it is easier sociologically much easier for high-income subjects to find high-income targets than if the experimenta; subject  had to locate a target of a different economic class.]

The low completion rates also mirror some results Duncan Watts got in his Small World experiment. Recruiting volunteers on the web globally to see how many links separated them, Watts et al. began 24,163 “degree of separation” experiments. Only 384 of these were completed (or about 1.5%), and those completed had an average path length of slightly over 4 links.  Watts surveyed respondents who dropped out of the experiment and fewer than one in 200 respondents indicated that they didn’t continue the chain because they didn’t know whom to send it to.  This tends to support the notion that the completed links may not be different than the uncompleted ones in total path length but in the interest of the intervening links to complete the experiment.

Strogatz notes that this research really raises 3 interesting questions. First, “given two people, is there a short path connecting them? That is a question of existence. Does a chain exist? The second question has to do with search. Can people find these short paths if they exist? And a third question is, … even if the paths did exist and people could find them, could they use them to exert any influence on a person at the distant end?” Strogatz notes that regardless of any imperfections in Milgram’s approach, short paths definitely do exist, and people if motivated can find these paths. But he said that the issue of one’s leverage at six degrees of separation is much more doubtful.

Strogatz also discussed evidence of this “small world” in other settings and some ideas of how this might be used.

As to the answer about finding Osama bin Laden, Watts indicates that agents in the CIA probably are less than 6 degrees separated from Osama bin Laden, but because of tribal loyalties or threats of being killed, the last two links that could connect us to Osama, are not cooperative.

For the full NPR program, click here.

See related blog post “Make that at least 7 degrees of separation.”