I Thought I Knew My ABCs- What is Asset-Based Community Development?

I worked in community development ministry for years before I heard the term ABCD.  A mentor of mine referred to Asset Based Community Development as if I knew what it was, but early on I didn’t.  

Asset Based Community Development is a philosophy and a practice of community development that assumes each person has assets, skills or talents that can be identified and used to build a better community.  

An asset-based approach is often contrasted with a needs-based approach which is common in social sciences.  Instead of assessing the needs of a community and a plan to fix them, one assess the assets of a community and determines what opportunities are presented within the assets to create community solutions.

A few years ago a local pastor wanted to host a focus group on neighbors’ attitude toward the Church.  I invited a few people over who were willing to give their opinions.  There were about ten people present and the pastor asked some questions that people interacted with openly. Then the conversation took a turn as one woman confronted another on her son’s drug use. The woman pointed out that we all knew her son was using drugs and she thought it was a bad example for her own young son. The confronted woman broke down in frustration. She didn’t know what to do. Then Juan spoke up. Juan was a leader in Alcoholics Anonymous.  He knew all the groups and rehabilitation programs in the local area. He volunteered to help this mother talk to her son and get him connected to an appropriate program. 

A main tenet of ABCD is listening to the community. The philosophy espouses the idea that there are existing resources in any community if we will take the time to get to know the people and place. This requires space for listening. That night in my living room we could have spoken for hours about the need for a rehabilitation program without having the resources to actually pull it off. Juan both listened and offered the asset of his network and expertise.  It didn’t require starting a whole new program, just being aware that Juan’s expertise and network was an asset among us. It didn’t take long until other women approached Juan for help with their relatives’ addictions. 

Another principle of ABCD is working with the community instead of for. There are many groups that will do listening sessions or town hall meetings in a community to get ideas of projects to do. The community will give input on the initial ideas and then never hear from the conveners again. Projects will get started and completed without any buy-in or work from the neighbors who had the ideas and have to live with the consequences of the project.  Working with neighbors to use their skills for the community gives people ownership of their projects and leadership to manage results in the community. 

While listening to neighbors and strategizing to work together often takes longer than a small group sitting in an office making a plan, the great benefit of an asset-based approach is sustainable change in a neighborhood.  When neighbors’ skills are valued and their leadership is utilized to bring a project to fruition, true community is built among people and change is sustained because neighbors are leading the change.

Who can you spend some time listening to this week?  Is it a neighbor who lives alone or a client where you volunteer?  Comment below who you will spend some time mining for assets with this week. 

To find out more about ABCD, check out:

John McKnight- Asset-Based Community Development Institute- 


Peter Block- http://www.peterblock.com

Communities First Association- http://www.cfapartners.org