The Saguaro Seminar

Grade Level: 
6, 7, 8, 9, 10, 11, 12
Civil Society
Social Capital
The Saguaro Seminar is an initiative focused on the study of social capital and civic engagement in America. Through this research, emphasis was given to improving connections among Americans and improving the infrastructure of civic engagement. By doing this, The Saguaro Seminar hopes to advance ways to build social capital.

Written by Lindsay Hill Stawick with some content from an earlier edition by



The Saguaro Seminar was born out of a need to assess social capital and civic engagement in America and provide concrete strategies on how to improve the status of civic engagement among communities across the nation.  Professor Robert D. Putman from the John F. Kennedy School of Government, plus 30 scholars (including then civil rights lawyer and former president, Barack Obama), worked together to formulate a plan that they coined the Bettertogether report. Since the formulation of the report, the Saguaro Seminar has been working on longer-term research projects looking at the relationship between social capital, diversity, and equality, and the interrelation of faith, politics, and social capital (The Sagurao Seminar, 2012). 

Social capital is the inherent value derived from people being together, working together, playing together, worshipping together, interacting, and so forth. The trust and other “norms of reciprocity” intrinsic to social networks are intangible, invaluable resources, which are unique to community (Putnam, 2005). Ranging from voting to starting a community action organization, civic engagement involves looking outside of oneself and one’s personal interests—at any level—to the broader needs of society.


Historic Roots

As a point of reference, the industrial revolution created drastic changes in the lives of American citizens, leaving traditional social networks ineffective. In the decades that followed, new organizations and methods arose to fill this void. Many of those changes remain today, a testament to the policy-makers and implementers of that time. However, as stated above, some of the means of civic engagement utilized in the past have not survived recent evolutions in our society (political, familiar, residential, and otherwise) (The Saguaro Seminar, 2012).

As mentioned before, Putnam established the Saguaro Seminar in 1995. The actual conferences began two years later. Meeting in three-day sessions eight times from April 1997 to April 2000, the 33 participants evaluated and scrutinized the methods with which citizens from all over the United States were expanding their social networks, reaping the benefits from their social capital, and establishing new civic engagements. Each meeting studied a different topic about social capital: general, youth, government, politics, faith, work, the arts, and technology. The Seminar continues to function as a resource for information and ideas about growing social capital in communities ranging from neighborhoods to nations (The Saguaro Seminar, 2012).



The major influence of the Seminar is its emphasis on the innovation seen as coming to civic engagement behavior in the very near future. When 33 leaders in a field come together and establish a dialogue, great things can happen. Among these is the most comprehensive survey on civic engagement in the nation’s history. The Social Capital Community Benchmark Survey asked almost 30,000 Americans questions relating to how they function within their communities. The results serve as a benchmark for examining behavior in the involvement and engagement of the citizenry (Saguaro Seminar, 2012).

The Seminar’s report, Bettertogether, is a key resource for understanding the future of civic engagement in the United States. The ideas of the report are presented further in a book, Better Together, written by the co-chairs of the Seminar. In the final year of the Seminar, Putnam also published a book entitled Bowling Alone, expanding upon his 1995 article of the same name (Putnam 2000). Other participants also printed works stimulated by the dialogue of the Seminar.


Ties to the Philanthropic Sector

While increasing one’s civic engagement is not limited to philanthropic behavior, it does include it. Volunteering, participating in community initiatives, and making donations are all part of building social capital. Nonprofit organizations can be an individual’s avenue for connecting with the community and the mutual benefits associated with such interaction.

One facet of The Saguaro Seminar is its research surrounding civics education among youth.  Many organizations and individuals are realizing now that effective civics education is not just about memorizing knowledge, but also learning attitudes and skills (Saguaro Seminar, 2012).  In an attempt to tie youth into what it really means to be civically engaged, The Saguaro Seminar is suggesting that young people need to be taught skills such as how to organize a meeting, how to effectively create a public speech, or how to write letters persuading others to do something. 

According to the briefing paper Civic Skills, from Learning to Give, it is important for people to possess civic skills because it is the foundation for responsible and community minded citizens. The Saguaro Seminar emphasizes teaching civic engagement young because as students become adults, they will be better equipped to practice civic engagement and philanthropy effectively and consistently.  Young people have a unique opportunity to offer hope and vision for the future, and that is why civic engagement among youth is so important to the livelihood of our communities and nation (Youniss, Bales, Christmas-Best, Diversi, Mclaughlin, and Silbereisen, 2002).

Furthermore, philanthropy can be seen as all behaviors that better society.  The benefits of simply increasing one’s civic engagement can have great effects on society at-large ranging from decreasing crime to improving education and from lengthening lifetimes to decreasing poverty – all of these are areas of focus within the philanthropic sector. Greater community interaction can also lead to greater involvement. As people get to know each other, they want to help each other, and may volunteer to serve each other (Saguaro Seminar, 2012).


Key Related Ideas

Below are terms that are commonly used by The Saguaro Seminar on their website and in their reports.  To better understand why social capital and civic engagement are important and necessary, it is vital to understand the terms associated with these topics.  

  • Social capital is the blanket title given to all those positive effects of a community’s interacting. Among the benefits associated with social capital are increased safety, education, and health and decreased crime, illiteracy, and socioeconomic disparity. As the name suggests, social capital can be gained or lost depending on behavior.
  • Civic Engagement is the practice of truly being involved in one’s community—taking an interest in the happenings in the area as well as interacting with the people who live there. Social capital is built through increased civic engagement. Some examples of civic engagement are voting, joining a neighborhood association, volunteering, living and working in the same community, and welcoming new neighbors into the neighborhood.
  • Service Learning is a method of imparting the importance of philanthropy to young people. The inclusion of volunteering activities and philanthropic lessons into the curriculum teaches students to be more community minded. Service learning can also be used as a tool to increase social capital among a younger generation.


Important People Related to the Topic

  • Lew Feldstein co-chaired the Saguaro Seminar and co-authored Better Together: Restoring the American Community. As the New Hampshire Charitable Foundation’s president, he is one of that state’s leaders in the realm of venture capital.
  • Robert D. Putnam’s 1995 article “Bowling Alone: America’s declining social capital” spearheaded a movement to examine ideas of civic engagement. He co-chaired the Saguaro Seminar and co-authored Better Together: Restoring the American Community. His accomplishments on the faculty of Harvard University are numerous and laudable.
  • Thomas H. Sander is the Saguaro Seminar’s executive director and has been so since its establishment in 1995. Among his many credits are his part in the establishment of the National Service Trust and his support of the writings of seminal publications on civic engagement.


Related Nonprofit Organizations

  • Citizen Schools is a nationally recognized organization dedicated to service learning as an educational tool outside of the classroom. Connecting students with businesses, nonprofits, and adult volunteers to learn more about their communities and their role as citizens, Citizen Schools provides programs for middle-school youth. The organization’s methods and benefits extend beyond those of the typical after-school program because civic engagement helps children to feel more a part of their communities.
  • Do Something is an initiative set forth to make service more appealing to youth. Its programs include monthly ideas to challenge young people to engage the community, a magazine titled BUILD, and awards to service role-models.
  • Hands On Network is a national organization seeking to solve societal hardship through service. The Network realizes the multi-dimensionality of service and civic engagement by emphasizing not only the work done by volunteers but also the intrinsic meaning of the experience to them.
  • Youth Philanthropy Initiative of Indiana (YPII) is a signature program of Indiana Philanthropy Alliance.  YPII’s mission is to grow lifelong philanthropists who give of their time, talent, and treasure for the common good.  YPII works to advance youth philanthropy with 35+ community foundation youth philanthropy programs and a Partner Network of 40+ community organizations. 
  • Learn and Serve America supports and encourages service-learning throughout the United States, and enables over one million students to make meaningful contributions to their community while building their academic and civic skills. By engaging our nation's young people in service-learning, Learn and Serve America instills an ethic of lifelong community service.
  • is a youth civic engagement resource for any young person wanting to be more civically engaged.  This resource provides information about how to start that journey. 


Reflection Question - As you contemplate your future and life after high school, how do you see yourself civically engaged in your community? 



  • Learning to Give. Civic Skills. Accessed 26 October 2017.
  • Putnam, Robert D. “Bowling Alone: America’s declining social capital,” Journal of Democracy 6 (1995): 1, 65.
  • Putnam, Robert D. Bowling Alone: The Collapse and Revival of American Community. New York: Simon and Shuster, 2000. ISBN: 0684832836.
  • The Saguaro Seminar. Saguaro Seminar: Civic Engagement in America. Accessed 26 October 2017.
  • Youniss, J., Bales, S., Christmas-Best, V., Diversi, M., McLaughlin, M. and Silbereisen, R. (2002), Youth Civic Engagement in the Twenty-First Century. Journal of Research on Adolescence.


This paper was developed by students taking a Philanthropic Studies course taught at the Lilly Family School of Philanthropy at Indiana University in 2017. It is offered by Learning To Give and the Center on Philanthropy at Indiana University.