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Asset Based Community Development


 For many years, the Public Research Institute at Northwestern University studied neighborhood development and talked with community leaders. John Kretzmann and John McKnight's research has documented and developed an alternative approach called "asset-based community development" or ABCD.

 PRINCIPLES. ABCD is based on the concept that the glass is half full, not half empty. The "asset-based community development" process can be defined by three simple, interrelated characteristics:

  1. The first principle is that the process is "asset-based." That is, this community development strategy starts with what is present in the community, the capacities of its residents and workers, the associations and institutions in the area -- not with what is absent, or with what is problematic, or with what the community needs.

  2. Because this process is asset-based, it is necessarily "internally focused." That is, the development strategy concentrates first on the agenda-building and problem-solving capacities of local residents, local associations, and local institutions. This internal focus does not minimize either the role that external forces have played in helping to create the troubled conditions of lower income neighborhoods or the need to attract additional resources to these communities. Rather this strong internal focus is intended to stress the critical importance of local definition, investment, creativity, hope, and control.

  3. If the process is to be asset-based and internally focused, then it will be, in very important ways, "relationship driven." One of the central challenges for asset-based community developers is constantly to build and rebuild the relationships between and among local residents, local associations, and local institutions.

 Skilled community organizers and effective community developers already recognize the importance of relationship building. But, the strong ties which form the basis for community-based problem solving are competing against countervailing forces. The forces driving people apart are many and frequently discussed -- increasing mobility rates, the separation of work and residence, mass media, segregation by race and age, the two-working spouses, and not least from the point of view of lower income communities, increasing dependence on outside, professional helpers.

 Because of these factors, the importance of interdependence, the idea that people can count on their neighbors and neighborhood resources for support and strength has been weakened. For community builders who are focused on assets, rebuilding these local relationships offers the most promising route toward successful community development. ABCD stresses the importance of relationship building for every person and group in the community and underscores the necessity of basing those relationships always on the strengths and capacities of the parties involved, never on their weaknesses and needs.


Each community boasts a unique combination of assets upon which to build its future.

INDIVIDUALS. A thorough map of those assets begins with an inventory of the gifts, skills, and capacities of the community's residents. Household by household, building by building, block by block, the capacity mapmakers will discover a vast and often surprising array of individual talents and productive skills, few of which are being mobilized for community-building purposes. This basic truth about the "giftedness" of every individual is particularly important to apply to persons who often find themselves marginalized by communities. It is essential to recognize the capacities, for example, of those who have been labeled mentally handicapped or disabled, or of those who are marginalized because they are too old, or too young, or too poor. In a community whose assets are being fully recognized and mobilized, these people too will be part of the action, not as clients or recipients of aid, but as full contributors to the community-building process.

ASSOCIATIONS. In addition to mapping the gifts and skills of individuals, and of households and families, the committed community builder will compile an inventory of citizens' associations -- groups of citizens working or playing together. These associations are the vehicles through which citizens in the U.S. assemble to solve problems, or to share common interests and activities. 

The depth and extent of association life in any community is usually vastly underestimated, particularly in lower income communities. In fact, most communities continue to hold significant numbers of associations with religious, cultural, athletic, recreational, and other purposes. Community builders must recognize that these groups are indispensable tools for development, and that many of them can, in fact, be stretched beyond their original purposes and intentions to become full contributors to the development process.

INSTITUTIONS. Beyond the individuals and local associations that make up the asset base of communities are all of the more formal institutions which are located in the community. Private businesses; public institutions such as schools, libraries, parks, police and fire stations; nonprofit institutions such as hospitals and social service agencies -- these organizations make up the most visible and formal part of a community's fabric. Identifying them all and enlisting them in the process of community development is essential to the success of the process. 

For community builders, the process of identifying the institutional assets of the community will often be much simpler than that of making an inventory involving individuals and associations. But establishing within each institution a sense of responsibility for the health of the local community, along with mechanisms that allow communities to influence and even control some aspects of the institution's relationships with its local neighborhoods, can prove much more difficult. Nevertheless, a community that has located and mobilized its entire base of assets will clearly include local institutions that are heavily involved and invested.

Individuals, associations and institutions -- these three major categories contain within them much of the asset base of every community. 


THE BEGINNING. The ABCD process begins in many different ways. It may be neighborhood leaders who start it, or church-related groups, or any combination of individuals. The one given for asset-based community development is that it is not started by government institutions or agencies.

GOALS. The group must define its goals, both general goals and specific goals. These goals can range from cleaning up a neighborhood to creating a job bank to promoting economic development to creating activities for young people to engaging senior citizens.

CAPACITY INVENTORY. In order to create an inventory of the gifts and skills of the individuals in the community, a capacity inventory is created. This is a list of questions about gifts and skills, particularly those gifts and skills that are important to the goals of the project.

The information can be gathered in a wide variety of ways. Sometimes volunteers go door-to-door in a neighborhood and interview the residents using the capacity inventory -- the residents are notified in advance that people will be coming to their door and about the purpose of the information gathering. Sometimes the inventories are administered in groups with a facilitator -- for instance, a church congregation may complete the inventories on Sunday morning -- or a group of seniors may complete the inventories at a congregate meal site.

We have found that it is important to distinguish between skills that people have and skills they may be willing to contribute to community projects. And it is important to tell people that the information is not confidential. If it has to remain confidential, then it's only good for research and cannot be used in building the relationships necessary for community development.

It's not practical to obtain capacity inventories from all residents of a community, so it is important to set priorities based on the goals of the project. The ABCD process emphasizes the importance of including those people on the margins, the strangers, the labeled people -- such as the mentally or physically handicapped, the welfare mothers, the artistic community. These people have gifts and skills that are usually overlooked. As mentioned earlier, in a community whose assets are being fully recognized and mobilized, these people too will be part of the action.

This information gathering can produce surprising results. For example, Henry Moore, the former city manager of Savannah, Georgia, talks about neighborhood interviews conducted there. A partnership of volunteers and City officials had targeted the toughest, most violent, most dangerous neighborhoods in town. After notifying residents of the project, volunteers conducted personal capacity inventory interviews door to door. The most consistent finding throughout those door-to-door interviews, to the great surprise of the volunteers and the City officials was that the vast majority of the residents liked the neighborhoods because they were quiet, peaceful, and safe.

DATABASES. What to do with all the information is a challenge to community development leaders. Most often, the information is put into a computer database that is accessible to the community at large. This enables the matching of skills and needs, and it often develops into a Volunteer Service Bureau. One danger is that the development, operation, and maintenance of the database can become the primary focus and detract from the original goals of the project. But once the information is gathered, it has to be accessible in some way.

ASSOCIATIONS. The next step in the ABCD process is to develop an inventory of citizen associations and organizations in the community. This ranges from formal organizations such as Rotary, Kiwanis, and Optimists to informal associations such as coffee groups, neighborhood watch groups, and card clubs. We cannot even imagine the number of associations in any given community. In one low income Chicago neighborhood, consisting of 24 square blocks, over 160 associations were identified.

The point of this effort is that people associate for common interests and goals. As an association, they have significantly greater power and influence than they do as many separate individuals. And history shows that, when asked to do more than their original purpose or goal for the sake of the community, most associations will respond. By linking the gifts and skills of individuals with the power and influence of associations, many positive things can be accomplished for community development.

INSTITUTIONS. The institutions in a community can usually be identified more easily than the associations. The institutions include:

Private Sector: banks, shopping malls, grocery stores, business, and industry.

Municipal: parks and recreation, police and fire, library, city council, supervisors

Schools: grade, middle, and high schools, community colleges, universities

The conclusion reached by the researchers at the Public Research Institute was that these institutions should become partners in the development process only after partnerships have been formed among individuals and local associations and organizations. The reason for this is that the institutions typically want to take control of the process, and this generally leads to fragmentation, battles for control, and loss of enthusiasm and motivation.

The asset-based community development map shows multiple partnerships, first among individuals and community associations and organizations, and then among local public and private institutions.


Early in 1999, New Song Episcopal Church confirmed that New Song should remain in the center of the City of Coralville and be an active participant in the City's life. It began to explore various outreach projects that would pursue this ministry.

The "Village Project" grew out of this effort. It is aimed at building stronger relationships to build a stronger community, using asset-based community development concepts. New Songers read about ABCD, attended a workshop on ABCD, and completed Community Resource Inventory forms as part of their learning effort. A Task Force with representatives from New Song, City Circle Acting Company, and the City of Coralville began to explore possibilities of developing a Community Center that could be used by all three organizations and also meet many other needs in the area. 

The Task Force has now organized as a nonprofit corporation, Village Project of Coralville, and adopted its Mission Statement on May 2, 2001.

Village Project of Coralville Mission Statement

Portions of this paper are adapted from Building Communities from the Inside Out: A Path Toward Finding and Mobilizing a Community's Assets, John P. Kretzmann and John L. McKnight.

Asset-Based Community Development Institute



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Village Project of Coralville, July 2001