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Leveraging the Promise of Social Connections

Examining social capital practices within human services agencies


To find out how human services agencies and programs can use social capital to improve the lives of their clients.


We are collecting data from a variety of human services organizations using expert consultations, program scans, case studies, identification of model practices, site visits (online when needed), and public forums.


We have shared our learnings to date by creating multimedia resources for practitioners.

How Important are Social Connections to Individual and Community Well-Being?

We often take for granted the importance and power of human and social connections in research, yet we know that having positive social connections is important for predicting the health and well-being of individuals, families, and communities. When events and experiences like incarceration, domestic violence, and economic downturns occur, they remind us of how critical it is to be able to connect with other people, families, and institutions. It is often these connections that help us sustain positive outcomes despite traumatizing or challenging circumstances.

Social capital refers to connections, networks, or relationships among people and the value that arises from them. These connections, networks, and relationships can be accessed and mobilized to help individuals succeed in life by providing information, emotional or financial support, and all the other intangibles that our friends, family, and community bring to our lives to make them easier to navigate.  Those working in community-based human services programs often strive to cultivate and promote the benefits of social connections to improve outcomes of those who have experienced disruptions in their lives.

With the increased attention on social capital as an effective tool for improving program outcomes, the US Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) Office of the Assistant Secretary for Planning and Evaluation (ASPE) asked how social capital could be better leveraged to strengthen human services programs and HHS policies. RTI and University of North Carolina Chapel Hill’s School of Government’s ncIMPACT initiative designed this research study to better understand how social capital is operationalized and defined in human service programs and how human service agencies can better incorporate social capital tools to address poverty, unemployment, and child and family well-being. The research is uncovering specific ways that social capital practices are making a difference across various types of programs across the U.S., ranging from substance use treatment, re-entry, domestic violence, and human trafficking, among others. The research provides concrete tools and emerging practices for implementation.

The findings from this research hold promise to help inform myriad policies and programs not only within HHS, but also for other federal, state, local, private, and faith-based programs. Social capital tools often leverage the networks and personal connections among faith-based organizations, civic organizations, friends, and family to reduce poverty, increase employment, and improve overall well-being.

Comprehensive Data Collection Methods to Understand Context

To understand how local, state, faith-based, and nonprofit human services programs and organizations can create and use social capital to improve social and economic outcomes, RTI and UNC conducted a series of studies across multiple types of human service programs including ones that address poverty, unemployment, child, and family well-being within the areas of two-generation programs, at-risk youth, healthy relationships, re-entry, domestic violence, and human trafficking, among others. The research project includes six main data collection tasks to be completed over about three years. These tasks include:

Expert consultations –with 13 social capital experts, including researchers, practitioners, and state and federal policymakers, in the early stages of the project to inform product development and refine research questions.

Program Scan – of human services programs using social capital to improve outcomes. Through the scan and consultation with our social capital experts, we identified over 30 strong program examples to guide future data collection efforts (e.g., case studies and site visits) and overall study takeaways.

Case Studies – of 4 programs to understand and document the specifics of how programs operationalized social capital activities and using those strategies to help participants create or use individual-level social capital.

Identification of Model Practices – with data collected from experts and insights from project learnings, we identified emerging practices and guiding principles that other human services and faith-based agencies could use to help program participants build or leverage social capital.

Site Visits – to programs serving populations who have experienced domestic violence, human trafficking, or incarceration to understand and document how they use social capital to strengthen their programming and improve participant outcomes. 

Public Forum – with experts on using peer supports to serve people who have experienced domestic violence, human trafficking, or incarceration, to help individuals going through similar experiences build their social capital and improve their outcomes.

This research is currently underway, with COVID-19 protocols resulting in some sites visits and most dissemination of learnings occurring online.

Leveraging a Variety of Dissemination Platforms and Approaches

It is evident that human connections can strengthen positive outcomes for individuals who have experienced traumatic or challenging events in their lives. With a focus on the positive relationships that benefit people and communities, RTI and UNC focused on understanding the specific tactics and approaches organizations use to leverage the tools of social capital. To best share this information, RTI and UNC are developing an array of products—videos, podcasts, technical assistance webinars, case studies, and written briefs-- to disseminate the learnings to help human services practitioners incorporate social capital tools to increase employment, reduce poverty, and improve child well-being. Even under COVID-19 social distancing protocols, many of the programs we examined are adapting to maintain personal connections and build positive networks for program participants. To best share learnings to date, the HHS, RTI, and UNC team have already developed a practitioner handbook; conducted 5 webinars; designed 3 podcasts; developed 6 case studies; and issued one brief. 

The Value of Relationships: Improving Human Services Participant Outcomes through Social Capital: This handbook shares emerging practices that human services programs can implement to help participants build and leverage social capital, and it includes editable worksheets to help program managers and frontline staff apply these strategies to their own programmatic contexts. Findings are based on interviews and focus groups with national experts, a national program scan of organizations using social capital, and site visits and phone calls to human services programs using social capital strategies.

Peer Support as a Social Capital Strategy for Programs Serving Individuals Reentering from Incarceration and Survivors of Intimate Partner Violence or Human Sex Trafficking: Many human services programs recognize the power of “social capital,” or the value that arises from relationships. This report offers insight into how programs use peer supports to help build social capital with participants who are reentering the community after incarceration or are survivors of intimate partner violence or sex trafficking. Three overarching themes on the use of peer supports in these settings that are described in the report are: (1) Considering and responding to trauma to advance healing; (2) Valuing the cultural context of program participants; and (3) Respecting the role of peer support providers.

Leveraging the Secret Sauce of Relationships to Improve Reentry Outcomes: The Value of Social Capital (Series of 4 webinars): This training series provides an overview of social capital and describes why increasing it can be so valuable for individuals returning to their communities after incarceration.

Measuring How Social Relationships Contribute to the Outcomes of Program Participants: This webinar provides an overview of social capital and describes the benefits to human services programs of and strategies for trying to measure and evaluate their success in helping participants build social capital.

Networks That Work: This three-episode podcast features guest speakers talking about the networks and relationships that make up social capital. For example, Episode Three highlights Hudson Link for Higher Education in Prison.

Key Considerations for Strengthening the Social Capital of Incarcerated and Reentering Populations: This issue brief describes lessons learned on how four organizations working with justice-involved populations build their participants’ social capital.

Strengthening Rural and Urban Communities through Social Capital: Connections to Success (CtS). This case study shows how CtS integrates a variety of services and programs to help participants build and leverage social capital connections with their peers and others in the community, with the ultimate goal of preparing for job interviews and employment and building healthy, lifelong relationships. Case studies on other programs, including those serving youth, families, and parents, are available as well.

A Relationship-Focused Approach for Reentering Individuals in Drug or Alcohol Recovery: Douglas County Community Mental Health Center (CMHC). This case study shows how CMHC uses coffee chats with current and formerly incarcerated program participants in drug or alcohol recovery to help them individuals build ties with other participants, graduates, family members, and other community members and achieve their reentry goals.

Roca, Inc. This case study examines social capital strategies used to serve young people with histories of justice system involvement.  Roca’s programming includes a range of strategies to help them tap into new, positive social networks, including with employers. Roca’s program lasts 4 years, regardless of the young person’s age at the time of enrollment.

Project CARE provides services to individuals with disabilities who are affected by or at risk for domestic violence, sexual assault, dating violence, or stalking in the greater Cincinnati area, particularly through the use of peers who have shared experiences.

My Life My Choice is a survivor-led organization fighting to end commercial sexual exploitation of children, which uses survivor mentorship and other services to help participants build social capital.

The Promise of Social Connections

The promise of understanding the impact of social capital concepts and social connections on myriad outcomes including poverty, unemployment, family, and child well-being is extremely important in promoting economic mobility, including in the face of challenges such as the opioid epidemic and COVID-19. This research has highlighted the importance and value of human connections, and how specific practices by human services agencies can help participants build and use these connections to mitigate negative outcomes. RTI and its partners at ncIMPACT (UNC SOG) and HHS will continue to leverage and effectively disseminate their learnings in an effort to support and improve the activities of human service agencies that are addressing these important social issues and working to promote economic mobility.  We believe research designed to better document and disseminate findings about concepts like social capital-- that are well known in general but where there may be a gap between the academic literature and practice on the ground--can then be translated into even more effective practice.

Future work on this project will seek to understand how social capital concepts manifest themselves within the context of reentry, domestic violence, and human trafficking programs through the promotion of peer supports strategies. These findings will be used to develop a forum for policymakers and practitioners to both share and learn about how to best use these techniques to improve the health and well-being of individuals and the communities in which they live.