Social Capital, Community Resilience and COVID-19

Posted on May 21, 2020

We were lost. Not dangerously lost, but definitely turned around and off course. The third day of a 50-mile backpack trip with my son’s scout troop, we broke camp and unknowingly started following a ridgeline that led away from our planned route. I have not felt that disoriented in some time – searching for markers and familiar signs of where we had been until we got back on track.

In the weeks since the COVID-19 outbreak in our community, I have felt similarly unsettled and turned around. Like me, you are likely wondering about how both individually and collectively we can navigate a path forward in this uncertain time. While we don’t know for certain how long this pandemic will last, we do know that a strong, resilient community is best equipped to withstand and recover from a widespread and shared crisis. Just like our hiking group needed to work together to return to the trail, community partners will need to take collective action to find our way out of this public health emergency.

When this virus reached our region, community funders in Spokane joined together to create a COVID-19 Community Response and Recovery Fund for Eastern Washington. Empire Health Foundation, Innovia Foundation, and Spokane County United Way took the lead in establishing the fund and bringing a diverse set of partners to the table to determine the community response. A similar fund was set up in North Idaho with lead partnerships from Avista Foundation and Lewis-Clark Valley Hospital Foundation.

As of late April, over $2.2 million has been raised for community groups and nonprofits addressing urgent needs in Eastern Washington and North Idaho, with contributions from Innovia Foundation, Empire Health Foundation, Spokane County United Way, Avista Foundation, Ballmer Group, Bank of America, BECU, Better Health Together, Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation Burlington Northern, Blue Cross of Idaho Foundation, Community Building Foundation, Delta Dental of Washington, Equinox Foundation, Health Sciences & Services Authority of Spokane County, Itron, Lewis-Clark Valley Healthcare Foundation, MultiCare Health System, M.J. Murdock Charitable Foundation, Mountain West Bank, Perigee Fund, PotlatchDeltic Corporation, Premera Blue Cross, Providence Health Care, Umpqua Bank, Wells Fargo and Women Helping Women Fund.

How did so many organizations come together so quickly to raise this level of funding for community response? Certainly, the magnitude of this crisis created a sense of urgency. But, coordinated action could only be cemented through social capital –connections built over time out of a deep sense of trust and respect. These partners worked together in the past on joint initiatives and projects. They knew what to expect from each other and where organizational strengths could be deployed effectively.

In his book, Social Capital and Community Resilience, Daniel Aldrich argues that “high levels of social capital – more than such commonly referenced factors as socioeconomic conditions, population density, amount of damage or aid – serve as the core engine of recovery” after a disaster. Particularly in a time of stress and adversity, social capital form is critical to put in place collaborative partnerships that might not have been possible otherwise.

The COVID-19 fund partners are committed to supporting both a rapid response and long-term recovery. And the funders recognized that a fair, transparent and equitable process would be necessary to deploy these dollars where they were needed most in the community. To that end, regional advisory committees with members from various grassroots organizations, religious communities, associations representing racial/ethnic groups, health care and social service providers were used to identify needs of communities throughout Eastern Washington and North Idaho. Based on recommendations from the 100 member committees, nearly $800,000 was distributed to 138 nonprofits throughout the region for the first phase of this response effort. This level of community support and coordination would not have been possible without solid connections between multiple partners working together toward a common goal. Community recovery is work that cannot be done alone, and even working through videoconference, the impact multiplies with each new contributor to this effort.

Robert Putnam’s book, Bowling Alone, describes social capital as serving two functions. First, social capital serves as a ‘sociological superglue’, helping to bind individuals with similar backgrounds and circumstances together. Social capital can also be leveraged to connect us outward and bridge our differences through common interests like sports, music, and even pandemic response. If anything, this pandemic has made it clear that we are all connected and hold a shared future. In the weeks and months ahead, it will be necessary to work in circles that are both familiar and new to create and maintain relationships, grow social capital and strengthen our community. The philanthropic response to COVID-19 in Spokane will continue to rely on the power of collaboration to move us out of the woods and into a better future.

We need the leadership, partnership and generosity of our entire community to ensure our region emerges from this pandemic as a stronger community. Please contact us to learn more about how you can join the community COVID-19 response and recovery effort


Mason Burley, PhD
Director of Research and Community Impact

Cross posted with Journal of Business