“Social networks have value. Social capital refers to the value of social networks, or whom people know, and the inclinations that arise from these networks to do things for each other. Thus, people benefit from the trust, reciprocity, information, and cooperation of these social networks” (Robert D. Putnam, Harvard Kennedy School of Government, 2018).

Within the context of “new-to-ATE” grants, many novice PIs have low social capital compared to more experienced PIs. New PIs are often not familiar with the norms of NSF grant proposal writing, reporting, and other communication; other PIs and collaborators in the community; and other elements that empower more experienced PIs. While proposal-writing mentoring programs are available, not all ATE applicants are granted this opportunity, and this mentoring typically ends once a program is funded.

The evaluator is in a unique position to strengthen social capital by offering new PIs access to their client pool of ATE grantees to facilitate networking and the sharing of information. Connections can be made through the evaluator, new knowledge shared, and relationships cultivated. Increasing access to networks and information can lead to stronger program implementation strategies as well as increased PI confidence in the process.

Here are three tips on when and how an evaluator can connect clients to each other.

1.     The First Six Months. My evaluation team continually discusses how the ATE programs we are evaluating might logically connect (e.g., discipline/area, program components). When a challenge arises, we see what connections can be made so that novice PIs have someone to use as a resource in navigating the challenge. Most experienced PIs are willing to share their experiences in order help others.

2.     National ATE PI Conference. As a lead evaluator, I find time at the ATE conference to introduce clients to one another over coffee or before or after sessions being attended by my clients. I preface these face-to-face meetings with inquiries beforehand to make sure clients are interested in meeting and have available time. Most report it helpful to meet others in similar fields and get a chance to talk to each other about their programs.

3.     Year One Reporting Time. I have found that, traditionally, novice ATE PIs are very anxious about writing their first annual report to the NSF. To address this challenge, I established a meeting of new and more experienced PIs to discuss year one reporting. In the meeting, a seasoned PI presents how they approached first-year reporting and answers questions alongside a former NSF program officer who provides further guidance. The positive feedback from this meeting has been tremendous.

Connecting new PIs with more experienced PIs facilitates the growth of social capital, resulting in better collaborative inquiry, stronger networks, persistence with project implementation, and subsequent reporting of impact.



Harvard Kennedy School of Government. (2018). ​Social Capital Primer. http://robertdputnam.com/bowling-alone/social-capital-primer/



About the Authors

Megan Mullins

Megan Mullins box with arrow

Mullins Consulting, Inc.

Megan Mullins is a program evaluator located in Kalamazoo, MI. She specializes in evaluation and social science research supporting education, nonprofit development, and community change initiatives. She emphasizes communication, collaboration, shared experiences, and shared ownership of initiatives in which she is engaged. Mullins works with diverse people from a wide variety of community sectors on issues about which they care deeply. She uses an appreciative approach to project development and implementation, and uses program evaluation to illuminate process and improve impact in ways that help her partners tell dynamic, scientifically valid, and relevant stories about their work.

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