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Measuring Local Institutions and Organizations

The Role of Community Institutional Capacity in Social Capital

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Document date: May 03, 2004
Released online: May 03, 2004

The nonpartisan Urban Institute publishes studies, reports, and books on timely topics worthy of public consideration. The views expressed are those of the authors and should not be attributed to the Urban Institute, its trustees, or its funders.

Note: This report is available in its entirety in the Portable Document Format (PDF).


The intent of the Urban Institute's study is to articulate and measure how local organizations are linked to neighborhood well-being and social capital. Researchers in various disciplines studying poverty and social exclusion have been increasingly interested in articulating and measuring the positive features of communities associated with reductions in adverse outcomes. Social capital has been the term used to capture these positive or pro-social features of communities. There are varying definitions of social capital provided by theorists (Coleman 1990; Bourdieu, 1986; Putnam, 1993), but generally, social capital refers to the activation of actual or potential resources embodied in communities stemming from a durable network of relationships or structures of social organization.

With interest in social capital generating processes, research has focused on individual interpersonal networks and the mechanisms linking individuals to their communities and traditional institutions—the family and schools. However, the extant research has overlooked the key role played by community organizations as mediating structures that facilitate the emergence and maintenance of values and ties that can lead to positive neighborhood outcomes. Strong institutions have implications for increasing public safety and reducing levels of violence (Kornhauser, 1978; Sampson and Groves, 1989; Sampson, Raudenbush and Earls, 1999; Rosenfeld, Messner and Baumer, 2001). Other benefits include improved supervision of children (Sampson, Morenoff and Earls, 1999), and reductions in physical decay, disorder (Sampson, 1997; Skogan, 1990), and fear of crime (Lewis and Salem, 1986; Hunter and Baumer, 1982; Taylor and Hale, 1986; Taylor et al., 1984), as well as increased participation in community organizations and thus, community empowerment (Chavis and Wandersman, 1990; Perkins, Brown and Taylor, 1996; Perkins et al., 1990). Recent research has also linked high levels of neighborhood cohesion to higher levels of physical health (Browning and Cagney, 2002).

Empirical studies rarely have attempted to explicate the social capital dimensions of social organization provided by neighborhood institutions such as community organizations and other non-profit organizations. Past research examining organizations generally has been limited to only measuring the presence/absence and number of community organizations or the extent of resident participation in them. Researchers have cited the difficulty of accurately capturing the significance of these neighborhood institutions with regard to generating social capital because institutions and organizations can be in the neighborhoods, but not of them (Leventhal and Brooks-Gunn, 2000; Sampson, 2001b). In other words, these organizations may have a physical presence, but not necessarily have a social presence with regard to serving neighborhood residents.

The failure to understand the breadth and extent of the efficacy of community organizations limits the potential of the many community improvement programs and policies that involve them. The challenge is to standardize the ways to define and measure social capital, as well as to begin to test measures of institutional capacity.

This study tests the assumption that community-based organizations and other neighborhood institutions help build community well-being, and, in testing the assumption, seeks to develop a measure of these organizations that represents the social-capital generating function of organizations. The study examines: (1) whether the presence (the number or density) of organizations, institutions and businesses is related to neighborhood well-being; (2) if the location (distance) of community-based organizations has a role in neighborhood well-being, and (3) whether the capacity of community organizations factors into neighborhood well-being.

Accessible measures—that can be collected inexpensively and repeatedly over time by residents and community agencies—can facilitate progress towards community goals, not only with regard to understanding community needs and priorities, but, more importantly, with regard to effectively addressing them. Such a measure can be used by communities, policymakers, funders and researchers to track neighborhood changes and assess progress towards any number of outcomes that relate to neighborhood health and community well-being. Perhaps more importantly, the measure may have strong implications for expanding a community's ability to provide social capital-building opportunities to neighborhood residents and the neighborhood as a whole. The findings may help focus community prevention and intervention resources and create cost effective strategies. In essence, we explore the creation of an accurate measure of community institutional capacity at the community level that relies mostly on publicly available information and hence, could be used by organizations in their strategic efforts to measure social capital or well-being within neighborhoods.

The study was conducted in 2002 in the Congress Heights/Bellevue/Washington Highlands neighborhoods of the District of Columbia. Data collection involved three components:

  1. Collection of secondary/existing data,
  2. Telephone interviews with organizations, and
  3. An in-person household survey.

We compared the existing data collected, coupled with the organization survey, to the information obtained from the household surveys. The goal was to demonstrate how the data collected about organizations is related to existing household survey indicators of neighborhood well-being that have been used by researchers and community practitioners over the last few decades. These survey indicators of well-being include collective efficacy, cohesion, control, reciprocated exchange, neighborhood satisfaction, trust, neighborhood patronage, and participation in voluntary associations. Below, we briefly discuss the information collected and then summarize the findings.

The Study Site

The target community consists of the Congress Heights/Bellevue/Washington Highlands neighborhoods in Ward 8 of Washington, D.C. (See Figure A). These neighborhoods make up Neighborhood Cluster 39, and comprise roughly one-third of the area of Ward 8. For this study, the unit of analysis is the block group. The study area consists of 29 block groups. The block group size ranges from 0.09 square kilometers to 1 square kilometer, with populations ranging from 450 in a block group to 3,300.

Types of Organizations

Because our goal is to understand secondary relational networks and local resources related to neighborhood institutions and organizations, we compiled information on all organizations, businesses, and institutions in the target area that provide some asset or resource to neighborhood residents. The types of organizations included in the study are listed below. Using the criminal justice and community development literature as a guide, we created a typology of organizations that captures their hypothesized role in the community:

  • Community-based organizations and social service organizations that have a recognized role as assisting the community. These organizations include shelter and counseling services, neighborhood/tenant associations, community councils, Boys and Girls Clubs, crime prevention programs, neighborhood watches, local civic groups, local political organizations, community development corporations (CDCs) and other non-profit community-based organizations. All local social service programs (not run by the government) that provide human development services like job training programs, literacy, and mentoring programs are included.
  • Churches and Other Religious Institutions. This category represents places of worship. Faith-based social service organizations, such as Southeast Ministries or day care centers associated with a religious institution, are located in the first category, above.
  • Pro-Social Places/Institutions. This category of organizations represents schools, libraries, parks, and recreation centers.
  • Businesses. Using research by Bingham and Zhang (1997) and Stanback et al., (1981) as a guide, we include in this category all businesses that provide a residential local service to residents. We refer to these organizations as residentiary services.
  • Liquor Establishments. Studies have found evidence that liquor selling-establishments may attract and generate crime and disorder, we include liquor stores and mini markets as a separate category of business. Restaurants that sell liquor to patrons dining on the property remain in the general business category above.

Collection of Secondary/Existing data

We compiled a listing of community-based organizations and churches from numerous sources. We met with a number of service providers in the study site to obtain lists of resources in the area. We also utilized a database that was developed for another project at the Urban Institute that examined all community-based organizations serving children and families in Washington Highlands (DeVita, Manjarezz and Twombly, 1999). Next, we compiled information from the National Center for Charitable Statistics database (http://nccs.urban.org). This database contains tax information on non-profits that report more than $25,000 in annual receipts. Data on businesses were obtained from Dunn and Bradstreet market data (2002). Data on parks and recreation centers were obtained directly from DC Parks and Recreation. A listing of schools came from the DC Department of Education. Data were also obtained from PhoneDisc 2002, a comprehensive list of all businesses, organizations, and institutions that have their phone numbers listed in public telephone directories.

Once we had a comprehensive list of organizations and businesses, we geocoded the data using ArcView GIS 3.2 to determine which organizations were located within the target area for the study. All data were able to be coded to the address level. The final database of organizations contained 334 organizations across the 29 block groups.

Interviews With Organizations

To explore dimensions of community capacity that include characteristics of organizations an organizational survey was administered to all community-based organizations, social service organizations, and religious institutions in the target area. The intent was to explore measures of neighborhood capacity that tapped the following dimensions: organizational stability, leadership, human resources, financial resources, technical resources, community outreach, services and related service capacity, and products. Pro-social places and institutions, businesses, liquor stores and mini markets were excluded from the survey because the dimensions of capacity we were seeking to measure are not relevant to these types of businesses or places. The survey was administered by Urban Institute staff as a telephone survey. The survey took roughly 30 minutes to complete.

Questions included (dimensions represented are in noted in brackets): (a) What type of organization is your organization? (b) What year was your organization started [stability]? (c) What is your organization's primary program area [services]? (d) What human or social services does your organization provide [services]? (e) How many people does your organization serve a day [service capacity]? (f) Does your organization produce an annual report? [products, resources, outreach, and stability], (g) Does your organization have a website? [resources and outreach], (h) Is your technology adequate for you to compete for grants and contracts? [technological resources], (i) Is there a formal set of advisors or Board of Directors for your organization? [leadership], (j) What is the total operating budget for your organization for the last two fiscal years? [financial resources], (k) How many paid employees does your organization have? [human resources], and (l) Does your organization use volunteers? [human resources, outreach].

We developed a capacity score for each organization based on the questions above. Values were assigned to each response category and then the values were summed to derive the organizational capacity score. To achieve neighborhood-level measures, organizational capacity scores were then aggregated by block groups.1

The Household Survey

The household survey was designed to capture information on social cohesion, social control, collective efficacy, neighborhood satisfaction, block satisfaction, reciprocated exchange, participation in organizations, neighborhood patronage of businesses and use of parks and recreation centers. As stated earlier, these measures or "community indicators" have been validated by existing empirical research.

The household survey was short—designed to be completed in person in 10-15 minutes. A community-based participatory research model (Minkler and Wallerstein, 2002) was utilized to collect household survey data. In January 2002, we began to meet with our community partners to discuss the participant research plan and nominate individuals and organizations that could assist with the recruitment of resident surveyors. Over a period of three weeks, we recruited residents to administer the survey. We successfully trained twenty volunteers over three training sessions. The volunteers were given honoraria for each completed survey ($10 for each completed interview). The resident interviewers surveyed a random sample (developed by the Urban Institute) of roughly 15 to 20 residents/households from each block group. Residents who completed the survey were given $5 as a thank you for their participation.


The findings are based on an examination of the relationship between the characteristics of organizations and neighborhood well-being measured using the responses from the household survey.

Presence of Organizations

The research confirms that the presence of organizations benefit neighborhoods. Religious institutions and pro-social places such as schools, recreation centers, and parks may increase opportunities for socialization. The research found:

  • The number of pro-social places (schools, rec centers, parks, and libraries) is positively related to the level of organizational participation. More pro-social places signify higher levels of neighborhood participation in activities such as neighborhood watches, block groups, youth groups, and PTAs.
  • The number of pro-social places is positively related to the use of District community and recreation centers. The finding is not surprising, but the implications are important—the more facilities there are, the more likely that they will be used.
  • The number of pro-social places is positively related to residents' satisfaction of the block on which they live.
  • The number of religious institutions within a neighborhood is positively related to trust and reciprocated exchange.
  • The number of religious institutions within neighborhoods is also positively related to the mean level of participation and how the residents rate their block. The number of religious institutions does not correlate with the church participation scale.

With regard to neighborhood patronage of businesses, we found that residents are generally dissatisfied with shopping options and businesses in their neighborhoods.

  • The number of retail and residential establishments in a neighborhood is negatively associated with the patronage scale. This may indicate that residents who shop outside of their neighborhoods may have some shopping establishments within their neighborhood, but choose, for reasons not explored in this study, to do business outside their communities.

However, we also found that neighborhoods with greater social cohesion were neighborhoods with higher levels of patronage of local businesses and retail establishments.

Location of Organizations

The research also found that the location of organizations matters:

  • Neighborhoods that had organizations nearby had higher levels of collective efficacy, social control, reciprocated exchange, and block satisfaction.
  • The isolated neighborhoods that are in far Southeast, at the very southern part of the District border had very few organizations nearby—these neighborhoods had very low ratings of collective efficacy, social cohesion, control, trust and block satisfaction.

Characteristics of Organizations

The findings suggest that the type of organizations, combined with where they are located in the neighborhood, may have implications for neighborhood well-being:

  • Organizational capacity characteristics relate to community levels of social control— neighborhoods that exhibit high expectations for orderliness and social control are also neighborhoods that have high capacity organizations.
  • The presence of many high capacity organizations is associated with high community levels of cohesion and trust among neighbors.

Within our study, the four organizations that had the greatest capacity as measured by our ten item organizational capacity index have very large, active boards of directors, are stable entities in the community, serve hundreds of individuals in multiple capacity domains and network regularly with other community organizations and government agencies. A brief description of the four organizations with the highest capacity scores is provided below (names of organizations are not provided):

  • Church A is a religious congregation that has been in the community for 81 years and serves over 400 people each day with religious services, day care, tutoring, counseling, and public health education. They often are over capacity and have had to turn people away from services. They have a website and strong technological resources, a large budget, a 15 member Board of Directors, 41 staff and utilize an average of 10 volunteers a week.
  • Community Health Center B is a 501(c)3 non-profit organizations and has been in the community for two years, but the larger umbrella organization began serving residents of D.C. over 20 years ago. This organization has a strong strategic plan and devotes its efforts to counseling, reproductive health services, outpatient substance abuse treatment and medical services, among other health services. They have translation services where they are able to provide services in 14 different languages. They have a website, a 21-member board, large budget, 30 employees and several regular volunteers.
  • Life Services Organization C is a 501(c)3 non-profit organization with four locations in Ward 8. This organization has been serving residents of Ward 8 for 13 years and the larger organization was established over 30 years ago. Their primary service area is human services. They serve an average of 44 people each day. The organization has a wide service population which includes youth and adults, and in particular, returning prisoners and single parents. They have a large operating budget, strong technological resources, a website, a 15-member Board of Directors, 55 employees and regularly use volunteers.
  • Church D is a religious congregation, but not a 501(c)3. They serve an average of over 200 people a day with a mix of services. They offer over 15 different types of services from day care and legal services to in-home services and outpatient substance abuse treatment. They have a 30 member-Board of Directors, a full-time staff of 15 and a part-time staff of 10. They use roughly 100 volunteers a week, most of whom live in the neighborhood and donate a day or two of time each week.

Each of these organizations maintains a large presence in their neighborhood and serves not only specific targeted clientele, but also all residents in the local and extended neighborhood.


This research was designed as a cross sectional study to explore dimensions of community institutional capacity. We view this study as exploratory—as a first step towards understanding not only the dimensions of institutional capacity, but also systematically assessing its presence in a community. Simply because these organizations scored low on our capacity measure does not mean they are of no utility to the community; we maintain that all organizations can provide some resources to community residents. Furthermore, low capacity organizations may become high capacity organizations over time, or have particular characteristics that residents desire that were not tapped by our measure. The intent of our study is to uncover the variations within organizations that influence capacity at the neighborhood level.

Social capital has become a much-talked-about concept in communities, as well as in research and policy circles. Social capital is often discussed as the silver bullet for community health and well-being. But little is known about how communities can foster social capital. Few empirical studies have focused on how organizations can be vehicles for increasing socialization and achieving positive neighborhood outcomes. Studies testing Putnam's ideas about voluntary associations and other studies examining collective efficacy have focused on unobservable processes or the strength and breadth of participation in voluntary associations. How do communities increase collective efficacy? What are the implications for poor communities of the studies that show community participation is good? In other words, how can one foster participation in organizations that do not exist in many communities? Accessibility to and the capacity of organizations should be viewed as central components of building and maintaining healthy neighborhoods. Strategies and policies aimed at organizations and encouraging organizational and agency networks may be more practical and have direct, tangible benefits for communities than efforts to build collective efficacy.

We hope that our endeavor to better understand the role of organizations in communities from the organizational and neighborhood level provides impetus for continued study. The potential implications for policy and practice of the systematic study of community institutional capacity are great. Using established, accessible measures of institutional capacity, we can not only assess who where it exists and where it does not exist, but also evaluate the practicality of building social capital through organizations and the larger community infrastructure.

Figure A: Research Study Site, Washington, DC

Notes from Executive Summary

1. Neighborhood aggregation was achieved by utilizing a number of methods to define "neighborhoods." Detailed information is provided in the body of the report.

Note: This report is available in its entirety in the Portable Document Format (PDF).

Topics/Tags: | Children and Youth | Cities and Neighborhoods | Nonprofits | Washington D.C. Region

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