Weakening social bonds have left many of our neighborhoods and civic communities fragile. Healing these social bonds, and the social capital they create, must be a particular focus for involved citizens and donors. What we need now are “social repairers,” suggests Seth Kaplan in Fragile Neighborhoods: Repairing American Society One Zip Code at a Time—people who use what he calls a “horizontal” or “sideways” approach to strengthening personal relationships and neighborhood institutions.

With Fragile Neighborhoods, Kaplan has written a wonderfully practical book packed full of lessons learned from a lifetime of studying violent conflict—both in fragile states worldwide and in fragile neighborhoods in the U.S. While his book makes a passing reference to philanthropy writ large in the book’s conclusion, it provides donors with a useful and practical road map for supporting social repairers—the men and women who work to rebuild communities “one zip code at a time.”

Kaplan’s book has three parts. Part 1 lays out what Kaplan means by a “sideways approach” to rebuilding communities. Working horizontally, or sideways, means two things. First, it means working across relationships to build coalitions that strengthen the day-to-day relationships we have with our neighbors. In other words, repair happens not only by introducing new elements or relationships into a community but by strengthening the connections that already exist. Second, working horizontally means bridging the divides that characterize our society by forging bonds across places or between neighborhoods. It differs from top-down big government (or big nonprofit) approaches that “do things to people.” But it also differs from bottom-up approaches which often focus too narrowly on “a very specific problem in a specific place.” Specific places and problems need to be approached in conjunction with the people and places around them.

In Part 2, Kaplan chronicles the work of five social repairers—he also calls them social entrepreneurs—who built organizations that illustrate this sideways approach. Each chapter closes with a collection of “lessons learned” from the enterprises he describes.

In what follows, I take the liberty to distill the nearly fifty lessons Kaplan learned observing the sideways approach in action down to a list of five. Think of it as a donor’s quick guide to supporting place-based, sideways approaches to strengthening neighborhood institutions and relationships. While all of Kaplan’s lessons learned in their original context are worth the reader’s time and reflection, these five struck me as especially pertinent for donors:

  1. Lead with a values-based approach. 
  2. Focus on hiring locally. 
  3. Offer more than just material support.
  4. Create community progress reports. 
  5. Build indigenous capital.

Read the full article about rebuilding communities by Bruno Manno at Philanthropy Daily.