Asset-Based Community Development (ABCD)

Here’s an article on asset-based community development which I wrote some years ago. This approach can facilitate healing in a community.

“Mental health is not a product of pharmacology or a service that can be singularly provided by an institution: it is a condition that is more determined by our community assets than our medication or access to professional interventions more generally. There are functions that only people living in families and communities can perform to promote mental health and wellbeing, and if they do not do those things; they will not get done, since, there simply is no substitute for genuine citizen-led community care (not to be confused with volunteer mentoring schemes).” Cormac Russell

There are two alternative ways to build a community in a neighborhood.

Firstly, we can focus on a community’s needs, deficiencies and problems. This is the most common approach that is used, but it has a number of serious problems.

The images it creates are overwhelmingly negative. It leads to the development of deficiency-oriented policies and programs. Public, private and non-profit service systems develop and they ‘teach’ people the nature of their problems and the services they need.

Community members come to see that their well-being depends on becoming a client. They begin to see themselves as people with special needs that can only be met by outsiders. They become consumers of services, with no incentive to become productive. They become disempowered.

The alternative path to community development focuses on a community’s assets, capacities and abilities. Historic evidence indicates that significant community development takes places only when local community people are committed to investing in themselves and their resources. Communities are built bottom-up, not top-down.

Asset-Based Community Development (ABCD)

In the ABCD approach, connections between local people are what awaken the power of families and neighborhoods to weave the social fabric of an abundant and competent community. These communities have three major properties:

  • Gifts, the raw material for the community.
  • Associations, the process through which gifts are exchanged.
  • Hospitality, what widens our inventory of gifts.

The community boasts a unique combination of assets upon which to build its future. A map of these assets begins with an inventory of the gifts, skills and capacities of the community’s residents.

Everyone has a gift or skill to offer, even people who have been marginalised by society. For example, a homeless person with a mental health problem has survived great adversity—how have they survived such adversity? Someone who has overcome a serious substance use problem has much to teach someone less advanced in their healing journey.

In addition to mapping the gifts and skills of individuals and families, a community builder compiles an inventory of citizens’ associations. These association, less formal and much less dependent upon paid staff than are formal institutions, are the vehicle through which people have solved problems, or have shared common interests and activities. They are a powerful vehicle for the distribution and sharing of gifts and skills. Strong associations offer hospitality.

Beyond the individuals and associations that make up the asset base of communities are all the more formal institutions which are located in the community. One challenging aspect of mapping work in relation to institutions is to work out mechanisms that allow communities to influence and even control some aspects of the institution’s relationships with its local neighborhood.

This alternative model of community development is asset-based, internally focused and relationship driven. Asset-Based Community Development (ABCD) is a major model that is being adopted worldwide with great success.

You can find out more about ABCD on the Nurture Development website. And here is film of a talk by Cormac Russell, someone I hold in very high regard, explaining ABCD.

How can we help people to live a good life? Instead of trying to right what’s wrong within a community Cormac argues we need to start with what’s strong. We need to help people discover what gifts they have and to use those gifts to enrich those around them.