Asset-Based Community Development

In this module, you will learn about the practice and history of Asset-Based Community Development (ABCD).

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This course is a collaboration with The Asset-Based Community Development Institute. It is part of the Weave Learning Center.

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We believe that possibility, power, and promise exist in every community. Asset-based community development begins with the gifts of people and their capacity to organize to create the world they want to see.

“I’ve traveled enough to realize there are brilliant people in every community who know solutions. They don’t need saviors, they need allies.”

~ Wab Kinew

Asset-Based Community Development, or ABCD, is simply a name given to the practices of everyday people in community banding together around a common goal or challenge by starting with what they already have. To put it another way, ABCD is the practice of “using what we have to secure what we need.”

Rather than a special technique that anyone invented, asset-based work is a way of seeing and of doing things to create health and address concerns that communities themselves have practiced quite naturally for centuries (especially those who have faced oppression).

More than a rigid methodology or blueprint, ABCD is a lens for focusing on what communities and neighbors can do, rather than their needs or problems. In other words, we focus on “what’s strong, not what’s wrong.” By starting here, we can tap into a vast reservoir of local capacity that often goes ignored and unused. This approach also places community members, rather than outside professionals or agencies, in the driver’s seat as the producers of the change they wish to see.

Of course, every community and community member has needs and challenges. An asset-based approach does not deny this. Instead, we draw upon what “is already there” to address needs or problems, rather than looking to outside professionals, so-called experts or agencies. In other words, we use what we have as a community to fulfill our own needs—and only seek outside help when we have exhausted our own locally-held resources.

The result is greater pride, self-determinism, resilience, and connectivity within our communities, as well as a more effective use of outside resources—when we really need them.

A Brief History

We believe that possibility, power, and promise exist in every community. Asset-based community development begins with the gifts of people and their capacity to organize to create the world they want to see.

“I’ve traveled enough to realize there are brilliant people in every community who know solutions. They don’t need saviors, they need allies.”

— Wab Kinew

The ABCD approach stems from on-the-ground research conducted by John McKnight and John P. Kretzmann in the early ‘70’s. Their team spent four years interviewing people in neighborhoods across 20 US cities to learn what they had seen make a positive difference in their neighborhood.

Both men were motivated to ask these questions by a common attitude they encountered among academics who studied local communities that these places and people were primarily full of problems and helpless to solve them.

This “learning journey” McKnight and Kretzmann and the stories they gathered revealed what both men had already witnessed through years of grassroots community organizing and thoughtful: that communities are filled with abundant resources, and resourceful people more than capable of defining and coming up with solutions to their own issues. Below is a favorite story of people-powered problem-solving:

In Lafland, Chicago. We went around asking our usual question about what people had done on the block to make things better. One woman responded that the previous summer, when her daughter had become a teenager, [the mother] had started to feel that she was going down the wrong path.

She decided to do something, and she talked to the mother of the girl next door about what to do the next summer with the girls. They made a list of things, and then found 6 other mothers, had a potluck, and over the winter they figured out things to do. They needed a place to do them, so they asked the manager of the park across the street, and he let them use the room on the 2nd floor of the park building for free. There were 8 women, and each would take the girls one day. They would do a project, or invite people in or go on field trips.

By the end of the summer, it was much better than they had anticipated. The girls had learned how to work together. They had each created a flag for each house in the neighborhood. In fact, they had learned more that summer than in the year in school before that. But the best thing was how tight they had all become. The next summer, the fathers on the block did the same thing with the boys, and it was a wonderful success. But now, [the mothers told us], something much more has happened: “We’re a real community. We’ve broken down the lines between the women, between the men, between the women and the men, between adults and teenagers.”

This story of one mother’s “DIY spirit” and the truly effective homegrown solution it produced was reflected in all of the over 400 stories heard by the research team.

The launch of the team’s findings in the book Building Communities from the Inside Out: A Path Toward Finding and Mobilizing a Community’s Assets (1993) unleashed an unexpected wave across the the world of people for whom these ideas and stories resonated powerfully. Since this first spark, the ABCD movement has grown organically through the ongoing experimentation, innovation and exchange of everyday practitioners across the world. In the same spirit, ABCD continues to be a flexible set of ideas and practices that evolve with each person and community who picks them up—like you!

While the modern research and language of ABCD have galvanized a powerful shift in community development practices across the world, these ideas and practices are also nothing new. Local people have worked together to creatively solve problems using their own resources and skills since the beginning of history. And today, asset-based ways of living and problem-solving are often vibrantly alive within communities and cultures who face marginalization and oppression from mainstream society—although no one there may use the terminology.

ABCD is nothing new, but rather something that has simply been forgotten in many communities and organizations that serve them.

(For more on the history of ABCD, watch this video of John McKnight.)

Video: John McKnight on ABCD

Watch the below video.

Core Concepts

When we begin thinking and acting with belief in the inherent power of communities and neighbors, we begin to see things in a new light. ABCD offers several core concepts that can bolster your efforts to weave your community together and grow local power.

The Four Questions

The work of sparking effective, community-led change begins with four primary questions:

  1. What can local people do by themselves, using their own resources?
  2. What can local people do with a little help from outside institutions and professionals?
  3. What can only outside institutions and professionals do?
  4. What should institutions and professionals STOP doing?

An asset-based practice always begins with the first question, based on the commonsense notion that in community, “we don’t know what we need until we know what we have.” Only by answering this first can we accurately understand what kind of support communities need from the outside. The tools in this module will help you answer the first question of what community members can do, and what resources are already at hand, waiting to be tapped.

The Seven Functions

What essential functions are citizens able to collectively perform that create greater community wellbeing? Data shows that only a small percentage of our health comes from our access to healthcare systems. The bulk of our health flows from our habits, our connection to others, our economies, and the state of our environments—in other words, factors that are within our own control and those of our neighborhood. The same can be true of other functions: our safety, economy, the environment, food, the growth and well-being of our children, and our care for one another.

Ironically, most discussion and funding for these important areas of life revolve around organizations and programs. When we focus instead on seeking out and nurturing hand-grown solutions, however, the results are consistently more relevant, successful, and long-lasting than when we simply look to programs and professionals.

The Six Assets or Building Blocks

Six unique assets, or resources, appeared again and again in the stories told to McKnight and Kretzmann about what neighbors drew upon to make things better. These six assets are:

  1. Individual Gifts and Talents
  2. Associations (voluntary, resident-led groups and clubs)
  3. Institutions (formal organizations such as for-profit businesses, non-profit, and government agencies)
  4. Physical / Place-based assets
  5. Economy and Exchange
  6. Stories / Culture

Looking at our community through these dimensions of abundance is a powerful starting point as well as an ongoing habit that enables us to grow local control, connection, and collaboration around the issues that affect us.

Institutions Stepping Back

ABCD also encourages those paid professionals connected to a community to “lead by stepping back,” making room for residents to lead and to uncover their own assets and abilities. Professionals and institutions can become better local problem-solvers by re-focusing their role and resources to act as supporters of neighbor-driven ideas.

(For an example of how outsiders can support local power, see this video: Ernesto Sirolli: “Want to Help Someone? Shut Up and Listen.”)

John McKnight and Cormac Russell write:

No matter how hard they try, our very best institutions cannot do many things that only we can do; and what only we can do is vital to a decent, good, democratic life. Traditional approaches to change making tend towards reform of institutions and a focus on an individual’s supposed deficits. Underlying that approach is the assumption that the role of communities is defined as what happens after the important work of professionals and institutions has been completed. The ABCD approach inverts that, highlighting that in a vibrant democracy the opposite is true: the role of professionals is defined as what happens after the community functions are performed.

Ultimately, ABCD is a set of beliefs and tools for re-locating the power into the hands of everyday neighbors to name their challenges as well as their hopes and dreams, and to uncover the resources within their own reach they can utilize to tackle them together.

In a world of increasingly complex, daunting and interconnected challenges, ABCD is a tool for meeting these challenges with the maximum resources and diverse, grassroots leadership possible.


(Note: An additional, sixth asset—Stories and Culture—has been named and added to ABCD thinking since this video was produced.)



Go on a Neighborhood Treasure Hunt!

Alone or with one or two of your neighbors, take a walk through your neighborhood wearing your “asset lenses.” What assets and resources do you see?

If you meet someone along your way, try striking up a neighborly conversation. (As a Community Weaver, this will probably come naturally to you.) See what you can learn about them, what local assets or treasures they know about, and what things they care about or be involved in already in the neighborhood.

When you get home, note down the treasures you found, any ideas that came to you, as well as any notes on what the experience was like.

Going Further

Follow these links to dig deeper into the ideas shared above and to see more examples of ABCD in action.

Lesson One: Uncovering and Connecting Individual Gifts

“There is nothing more powerful than a community discovering what it cares about.”

~ Margaret Wheatley

One of the most powerful ways we can change our communities is by weaving together the gifts and talents around the issues or dreams we care about the most. Asset Based Community Development (ABCD) demonstrates that communities are at their strongest and safest when community members are well-connected and actively contributing their skills and talents to the life of their neighborhood.

While the stories collected by John McKnight and Jody Kretzmann revealed six key assets neighbors can draw upon to improve their communities, the one asset that appeared consistently in every story was this asset: the gifts of individuals. Therefore, it’s important to always begin your weaving work with a focus on the gifts, talents, and passions of your fellow neighbors.

The heart and engine of ABCD is a twofold practice:

Everyone Has Gifts

An asset-based approach particularly emphasizes the need to discover, lift up and connect the capacities of those folks in our neighborhood who have been labeled in ways that highlight their needs rather than their gifts. These labels suggest that these individuals don’t have much to offer the community.

Some examples of harmful needs labels are:

Needs or deficiency labels are often given to others by well-meaning agencies and professionals, or even neighbors out of a sincere desire to help them. However, using these labels as the main lens through which we see, interact with, and introduce folks to others can actually do more harm than good. ABCD reminds us that, on a fundamental level, “our greatest need is to be needed.” By focusing first on others’ needs rather than their gifts denies them the joy, pride and fulfillment of giving their gifts, as well as the opportunity to act with others from a place of power around their passions.

Needs labels also have an adverse effect of segregating, stigmatizing and hiding the very real gifts of these individuals from their larger community. For instance, many programs serving folks labeled as “disabled” focus on organizing activities for them with others who share their needs label. In this way, the programs magnify the labels while also blocking participants from connecting meaningfully with other community members or groups. Programs organized in this way also fail to learn or find ways for disabled people to express their unique individual gifts and interests. Both the labeled individuals and the communities suffer as a result.

A similar dynamic shows up within programs and activities aimed to help other people who are labeled for their needs, such as people experiencing poverty, homelessness, mental health challenges, etc.

ABCD seeks to reverse this trend by seeking out, lifting up, and putting to use the gifts, dreams and contributions of all community members, based on the core beliefs that “There is no one we don’t need,” and that “Everyone has gifts.”

Tools for Learning and Connecting Individual Gifts

There are many ways to go about learning, connecting and mobilizing individual gifts. Chances are, you already do this in many creative ways as a natural community weaver.

The following two 4-H Gifts and Know, Teach, Learn tools were developed by community members hoping to build stronger communities from their own existing skills, talents, and capacities. They offer two simple, energizing ways you can experiment with to begin revealing, celebrating and activating the individual capacities within any group.

These are also great activities to help you and your group to practice putting on an “abundance lens” and seeing one’s community through new eyes. By using an asset or abundance lens, we can better utilize the many untapped resources already present in every neighborhood while also cultivating a feeling of pride, hope, and mutual delight among our neighbors.

There may also be cultural practices or habits within your community and culture that serve to uplift and use the gifts of community members. As you read through these tools, we encourage you to take stock of these existing practices and think about how you might use them even more intentionally in your weaving work, or even blend them together with the tools below.

As with all ABCD tools and practices, we suggest you to play with them and find ways that work best for you and your neighbors, and to add your own unique flair!




Hold a Gifts Conversation!

Invite a friend, neighbor, collaborator or family member who you’d enjoy getting to know a little better and would be up for trying something new with you. Invite them to have a Gifts Conversation. You could do it in any space or set-up that feels most comfortable or inspiring (over coffee or tea, over a meal, or at your favorite local community bumping place)—as long as you can make notes as you go! (Use this worksheet for inspiration.)

  1. Spend 15-30 minutes asking one another about your gifts of the “Head, Heart, and Hand, and Human Connection.”
    • Head: knowledge you have in a particular area (e.g., geography, health care, history of the neighborhood)
    • Hand: a skill you possess and enjoy sharing with the community or teaching to others (e.g., carpentry, photography, art, dancing, cooking, etc.)
    • Heart: what do you care about passionately that has the power to stir you to action? (e.g., young people, the environment, preserving historic architecture, etc.)
    • Human Connection: How are you good at connecting with people or connecting people to each other? What are the things you do to stay connected to your community? (e.g., starting conversations, keeping in touch with / checking on people, remembering peoples’ names or details, throwing parties, joining an interest group, or working behind the scenes to support events or gatherings.)
  2. After your conversation, spend 5-10 minutes reflecting together on:
  3. Post your reflections on this exercise in the forum.

Inspired? Energized? Here are some ways to take this exercise deeper, if you’d like to:

Going Further

Lesson Two: Mapping Local Associations

“The group is not there for what it says it’s there for. The poker club is not there to play poker. The book club is not there about books. These are people coming together to overcome their isolation, to make contact with each other. And they’re up for doing things they were formed to do. All they need is an invitation.”

~ Peter Block, “The Club is Not the Club”

In 1831, the French government commissioned a man named Alexis de Tocqueville to travel to the United States in search of the key to American democracy’s unique strength and vibrancy. De Tocqueville’s thorough, immersive research revealed one primary reason for the health of US democracy: its abundance and culture of citizen-led, voluntary associations—citizen-led, groups, clubs, and committees who self-organized constantly around any and every topic one could think of.

In other words, when Americans wanted something to happen, they did not wait for the government or some other body to act. Instead, they found three or four other community members who shared their concern, formed an association, and made it happen themselves.

De Tocqueville wrote in his 1883 book, Democracy in America:

Americans of all ages, all conditions, and all dispositions constantly form associations. They have not only commercial and manufacturing companies, in which all take part, but associations of a thousand other kinds of religious, moral, serious, futile, general or restricted, enormous or diminutive. The Americans make associations to give entertainments, to found seminaries, to build inns, to construct churches, to diffuse books, to send missionaries to the antipodes, in this manner they found hospitals, prisons, and schools. If it is proposed to inculcate some truth or to foster some feeling by the encouragement of a great example, they form a society.

Today, associational life is equally key to the health of our communities and to those who live there. Below the surface of every neighborhood, people are connected, contributing, and generously caring for one another. They are convening, setting priorities, and organizing themselves around them and generating solutions to local challenges (sometimes without even meaning to) and realizing shared aspirations.

This rich buzz of activity takes place within associations of all kinds, from informal book clubs or walking groups to more formally organized neighborhood associations, sobriety support groups, or political clubs. If you think back to the story told to John McKnight and Jody Kretzmann by a mother who spearheaded a successful, informal effort with other moms on her block to positively influence their teenage daughters, that is an example of an association.

As we seek to weave together and strengthen our community, we can begin by learning about local associations, connecting with them, and exploring how to partner with them in ways that center their assets, priorities, and contributions.

Why Associations?

“We cannot create a community where people care for each other if our approach is to surround the citizens with social-service institutions that push citizens and their associations aside.”

~ John McKnight, The Four Legged Stool

Course Reflection

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