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Compassion: The First Building Block of Social Capital

When you hear the word “compassion,” what comes to mind? What thoughts, memories, and feelings does it evoke? Compassion is often understood as a feeling, and nothing more. While compassion certainly engages the heart, the full meaning of the word isn’t fulfilled if an open heart doesn’t lead to open hands.

The Miriam-Webster Dictionary defines compassion as “sympathetic consciousness of others’ distress together with a desire to alleviate it.”

Compassion is similar to empathy in feeling but fundamentally different in practice. Empathy can be understood as feeling the emotions and circumstances of others without directly experiencing their circumstances or stepping into their world.

Empathy alone can’t get someone employed. But compassion will.

At Social Capital Builders, we define compassion as awareness of a person’s barriers to economic mobility and the desire to help them remove these barriers. This concept is reinforced by years of experience working with returning citizens and marginalized youth that has taught us that it is mostly through someone’s heart that many get a paycheck in their pocket.

In our survey of 633 employed adults, 44% of respondents reported that compassion was a factor in their receiving employment. Moreover, three quarters reported they had witnessed others receiving employment due to the compassion of others. 84.12% of those polled witnessed compassion in the workplace paying off for the receiver, and 77.54% saw it pay off for the giver (i.e. employer).

It’s no coincidence that compassion is enthroned as the first pillar of our social capital framework: CARTI (Compassion, Assistance, Reciprocity, Trust, and Information). Without compassion, the four subsequent links of CARTI will fail. The CARTI model is used to gauge the health of a person’s social capital, that is, reciprocal connections that will help a person achieve his/her personal and professional goals. People lacking these connections require a compassionate individual to not only feel the struggles of others but to intervene and do something about it.

Empathy differs from compassion in that it is strongly correlated to relatability. In fact, researchers1 believe that subjective empathy may lead to unethical choices. One experiment2 presented subjects with a young girl suffering from a chronic illness. She was placed at the bottom of a waiting list to receive pain treatment. When asked to consider how the young girl felt, most subjects placed her near the top of the list, disregarding the conditions of those well above her on the list.

Research suggests that people who employ compassion rather than empathy can reach more effective, logical, and moral decisions. Compassion demands being honest with a situation while emotionally connected to those affected. Logic, emotions, and assistance intertwine throughout the entire process of compassion to best assist a person in overcoming his or her barriers to success.

Compassion is twofold. It involves the emotional connectivity of empathy along with moral doing. Empathy spurs a visceral connection to a person’s condition, which may or may not lead to the best decision if acted on. When empathy, coupled with sound reasoning, leads us to come alongside a person to overcome an obstacle, compassion is born.

Social Capital Builders believes in a vast pool of potential that can only be unlocked with compassion. Compassion doesn’t merely involve responding to a need but recognizing the potential of the person or persons we are being compassionate towards. Compassion demands consideration of the person’s entire story – both the employer and the job seeker. True compassion involves looking beyond externalities on both the supply and demand side of the workforce. Compassion is the beachhead for transformation in economic success for all parties involved.

Compassion starts with connectivity and ends in reciprocity. If employers show compassion to job seekers, job seekers feel connected to and believe in their work. They’re likely to invest energy and effort into becoming better employees. Employers and educators need to take a creative, compassionate look beyond algorithms in the hiring process and employ some social capital.

Right now, compassion is hardly a subject discussed in workforce development circles, yet it is a major factor in how people get and keep jobs. Research literature is clear: compassion in the workplace is fundamental. It is time to encourage policymakers, funders, and workforce systems to invest larger and with broader resources in the study of social capital.

We can push them to research the potential of helping job seekers understand the importance of building compassion and the benefits to employers for showing it. Let’s move the needle together.

Next week, we’ll dive into Assistance, the next step in building social capital and the second pillar of the CARTI model. Stay connected.

Edward DeJesus


Social Capital Builders

1.Bloom, P. (2017). Empathy and Its Discontents. Trends in Cognitive Sciences, 21, 24-31.

  1. Batson, C.D. et al. (1995) Immorality from empathy-induced altruism: when compassion and justice conflict. J. Pers. Soc. Psychol., 68, 1042