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Nowhere in philanthropy and public policy is the cult of the financier more evident than in the gluey adjective SOCIAL. The term is now stuck onto every gilt-edge buzz-word from the New York Stock Exchange to the Harvard Business School: social capital, social investment, social leverage, social dividends, social entrepreneur (q.v.).

This fixation may have begun with a useful little metaphorical insight by, among others, Robert Putnam, whose book Bowling Alone argues that the wealth of societies is measured not only in their financial assets and human skills, but in the social glue that encourages trust and interaction among members. The depletion of this last form of wealth, “social capital,” spells trouble for modern America, in Putnam’s argument.

All’s well up to that point. But as happens so often, one evocative metaphor soon becomes an unstoppable fad. What began with capital has affected every other noun known to capitalism, so that by now every financial doodad in the Accountant’s Handbook has gone SOCIAL. This would be merely a cliché like so many others, if it weren’t for the belief -by now widespread in the foundation world-that all these pinstriped coinages have real meanings, and must be imposed on grantseekers as criteria for selection.

To qualify for support from many foundations, applicants now must show how they intend to build social capital, earn social returns, increase social productivity, and so on. All too often, grantees understand that this simply means they must dust off last year’s grant proposals and rewrite the old points in this new Socialese.


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