Social Capital

This week’s post is written by Theron Shaw, Director of Development.

I made an investment yesterday. Actually, I just added some capital to an asset that I’ve been building for some time now. And I’ve noticed a funny thing – I’m often tempted to spend out of that “fund,” and whenever I do, it just ends up being worth more.

“How can I get an investment like that?” you ask…

Well, my investment yesterday was that I took two ginger pumpkin scones and three little bags of gingerbreadman-shaped doggy treats (one for Ace, one for Blanca and one for Mina the German Shepherd) to our neighbors down the street. It was an investment of social capital, and I’ve been working on that investment since we moved here a couple years ago when I began to stop and talk to them and their three dogs anytime I walked past their house. The social capital there is my relationship with these neighbors, whom I love to talk with and whose dogs say enthusiastic (albeit noisy) hello’s to me every time I walk by.

Social capital is defined as the collective value of all “social networks” (who people know) and the inclinations that arise from these networks to do things for each other (“norms of reciprocity”). Robert Putnam said it well in his book Bowling Alone Americans are bowling more than ever before, but not in leagues – people are bowling alone.

And social capital is a fascinating kind of capital, because unlike the capital in your bank accounts (aka “dollars” or “Yen” or “pesos”), the more you spend it, the more it’s worth. The less you spend it, the more it loses value. The more I rely on my neighbors to water my plants while I’m gone, the stronger our connection. If I get too busy and don’t stop to talk with them for a year, the connection grows cold. The social capital between us has decreased.

Makes me think of that campfire song I learned as a kid… “Love is something if you give it away, give it away, give it away…you end up having more.”

Turns out that InterPlay is a sophisticated technology for creating social capital. When we tell our everyday stories to another person, when we do a hand-to-hand dance, when we stand in a circle and create improvised music with our voices, we are creating social capital – connections with people around us that make our world work.

Economists and sociologists in the academic world have spent lots of time studying this phenomenon of social capital, because without social capital it’s very hard to get anything done.

Imagine if you didn’t believe that the bank was going to take care of your money when you gave it to them? That’s also known as a “run on the bank,” and usually makes headlines.

Imagine if you had to stay at the car repair shop all day while they install your new transmission, because you are afraid they might steal your car if you left the premises?

Imagine if you couldn’t ask your friend to water your plants while you’re on vacation because you’re afraid he might steal your computer and stereo system?

Social capital – the same kind of thing that InterPlay creates – turns out to be essential for making our basic day-to-day activities possible.

InterPlay’s Million Connections Campaign is about social capital investing. When Cynthia and I started a year ago dreaming up ideas for celebrating InterPlay’s 20th Birthday, we wanted a game to play that helps point out the intangible contributions that InterPlay makes to the world every time someone raises a hand to a partner’s hand. Imagine InterPlay connections like little drops in the “this-is-a-world-I’d-like-to-live-in” bucket. Will a Million Connections fix all the broken and painful parts of our world? No. Will they make the world a better place? Yes.

That’s why we created a place to count your connections– it’s a fun, easy-focus way to play a game together, as the global InterPlay community. It’s a game called “Let’s See If We Can Measure Just How Much InterPlay is Changing The World.” Join me – it won’t hurt at all, and your investments will be worth more! (And for the Shapers out there who have been asking “What counts as a connection?” – check out Phil’s explanation.) This is an easy-focus game – the goal is more about heightening our awareness, and the awareness of our communities, about how much InterPlay really is creating health and beauty and grace and ease in the world.

What if the Million Connections Campaign gave each of us the courage now and then to have the kinds of Connections that are most juicy, using the kinds of things we know how to do as InterPlayers?

What if you played “I could talk about” with your family members who you only see at holiday gatherings but don’t really know anything about (except that they’re kind of conservative and that’s a little Scary!)

What if you did vocal play in your living room with your friends and family – teaching them how to “start something, mess with it, and find an ending”? What if that was way more fun than playing Cranium after dinner?!?

What if you and your significant other could howl and cuss and swear at each other in a made-up foreign language, feel much better afterwards, and not have to clean up the mess of having actually said all those nasty things in English?!? (Thank you to InterPlayers Sharon Pavelda and Randall Mullins for that brilliant inspiration!)

Personally, the Million Connections Campaign has heightened my own awareness – and courage – to try some of these things.

Of course the Million Connections Campaign is about two goals – Raising $1 Million and Creating 1 Million InterPlay Connections, over the next three years. The $1 million is the fuel for this global social movement, and it is what will get us to the 1 Million Connections goal. We named this the Million Connections Campaign, because neither of these goals is worthwhile without the other. If we raise $1 Million, and haven’t created a single InterPlay connection, we failed. And we won’t be able to create those 1 Million Connections without some additional resources for training new leaders, for doing InterPlay outreach projects with new communities, and for administrative staff and resources across the country to keep everything moving.

So go out and be a Social Capital Investor!

For those of us who actually have lots of social capital in our lives – InterPlay connections, family connections, friendship connections – we are in a position to be social capital investors! Just like a venture capitalist is looking for a place to invest some money in order to create more money, social capital investors can look for a place to invest our social capital where there is the greatest hunger for connection, community, relationship. And by investing your social-capital-building efforts, you’ll end up with more than you started with! And don’t forget to tell us about your connections– it’s more fun that way!

Thanks for all the Connections you create in the world,


P.S. And for all you techno-curmudgeons out there who think that Facebook is the death knell of human connection (and I confess that I have tended to be among this curmudgeonly lot!), science has proven that Facebook is good for you!

P.P.S. I’m sure there’s a connection somewhere between social capital and helping out the folks in Haiti whose homes and cities and lives have been ravaged by the recent earthquake. If you haven’t already, join me in sending them a financial contribution through Partners in Health, an organization that has worked in Haiti for over 20 years, providing health care in some of the most remote parts of that country.

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