Tap Into Community Assets, Not Problems

Reading a Map


If you want to rebuild a troubled community, tap its assets first.  Now that seems counter-intuitive!  Are you saying to ignore the obvious problems?  Massive economic shifts have left many American cities—such as Detroit after it emerged from bankruptcy last December—all too aware of the challenges.

The asset-based approach is really about how you—congregation or faith leader or active citizen—prioritize those first steps toward a solution.  Don’t start with the problem! 

Thankfully, not every community faces Detroit’s daunting situation, with unemployment twice the state average, and its water, transportation, computer and financial systems all needing to be rebuilt.  “It’s all going to be a challenge,” the mayor remarked.[1]

Let’s start smaller.  Go local.  Remember the Scandinavian proverb, “Dig where you stand.”  Starting with what our community already has—the asset-based approach—can energize community actors (including congregations and dedicated individuals) to discover creative solutions.  John Kretzmann and John McKnight, who co-founded the Asset-Based Community Development Institute at Northwestern University, developed this asset-based approach to community renewal (http://www.abcdinstitute.org/).  Their work can help activists who have grown tired by other well-worn methods.

Let’s start with three principles of asset-based community development (ABCD), and next look at five steps for using ABCD for social change.

Principles of Asset-Based Community Development

  • It’s asset-based.  (Well, that’s obvious.)  It looks at what capacities are already present, not at what’s problematic.  Yes, the glass is half-full!
  • It’s internally-focused.  The long-time Speaker of the House Tip O’Neill famously said, “All politics is local.”  The point here is not to minimize external factors, but to get started with what’s near at hand.
  • It’s relationship-driven.  The challenge here is avoid the arms-length approach to studying the situation by engaging fellow citizens in a conversation, building relationships along the way.[2]  Some call this “participatory research.”

Five Steps for Asset-Based Community Building

  1. Map the Entire Community’s Assets.  “Mapping” is a visual metaphor for taking an inventory of the different capacities that reside in the community.  As you look across the landscape—the first step for any mapmaker—what do you see immediately and what is not so obvious?   Starting with individuals, look for the “gifts of strangers” in your midst—persons who have capacities that rarely come into view.  Move next to associations (such as congregations or community organizations) and finally to institutions such as hospitals, parks, libraries or businesses, banks or corporations.  Develop the entire picture, or least aspire to it.
  2. Build Relationships.  Relationship-building can start in the mapping process.  Ask for help.  Invite community members to engage in joint fact finding—perhaps through one-on-one conversations or community meetings.  There is no single blueprint for building relationships, but people generally know the difference between being analyzed by an outsider and being engaged as an equal.  Asking for help can start the process of building connections.
  3. Mobilize the Assets for Economic Development and Information Sharing.  Economically hard-hit communities can resemble Swiss cheese—the holes are apparent to those willing to look.  If the problem is the lack of banks in the neighborhood or a crying need for grocery stores that provide inexpensive, fresh produce, then mobilizing assets might involve linking the existing institutions together—in this case, banks and grocery stores—to begin the process of economic renewal.  Mobilizing entails moving beyond talk to collective action.
  4. Convene the Community to Develop a Vision and a Plan.  There are many models for community-wide strategic planning.  My favorites are Appreciative Inquiry (https://appreciativeinquiry.case.edu) and the Search Conference.[3] Kretzmann and McKnight call for three simple commitments by participants in the process:  1) Begin with assets, 2) Expand the table by inviting a wide variety of stakeholders, and 3) Ground your planning, which can sometimes become starry-eyed in its hopefulness, in the reality of day-to-day problem-solving.  Plant those feet firmly on the ground.
  5. Lastly, Leverage Outside Resources.  It should be obvious by now that an asset-based planning process must be driven from within by local residents.  Nevertheless, leveraging outside resources (from government or business, for instance) can play a significant role, as long as it’s the final and not the first step.  You want to avoid a situation where outside resources (such as a government or foundation grant) serve as the cart that drives the horse.




[1] Monica Davey, “Detroit Is Out of Bankruptcy, But Not Out of the Woods,” The New York Times, Dec. 10, 2014.

[2] John Kretzmann and John McKnight, Building Communities From the Inside Out, Skokie, IL: ACTA Publications, 1993, 9.

[3] Merrelyn Emery and Ronald Purser, The Search Conference (San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 1996).


Photo:  Mick O, “How I Got To (And Out of) Weston,” March 7, 2009.  Flickr Creative Commons.


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