Philanthropists and social investors recognize that systems change is necessary to address a range of social problems. Initiatives aimed at individuals and implemented in a piecemeal fashion have repeatedly come up short. By seeking to address specific problems—or even particular aspects of specific problems—at the level of the individual, these initiatives ignore the underlying drivers responsible for the problems.

Efforts to improve safety, education, health, and work prospects depend on improving the social system—and this system can differ neighborhood by neighborhood, as economist Raj Chetty and others have shown. Moreover, such systems are complex and their problems resist quick and easy solutions. “System work seeks to address social problems by making substantive and lasting changes to the system in which the problems are embedded,” writes Christian Seelos, systems theorist and director of the Global Innovation for Impact Lab at the Stanford Center on Philanthropy and Civil Society. “Doing such work requires thinking about causal architecture.”

One of the main drivers at work in such causal architecture is relationships. They forge an interrelated and mutually reinforcing cycle that affects a person’s ability to manage or take advantage of his or her challenges and opportunities. For example, can this person find help looking for a job? Does she have access to a mentor who can help her complete school and go to college? Do the norms in her neighborhood promote long-term relationships and marriage? The answers to such questions shape lives.

Community Renewal International (CRI) and BakerRipley (formerly known as Neighborhood Centers) see the connections between people as each neighborhood’s most critical asset. By identifying, empowering, and connecting a network of local leaders across a neighborhood and linking them to leaders elsewhere, they build new models of behavior, new connections to opportunity, and capacities for collective action that previously did not exist. Such efforts establish a stronger social foundation that is valuable in itself and essential for addressing other social problems. “People are not the problem, people are the asset,” Angela Blanchard, former head of BakerRipley, writes. “Community development is about unlocking that asset, releasing people’s potential to move forward together.”

Read the full article about building social capital by Seth D. Kaplan at Stanford Social Innovation Review.