Asset-based Community Development — Innovations in Agreements

A couple of years ago, I was sitting on the front porch at a friend’s house, telling him about what I was learning about ecosynomics.  He told me how his church was using a process called asset-based community development (ABCD) that he thought worked from similar principles to those I was uncovering.  I looked it up.  ABCD was the name two Northwestern University professors gave to community-building work they described in their 1993 guidebook, Building Communities from the Inside Out.[1]  The global response has been huge, with representatives from two dozen countries presenting their ABCD-based citizen initiatives at ABCD conferences in 2007 and 2009.  These initiatives range from remote rural areas and towns to large urban metropolises.[2]

Most traditional approaches to urban issues focus on the community’s deficiencies and its needs.  ABCD focuses community-building efforts on making the most of the resources, broadly defined, that the community already has.[3]  This broader perspective on community assets includes the usual physical resources – buildings and other infrastructure, financial resources and so forth – and also intangible assets such as the specific capacities of the people in the community and relational assets such as the connections among community members and between them and other people outside the community.  Once the community gets clear about the full range of resources it has, ABCD looks at how the existing relationships can support new agreements around how these assets can be developed over time.  Through their research, professors Kretzmann and McKnight demonstrated that community assets are key building blocks in sustainable urban and rural community revitalization efforts.

Using descriptors from the authors’ work, the heat maps for both the needs-based approach and ABCD (see figure below) show very different levels of focus, with ABCD incorporating the higher-things-noun and development-verb levels.

For example, in Minneapolis, Minnesota (USA), a Latino immigrant community joined forces using the ABCD approach to develop a traditional marketplace, Mercado Central, in an inner-city neighborhood, building on the community’s capacities to create their own economic engine for change in a way that reflects their traditions.[4]  The Mercado story starts with Isaiah, a coalition of churches in the Minneapolis area committed to mobilizing congregations to social action.  Isaiah’s community-organizing efforts identified and connected the community’s talent and energy around issues such as building a church and immigration issues.  As the community came together, it realized it already had the land, experience, leadership, and community relationships it needed to create its own economic engine, the Mercado Central.

Ten years later, this effort has resulted in the community purchase and renovation of three dilapidated buildings to the tune of $2.4 million dollars, over $277,000 in loans to new Latino businesses, the starting and expansion of forty-four businesses in the local community.  These activities provided seventy new jobs employing mostly local people, and in the first year contributed over eighty thousand dollars in sales taxes to the city and state.  Thus, instead of asking the city to meet their needs, they built on their own assets, providing for their own abundance and contributing from their abundance to the broader community.  This gave them greater freedom to meet their own needs.  It also reduced their “costs of scarcity,” by decreasing their dependency on externally provided resources, increasing their cooperative efforts within the community and with associations outside of the community.

This example nicely illustrates an innovation that involves a step to the development-verb level, while including the just-what-exists things-noun level.  With Mercado Central, the community is able to both meet their local economic needs, such as employment and building renovation, and build sustainable resiliency in their ability to provide for those needs themselves by developing their own leaders and community relationships.

Not surprisingly, communities around the world are embracing the ABCD approach.  Through this process, they are collectively identifying and enhancing the agreements, relationships and capacities that enable them to create the assets they want to satisfy their needs on their own. This gives them greater sovereignty over how they develop the assets they want, and it contributes to building community along the way.  All of which leads to the experience of a fuller and freer life for community members.  By comparison, communities that focus solely on their “needs” at the things-noun level, tend to enter agreements that generate dependency on those people that provide for those needs.[5]

This lesson is so old that it is generally attributed to a Chinese proverb – Give a man a fish and you feed him for a day. Teach a man to fish and you feed him for a lifetime.  When the donor only provides the fish, the things-need level hunger is met, in this moment.  Without the capacity to provide his own fish, he will need fish donated again tomorrow.  If the same resources were donated to teaching him to fish, a development-verb level learning, then he can provide for himself.  The most detrimental agreement is that they are poor, not only in temporary financial resources, but in everything.  This is a cultural acceptance that “I am poor,” lacking in all capacities and potential, which is completely different than, “In this moment, I do not have enough money or food.”  This dependence phenomenon is so widespread that agencies, such as the United States Department of Health and Human Services define and track ten indicators of welfare dependency, such as the degree of dependence and how long they have received welfare.[6]   This dependency tends to minimize the exploration of the verb-development level, focusing on the noun-things level, continuing the very scarcity being addressed.


 [1] For the guidebook, see (Kretzmann & McKnight, 1993).  For more on ABCD, visit John McKnight and Jody Kretzmann at The Asset-Based Community Development Institute (, which is located at the School of Education and Social Policy at Northwestern University.

[2] This quote is from Cormac Russell of the ABCD Institute in (Russell, 2009, p. 7).

[3] For more on ABCD, see (Kretzmann & McKnight, 1993) or visit John McKnight and Jody Kretzmann at The Asset-Based Community Development Institute (, which is located at the School of Education and Social Policy at Northwestern University.  In a recent book he co-authored, William Bratton, former chief of the LAPD and commissioner of the Boston and New York City Police Departments, gives a similar assessment of traditional deficiency-based approaches and emerging assets-based approaches (Bratton & Tumin, 2012).

[4]The Mercado Central case of ABCD is described in (Sheehan, 2003).  Visit Mercado Central at (

[5] For a global view of this dependency, see (Easterly, 2006).  For “livelihood” approaches, about people’s ability to access and put to productive use their social, human, physical, financial and natural capital or assets, see Livelihood Connect.  The British Department for International Development shifted to a sustainable livelihoods approach in the late 1990’s in its funding, click here.   CARE, the global humanitarian organization, uses a “unifying framework” to address the underlying causes of poverty, building the community’s own assets.  For a description of the unifying framework and a critique of dependency-based approaches, click here.

[6] For the welfare dependency indicators of the United States Department of Health and Human Services, click here.

4 thoughts on “Asset-based Community Development — Innovations in Agreements

  1. Pingback: What Do We Agree to in Our Money System — Complementary Currencies « Jim Ritchie-Dunham

  2. Pingback: Positive Deviants Are No Longer Deviants « Jim Ritchie-Dunham

  3. Pingback: Living Everyday from Abundance, for Everyone Everywhere, in Our Neighborhood: Recommended Reading « Reflections of a Pactoecographer

  4. Pingback: To Maximize Inequality, Collapsing Any Lens (EPCS) Will Do — To Maximize Equality, Requires All 4 Lenses « Reflections of a Pactoecographer

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