social capital and the alumni community

by Ben Slotznick

What does the notion of “social capital” have to do with developing an alumni community? Maybe everything. This essay explores some questions that by themselves seem unrelated, but together point at a nexus between these two ideas.

• What makes a responsible citizenry?
• How can government or educational institutions nurture civic virtue?
• How is this related to a culture of loyalty to universities?
• Is there a connection with fundraising?
• What does this have to do with alumni volunteers and their organizations?

Almost two centuries ago, Alexis de Tocqueville observed a connection between civic virtue in America and the plethora of independent collectivities he found there – from the many locally-run and democratically-elected town governments to the abundance of both political and non-political voluntary associations. More recently, research has demonstrated that voluntary communities, and aggregations thereof, including state and nation, can generate an ephemeral but real resource – a “social capital,” if you will – with far-reaching social and economic implications.

This line of research has shown that when schools and universities support student organizations – political, artistic, secular – they are not just enhancing student life. They are unconsciously training students in self-organization and civic engagement. And more importantly for their core mission, their students perform better in school. The same thing happens when universities support a multiplicity of volunteer alumni organizations, they are not just advancing university interests through branding, public relations, and fundraising. They are cultivating social capital (and loyalty) for both themselves and the greater community. And there are implications for philanthropy.

The political scientist Robert Putnam has produced seminal studies of social capital in America, its decline, and its partial recovery (1995, 2000, 2003, 2010). It’s a good place to start this inquiry.

Putnam’s book Bowling Alone (2000) was a tour de force, and rightfully recognized as one. He did several remarkable things – with such clarity that it looked not only obvious, but easy. First, he demonstrated the existence of social capital. This was something previously hypothesized but not previously shown to exist – at least not in any broad or conclusive way. Putnam did this while at the same time revealing and documenting its pervasive and disturbing decline. He did this thoroughly and elegantly using large scale statistical data mining techniques some of which require tremendous amounts of brute-force mind-numbing number-crunching – while making those techniques comprehensible and seemingly intuitive to the layman. Second, he used a different set of statistical methods to examine myriad possible causes and explanatory factors. He was able to conclusively dismiss many – including most of those that political and social pundits bandy about. Distressingly, the ones that remained (such as increased television watching and the greying-and-passing of the World War II generation) are both understandable and difficult to remedy. Third, he was able to show why a change in social capital matters, by creating a relative social capital index among the different States of the United States of America. Using this index he then examined how then-current differences in social capital among States (rather than just differences over time) had strong correlations with other social ills and goods. All of this was done without actually defining how to measure social capital – or what causes it. But clearly establishing that it exists. Quite amazing.

It’s worth spending some time following the specifics of his argument: (1) the decline of social capital in America, (2) its causes, and (3) its importance. After that, it’s vital to mention (4) Putnam’s suggestions for building social capital, (5) his reflections a decade and a half after the initial splash that his work created, and (6) what this line of research implies for educational institutions.

The pervasive decline of social capital in America

Social scientists define social capital as encompassing social networks and the norms of reciprocity and trust which arise from them. But at the time Putnam wrote, direct measures did not exist for those aspects of social capital in which he was most interested. So Putnam approached the search for social capital the way a physicist looks for sub-atomic particles that are too small to see – or the invisible dark matter that makes up most of the universe. When something is not visible or directly measureable, you can sometimes measure the effects it would have on other things as it changes.

Putnam proceeded to document long term trends in social connections over the entire course of the twentieth century: participation in politics and public affairs; membership in clubs and community associations, religious bodies, and work-related organizations (such as unions and professional societies); prevalence of informal ties, such as card parties and bowling leagues, bar cliques and ball games, picnics and parties; changing patterns of trust and altruism in philanthropy, volunteering, honesty and reciprocity; and even possible countervailing tendencies in small groups, social movements, and the Internet.

What he found was astonishing. For the first two-thirds of the twentieth century (except for the Great Depression), by almost every available measurement or statistic, Americans became increasingly and more deeply engaged in the life of their communities. However, in the last quarter of the twentieth century such engagement plummeted.

The not-so-easy-to-remedy causes

Putnam was not content to stop there. He used different statistical techniques to examine possible factors which might be causing this decline — and just as importantly, which were not. Data sets covered all of the twentieth century, during much of which social capital was rising. Conditions during rise could be contrasted with those of fall. Statistical correlations were sought. Some did not exist. Others were found. Their extent was calculated.

Causes of general overall decline did not include increases in family instability, divorce rate, working mothers, economic adversity, affluence, government growth or spending, or crime. Neither racism nor government policies to combat it were factors. However, most of the decline could be explained and blame apportioned.

Fully eighty to eighty-five percent of the decline could be attributed.

10% from pressures of time and money on two career families
10% from suburbanization, commuting and sprawl
25% from electronic entertainment, especially television
50% from generational change (changing social characteristics of different age cohorts)

These add up to more than 85% because 10 to 15% of the total was attributed a joint impact of television and generation change: the TV generation – those cohorts who grew up with television.

Generational change encompasses the slow, steady, and inevitable replacement of the long civic generation (Putnam’s term) or the “Greatest Generation” (Tom Brokow’s term) by their less involved children and grandchildren. This civic generation grew up during the Great Depression, and then fought World War II. These two cataclysmic events bound families and communities together, produced social leveling, and engendered patriotism and group solidarity that have not been renewed.

Unfortunately, none of these factors are likely to be reversed.

The importance of social capital

Does any of this matter? Not just philosophically, anecdotally, or even politically. Rather, how does the amount of social capital – whatever it is, however it is measured – affect our lives?

To this end, Putnam created a state-by-state index of social capital, he combined fourteen statistics from those mentioned above that were “sufficiently inter-correlated that they appear to tap a single underlying dimension.” (Church attendance was not included because it was not as correlated with the others.) The index did not need to measure the absolute amount of social capital, but rather provide a proxy for the relative social capital exhibited in different states. Interestingly, Alexis de Tocqueville’s observations almost two centuries ago, concerning differences among the states, were prescient.

Among other things, Putnam found that when comparing one state to another, social capital was strongly correlated with dozens of measurements of child welfare, education, public health, crime, individual health, happiness, and citizenship.

People who regularly attended club meetings, volunteered, entertained at home or went to church were much happier with life. Increases in church-going, at least up to once a week, continued to increase happiness, whereas the biggest increases in happiness due to attending club meetings, volunteering or entertaining at home occurred between “never” and “once a month”.

Instances of building social capital

Putnam did provide suggestions for increasing social capital at the end of Bowling Alone and in a follow up book (with Lewis Feldstein and Don Cohen), Better Together (2003). The suggestions amount to case studies of individual grassroots organizations or organizers that have been successful, rather than systematic implementable policies.

Putnam’s work inspired the World Bank and some United Nations Agencies to incorporate social capital formation as a goal in their programming. Broader more ambitious and multi-dimensional definitions and measurements of social capital were proposed and touted. Actual quantification and replicable projects have remained elusive.

Reflections a decade and a half later

In 2010, Robert Putnam (with Thomas Sanders) published an article, “Still Bowling Alone? The Post-9/11 Split.” In it Putnam and Sanders examined whether America had re-engaged, especially after 9/11 jolted the nation in some ways similar to World War II. Putnam and Sanders observed that:

“[w]hile the post-9/11 spike in community-mindedness among adults was short-lived, the shift appears more lasting among those who experienced the attacks during their impressionable adolescent years.”

However, the increase in community engagement appears to be primarily among those born from white upper middle-class families, who were high school and college students at the time. This prompted Putnam and Sanders to express concern over a demographic social capital gap.

Lessons for educational institutions

Looking back, what Putnam accomplished has been impressive, even if not everything he would have wished. It remains to consider what this body of research implies for educational institutions – even if ancillary to Putnam’s initial search for the existence and causes of social capital, and his subsequent search for ways to generate it.

Here are some of Putnam’s findings concerning students, youth, and giving.

• Those who learn to volunteer when they are young, typically volunteer more often throughout their lives.
• Those who take part in voluntary associations while in high school are far more likely to vote, take part in political campaigns, and discuss public issues after graduating. The same holds true for other forms of civic and social involvement later in life.
• Those who take part in college extracurricular activities and peer social networks have greater college success and lower college dropout rate.
• Those U.S. high school students who participate in volunteering may be doing it to meet school graduation requirements or to burnish their resume while seeking admission to selective colleges.

Clearly, when schools and universities support extracurricular activities – of all sorts – they do not just create better, healthier, and more successful students. These students become better citizens. The same effect follows when student participation in these activities is required for graduation or admission!

Just as importantly, one of the strongest predictors of virtually all forms of altruistic behavior is education. Participation in university supported extracurricular activities primes students to become loyal alumni. Participation in these activities (including fundraising) creates a culture of giving time, talent and treasure to the university community. More specifically:

• Volunteers give more than twice as much of their income to charity as non-volunteers.
• Financial donors volunteer over three times as much as non-donors.
• Joiners give almost ten times more of their time and money than non-joiners.
• College graduates volunteer much more than people with a high school education

“Social capital is a more powerful predictor of philanthropy than is financial capital.” (Putnam 2000) When schools and universities support alumni organizations that tap in to memories of participation in student extracurricular activities and voluntary associations, they create social capital that can be tapped to invest in university resources.

Putnam’s work tells us that social capital exists, but is not tangible or fixed. It is a living thing tied to organizations and communities, and generated by their members’ interactions. In short, social capital is generated and continues to exist only while people do stuff together.

These findings tell us … no, they SHOUT to us. If government wants to generate civic virtue, it needs to support and fund student organizations and extracurricular activities – a multiplicity of them. If educational institutions want to grow social capital that can be harvested through fundraising, they need to do the same. Just as importantly, unless the social capital generated within a student community is nurtured during the years after graduation – through robust institutional support for alumni volunteer organizations – that resource will wither and die. The philanthropic urge may continue, but it will attach to institutions divorced from the university.

Physicists have found that dark matter, though invisible, holds the universe together. In the same way, social capital binds people to their communities, their voluntary associations, their educational institutions, and to each other.

For more information read Robert Putnam’s original 1995 article, “Bowling Alone: America’s Declining Social Capital, Journal of Democracy,”(1995):, or his expansion and elaboration in book form, Bowling Alone: The Collapse and Revival of American Community (2000), See also his follow up co-authored with Lewis Feldstein (and with Don Cohen), Better Together: Restoring the American Community (2003),, as well as the retrospective article that Putnam wrote with Thomas Sanders, “Still Bowling Alone? The Post-9/11 Split” (2010):

For examples of social capital infusing international development programs, see the World Bank website:,,contentMDK:20642703~menuPK:401023~pagePK:148956~piPK:216618~theSitePK:401015,00.html and linked pages, the United Nations Development Programme document:, or the United Nations Volunteers (

resources for working with volunteers