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Asset-Based Community Development (ABCD): core principles

August 13, 2021 by admin
Featured Members, Policy/Legislative

In Building Communities from the Inside Out: A Path toward Finding and Mobilizing
Community Assets (1993), John P. Kretzmann and John L. McKnight noticed that universities
and other institutions focused exclusively on the needs, deficiencies and problems
of neighborhoods. In 1969, when they started their work, deindustrialization had caused
massive shifts in US cities—leaving people unemployed and communities economically
devastated. Instead of focusing on needs, John and Jody, as part of an Urban Research
Center at Northwestern University, conducted a four-year research project that focused
on residents and their gifts, talents, capacities and creativity. The basic idea was that
concentrating on what was working as opposed to what was not working could help
promote community development. By focusing on success stories, as told by community
residents, institutions like universities, nonprofit organizations and philanthropic foundations
could identify how they could support residents instead of providing them with the
services they thought that residents needed. They named this way of thinking “Asset-
Based Community Development.”
Kretzmann and McKnight conceptualized two options, paths or dilemmas available
to community leaders, institutions and others involved in neighborhood work. The first
path emphasized the needs of the community addressing its deficiencies. In other words,
concentrating on the half-empty glass (see Figure 4.1). Another path is committed to
exploring new opportunities and discovering individuals—and by proxy communities—
capabilities and assets. This path concentrated on the half-full glass. They saw this as
a dilemma that institutions like Northwestern University faced, where John and Jody
worked. Focusing on the deficits, however, is the more traditional path.
People and Communities
have deficiencies & needs
Individuals and Communities
have assets and capacities

Figure 4.1 “Is the glass half-empty or half-full?”
68 Research handbook on community development
Images of South Bronx in New York City, South Central in Los Angeles and the South
Side of Chicago have negative impressions on most Americans. This is because these
spaces are depicted as criminal, violent, and are found to be largely associated with drugs
and criminal activities. Negative conceptual images are a clear depiction of a troubled
community. With the rational of deficiency oriented policies and programs, the needs of
the community act as a basic fundamental principle to discuss problems among outside
decision-makers. University research and funding has contributed to study the problem
in detail by using funding to study community problems without offering solutions.
When solutions are offered, they do not come from the residents either in terms of their
voice or their capacity to make their own communities better. The value of services and
policies coming from the outside becomes the only resource to solve community problems.
Because of this paternalistic relationship between social service providers and residents,
people have started to see themselves as clients whose needs can only be satisfied by outsiders.
For example, welfare recipient’s forms ask people about all of their problems such
as: Are you a dropout? Are you about to be evicted? Have you abused illegal substances,
and so on? These surveys make people feel worthless, that they have many problems, and
cannot see their positive contributions to society.
In this way, institutions, including universities, create labeled people, where residents
are identified by their deficits. Some of the labels might include school dropout, singlemother,
at youth-risk, welfare recipient, among many others. Social service organizations
in particular use some of these labels for their clients. In fact, one of the mistakes social
service organizations made is that they treat people like clients, instead of treating people
like citizens—we do not refer to legal status, but those who live, are part of, or claim
their right to the city. The government has emulated human service agencies that supply
funding to communities, and all this is controlled based on problem-oriented data. These
problem-oriented data are evaluated as a result of surveys conducted regarding needs of
communities. Residents have begun to consider themselves as being dependent, and may
think of themselves as not being capable enough to possess control over their own lives.
This approach breeds hopelessness. People start saying to themselves: we are deficient, we
are a poor community, we are hopeless.
The needs-based or deficit-based approach to community development has become
institutionalized across government, nonprofits and universities. For example, foundations
request proposals with a needs statement. In a nutshell, they are asking what is
wrong with the community. At times, the more deficits in a community, the more the
likelihood of receiving funding. Programs usually concentrate on community needs such
as poverty, crime, unemployment, poor health, slum housing and so on. Foundations tend
to request a neighborhood needs map, while institutions tend to create them to obtain
funding. A neighborhood needs map might include unemployment, truancy, illiteracy
and a whole host of community problems (see Figure 4.2).
The community is viewed as being associated with a large number of problems and
deficiencies which need to be addressed not by them but by outside institutions with
power and money. There are a number of consequences of favoring neighborhood needsbased
maps conceptually. For example, residents internalize that solutions come from the
outside. Not only that, but that outside resources are required to cope with the identified
Asset-Based Community Development (ABCD) 69
needs. Since people are merely the recipients of services, the problem-solving capacities
of the individual are ignored and discouraged. Resources are targeted to provide the
necessary funding to service providers and professionals rather than the residents.
Moreover, the leadership of the local community is profoundly affected negatively by
the availability of resources which lays its foundation on the needs map. In other words,
community leaders need to speak of the community needs to advocate for resources in
their communities. This is a contradiction to community organizing which presumes that
people are empowered to create social change. Meanwhile, the funds provided relying on
the needs map have depicted that only outside help could offer the necessary solution
to the identified problem. The renewal of funding must assure that the problem should
decrease in comparison to previous years. Institutions have to prove that their intervention
results in less dropouts, unemployment and teenage pregnancies, for example.
This survival strategy, both from the dependency of funding from institutions and the
dependency of residents for services, can only work based on a needs map focusing on
an individual client rather than a plan that is developed for the entire community. An
approach based on the needs map may never benefit individuals and their communities
over the long run. This is because this way of thinking cannot bring about positive social
changes at large. When institutions do not find funding for programs, efforts dwindle
and may not achieve sustainability. Given the many negative consequences of favoring a
needs-based map, a paradigm shift is needed.
Asset-Based Community Development (ABCD) emphasizes the creation of policies and
activities involving the capacities and skills of neighborhood residents. ABCD comes

Source: Kretzmann and McKnight (1993, p. 3).
Figure 4.2 Needs-based map
70 Research handbook on community development
from the recognition that development of an entire community can only take place if
residents are able to invest their gifts and themselves in the process. Instead of depending
entirely on outside resources and charity, it is better to start the process of development
from within the community—that is, from the inside out. This truth has been recognized
much earlier by neighborhood leaders than by researchers and social service providers.
The efforts dedicated to the development of the community will be successful only if
there is a clear understanding of the internal assets and capabilities of the community.
Connecting all local assets of the neighborhood is one step towards rebuilding communities.
This does not imply that nonprofits, foundations and universities should abandon
communities, and residents need to do everything themselves. What it does say is that, if
we are intentional in building communities from the inside out, power will multiply.
Before writing the green book as many community development practitioners refer
to Building Communities from the Inside Out, Kretzmann and McKnight conducted
extensive fieldwork. They visited about 20 cities and had conversations with more than
2,000 residents. Instead of asking, “What does this community need?,” they asked, “Can
you tell us what people who live on this block or neighborhood have done together that
made things better?” After listening to thousands of stories John and Jody came up with
a list of resources. They decided to call these resources assets. Initially, they identified five
community assets, and about ten years later they recognize a sixth asset. A community
asset map is then composed of: (1) individuals, (2) associations, (3) institutions, (4) land
and the physical environment, (5) exchange and (6) culture and stories (see Figure 4.3).

The assets are the basic building blocks of a thriving neighborhood. The capacities of
the individual (his or her gifts) are appropriately at the center of the asset map. There are
three forms of gifts:
1. Gifts of the head (subjects residents know, e.g., law, mathematics, medicine and so
2. Gifts of the hands (practical skills that residents know, e.g., playing a musical instrument,
fixing a car, taking care of children, videography, writing and so on) and
3. Gifts of the heart (issues residents care deeply about, e.g., childhood education,
healthy eating, biking infrastructure and so on).
Associations of individuals, whether formal or informal such as block clubs, youth or
older adults groups, are critical to solve problems. Groups of residents form associations
because they are passionate about an everyday activity, interest or care. These associations
might have no staff or staff with low pay, but what matters is that they always create the
vision and engage in work with volunteers to achieve goals. Residents are found to be
primarily associated with many types of religious, cultural and recreational activities.
These associations act as an essential tool to offer solutions to the existing problems in
neighborhoods. ABCD conceptualizes association visually as a circle (see Figure 4.3)
because people come together in a organic manner. Associations usually make decisions
based on consensus. There is an excellent power in associations, which often goes unrecognized.
Associations can be very useful in action—they are an amplifier of gifts, creative
and can reach large numbers of residents.
Private institutions such as businesses, nonprofits, hospitals, along with public institutions
such as libraries, colleges and human services play a significant role in community
Asset-Based Community Development (ABCD) 71
development. The distinction of an institution is that they are hierarchical in nature. A
nonprofit, for example, might have an executive director, directors of different programs
and employees. Decision-making is usually from the top down. Because of this, ABCD
conceptualizes institutions, the second asset, in the form of a triangle or a hierarchy (see
Figure 4.4).

It is worth noting the differences between associations and institutions (refer to
Figure 4.4). Associations are about choice because people can come and go freely. People
or citizens join associations by choice because they care about a particular issue, topic or
activity. Associations thrive from individual capacities and residents collectivizing. On the
other hand, institutions are about control (budgets, personnel, and so on); employees at
institutions produce goods and services for consumers or clients according to their needs.
However, there is power in institutions as well. They can provide resources for projects
that residents have identified. With their funding, they can compensate residents for their
work. They can amplify the voices of residents by recognizing their gifts and allowing
them to reciprocate.
The fourth asset is physical space—that is, land, buildings, rivers, roads, and so on.
Communities need to recognize local physical assets in order to mobilize them for their
Associations, Individuals, Culture/Stories, Local Economy, Institutional, Physical Assets

Figure 4.3 Six community assets
72 Research handbook on community development
benefit. For example, a vacant lot could be an excellent opportunity for a community
garden. There might be other new and unexpected uses for buildings and land. What
seemed a glass half-empty (or unused space) can become a glass half-full, just by changing
one’s perspective.
The fifth asset is exchange, which could be conceptualized as the local economy and
how money flows through a neighborhood. Economic development is mainly targeted
here as a way to promote the success of the entire community. The development process is
entirely asset-based whereby the skills and capabilities are also evaluated. An asset-based
strategy is a path created to promote the development of the community. In terms of
economic-based theory, it is essential to maintain the dollars of a community within its
boundaries, so there is a multiplier effect of those dollars (reiterative spending with the
local economy). Large corporations tend to take profits out of the area and invest them
somewhere else. In that way, money is leaked out of the community, profiting outsiders
but not residents. But exchange can also happen without money. For example, in “Buy
Nothing” groups neighbors can borrow a lawn mower or offer free furniture. A community
garden where people exchange produce can be another great way of strengthening
the community.
Finally, the sixth asset is culture and stories. This asset was identified about ten
years after the green book was written. By listening to many different stories of
successful community building over many years, it became apparent that stories
in themselves were assets. John and Jody did not come up with this list of assets
themselves. Residents were aware of their local assets, and they told stories about
how they mobilized these assets. Identifying assets is the first step for neighborhood
action. The second step is to connect or mobilize assets. To connect assets, there must
be a “connector,” that is, usually
an individual that knows other individuals or that
recognize an associations
or local institutions that can help other individuals, associations
or institutions to achieve a goal. There are some characteristics of connectors:

Source: Adapted from basic training slides, (accessed 9 November
Figure 4.4 Differences between associations and institutions
Asset-Based Community Development (ABCD) 73
(1) they are gift centered, (2) well connected, (3) trusted by others and (4) believe that
community is welcoming.
Using an ABCD approach, neighbors can ask three questions: (1) what can we achieve
by using our own assets? (2) what can we achieve with our own assets if we get some
outside help? and (3) what can we not do with our assets that must be done by outsiders?
Institutions cannot do what communities can do, and communities cannot do what
institutions can. This goes back to the idea that institutions can have their own role to play
in community development. One of the roles of institutions is to empower residents. The
“Citizen Power Progression” also known as the “Power Ladder” is a way to conceptualize
how residents can move from being victims, full of needs, to producers and when in partnership
with institutions to co-producers. When residents are producers or co-producers,
they have control of resources for community problem-solving.
In order to give citizen power, institutions do not look at neighborhoods that are poor
and need to be fixed (refer to Figure 4.5). Instead, they understand that communities
have assets that can be leveraged for development. Institutions that follow the more


… Vision
… Outcomes
Source: Adapted from basic training slides, (accessed 9 November
Figure 4.5 Citizen Power Progression
74 Research handbook on community development
traditional path of a needs-based approach often ask what is wrong with a community.
Meanwhile, an asset-based approach considers what works already and how assets could
be mobilized. While a needs-based map shows unemployment, truancy, illiteracy and
other deficiencies, an asset map will show individuals, associations, institutions, land
and the physical environment, exchange, culture and stories. A needs-based approach
would argue that human capital emanates from the outside from institutions while an
asset-based approach would argue that it comes from within the community. On the one
hand, people are identified by their deficiencies and on the other hand, by their gifts.
In a service mindset, individuals are clients while in the asset-based mindset they are
citizens. In one paradigm, change is achieved by providing more resources and services.
In another paradigm, change is achieved by engaging the community in their own
Funding is spent on paying administrators and professional community developers
in the needs-based approach. In the ABCD approach, we might also pay professionals,
but we recognize that most of the funding should go to community residents for their
work and the community projects that they envision. The model of development in a
needs-based approach sadly creates dependence, as opposed to empowering people by
recognizing their gifts and capacities. One leadership model is based on professional
staff while the alternative is about institutions facilitating processes that are citizen-led.
The most valuable resource under a needs paradigm is financial resources while ABCD
is about connecting people and creating relationships. ABCD recognizes that money is
not the answer but people and relationships are. Money comes after recognition and
awareness of this.
ABCD tries to identify community connectors—people who connect individuals to
individuals, associations and institutions. Connectors invite others to bring their gifts
and they encourage others to create a solution. When people create things themselves,
they own them (and are vested in them). There is a great potential to have a multiplier
effect using an ABCD approach. Service-oriented thinking is not sustainable because the
effort often dwindles when funding ends. Table 4.1 provides an overview of the differences
between the needs-based and asset-based approaches.
ABCD is a straightforward idea: focus on what is strong and not on what is wrong. John
and Jody did not expect that the green book would have sold more than 125,000 copies,
used as a framework in more than 80 books and cited in more than 10,000 scholarly
articles. As of 2019, there were 52 ABCD faculty and 22 fellows in the ABCD Institute
at DePaul University. There are a number of regular conferences in the United States,
Canada, Australia, India, the United Kingdom, to mention a few. ABCD 101 trainings
are conducted twice a year in Chicago and other cities in the United States to raise funds
for the Institute. A quote that faculty and fellows at the ABCD Institute frequently use
to conclude their ABCD 101 training is from Lao Tzu titled “On Going to the People”
and it goes like this:
Go to the people. Live among them. Learn from them. Love them. Start with what they know.
Build on what they have. But of the best leaders when their task is done the people will remark
“We have done it ourselves.”
This is the ABCD way. We invite you to join our movement.
Asset-Based Community Development (ABCD) 75
Kretzmann, J. P., and McKnight, J. (1993). Building Communities from the Inside Out: A Path toward Finding
and Mobilizing a Community’s Assets. Evanston, Ill: The Asset-Based Community Development Institute,
Institute for Policy Research, Northwestern University.
Table 4.1 Needs- versus asset-based: a paradigm shift
Needs approach Assets approach
What institutions generally think This community is poor
and it needs to be fixed
This community has assets that
can be leveraged
The data shows What is wrong with a
What is great already and what
can be improved
Map shows Unemployment, truancy,
illiteracy and so on
Assets (individuals, associations,
institutions and so on)
Human capital Comes from the outside
from institutions
Comes from within the
People are identified By their deficiencies By their gifts
Individuals are Clients Citizens
Change is achieved By providing more
resources and services
By engaging the community in
their own self-determination
Model of development Dependence Empowerment
Leadership model Professional staff Facilitated by institutions but
The most valuable resource Financial resources People and relationships, but in
particular “connectors”
In the long term Dwindles Snowballs
Source: Created by the author.



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