The goal of Asset-Based Community Development (ABCD) is to leverage a group’s collective strengths to engage in action that leads to change. ABCD reflects an inclusion-embracing worldview, and a type of strategic thinking that is rooted in uncovering capacities. It hints at process, but does not dictate procedure. It is, however, ultimately about outcomes much more than it is about process. For that reason, I am not a big fan of trying to create exhaustive (and exhausting) wide-scale, comprehensive databases attempting to inventory all the assets of a community, so that those assets might be called into service up at some future date.

As much as I love the passion and the ambition of the folks who want to go big right away, I would ask them to consider another strategy. In terms of getting things done, large-scale asset mapping efforts seem inefficient. By the time you finish, the inventory is already outdated. New assets are created every day; others atrophy. Larger projects also seem less likely it is to develop collaborative leadership. They are less about community ownership than they are about being a ‘project’ of one organization or agency. Grassroots community development doesn’t need org charts, it needs to-do lists. While you’re waiting for weeks or months for the database to get filled, the situation on the ground has not changed.

I prefer a different strategy to jump-start mobilizing the assets in your community. It looks something like this:

  1. Define what you want to change, or create in your community.
  2. Find a group of people who share your concerns. That might be five people; it might be 25 people. The number is not important. Bring as many of them as possible together in one spot. Have conversations that help you identify viable first steps, particularly those that will increase the number of personal relationships in your community.
  3. Map the assets of that initial group of people. Based on those assets, plan an achievable, short-term action with a discrete outcome.
  4. Implement your action.
  5. Encourage as many allies as possible who have good ideas to repeat 1-4.

This strategy promotes collaborative leadership, and entrepreneurial thinking. It fosters relationship-building. There’s no waiting around for some lead organization or a charismatic leader to come up with a plan to mobilize people. This difference in scale often means the difference between a more passive community outreach, and the more active community engagement (see more about the difference between the two here).

Perhaps most importantly, the ‘smaller’ approach serves as a demonstration project for people who may not be convinced that creating change is possible. Movements are rarely orchestrated. Small successes with tangible results will boost confidence, and create trust within the community. Suddenly, people who had never before seen themselves as advocates or leaders will be coming to you and asking, “How did you do that?” Then you might see things go big in a hurry.

Thinking Beyond the Pandemic


By John Hamerlinck, 2020-04-06

I work at a university. Students, faculty, staff and administrators are all waist deep in trying to navigate the new normal brought on by the COVID-19 pandemic. We are not alone. This is a shared experience. There is no life that is not being touched by current events.

Public health scares are in many ways even more frightening that the thought of devastating natural disasters.The unknown is scary, but the thought of an unrevealed future has always presented its share of anxiety. I am doing what I can to stay safe and to keep those around me  safe. Beyond that, however, I have decided to think about what we will all do when there is no longer a need for social distancing.

How will we hit the ground running in an effort to adjust to unforeseen conditions? We will listen to, and acknowledge the realities of EVERYONE in our community. Then we will invite them to think like entrepreneurs rather than administrators. We will not dismiss ideas to strengthen the community just because "nobody has ever done that before." We will need dreamers, creative people, and people with diverse experiences and worldviews. When the worst of this crisis has passed we will need all of our capacities more than ever.

Stay safe everybody. Be well. We'll need you when this has passed.


I do a considerable amount of ABCD training. I always end an introductory training with an exercise that has people identify actions they could take, based on connecting the assets they have identified, and written down on index cards, to those shared by other people in their small group. Randomly placed 3 X 5 cards scattered on a table have not surprisingly, yielded tremendous amounts of energy, as well as some fascinating ideas.

We always take time to reflect at the end of the training. Here are just three of the things I have learned from those reflections.

First, people in their teens and early twenties seem to have the least trouble with the concept that everyone’s contributions have value. It seems like whenever groups of young people are connecting assets, they are more likely to work to ensure that all of the identified assets are somehow included. If your group is struggling you might consider welcoming some young people to join you.

Secondly, there are always surprises. One of my favorite reflection questions is, “Did anything about the process, or about your group’s assets surprise you? “ The following revelations have come from this question:

  • The quietest, most reserved person in the room turned out to be the bass player in a punk band.
  • Someone didn’t know that a person they worked with every day, spoke three languages.
  • Three people in one small group had actually made wedding cakes for friends.

Finally, people quickly recognize that ABCD promotes collaborative leadership. I ask folks about the process in their group. It almost never involves one person taking charge, and prescribing a direction for the group. The mere act of seeing the connections between assets encourages shared responsibility and collaborative leadership.

I’d be interested to hear about experiences that you’ve have had with people experiencing the connecting of assets for the first time.

A quick post-election reminder


By John Hamerlinck, 2016-11-10

In the aftermath of the catastrophic U.S. election, I find it necessary to remind myself of an important reality. Institutions cannot stop social change from occurring. Culture creates change. People locking arms with others who share their values, creates change.

If you want your community to be welcoming, safe, free of misogyny, racism, and other forms of oppression, the culture within your community can create that change. We do not need the permission of a government official, to do what is expected of respectful, compassionate human beings.

By all means, keep the necessary pressure on institutions that seek to be barriers to a more egalitarian society. But at the same time, do not forget that politics and policy are but a sliver of life in a free and democratic society.

(Reprinted from my website, https://leadingdifferently.com/)

Vision is Personal


By John Hamerlinck, 2016-08-08

Re-blogged from my website,leadingdifferently.com

Creating change is inescapably tied to a shared vision. People cant keep their eyes on the prize, if they dont know what the prize is. A common notion of what the future should look like, however, is not enough.

Visionary concepts can be abstract (We see a world where everybody . . .). Change is social and shared, but above all else, change is personal. The key to a vision being a motivator for action, is for each individual to see themselves in that future.

One of the reasons why I am an advocate for Asset Based Community Development (ABCD), is that at its core, ABCD mobilizes people based on what they care about the most, and how their personal talents can best contribute to positive change. A group, a community, a movement, is made up of individuals with both broader common interests, and specific self-interest. Dont just rally around the abstract and the generalized. Ask people to put themselves in the future being created.

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Originally published on my website, leadingdifferently.com, April 21, 2015

Real leadership comes from the quiet nudging of an inner voice. It comes from realizing that the time has come to move beyond waiting to doing Madeleine Albright

To get things done in this world you dont need a credential, or a badge that says leader. If the worlds greatest writer wrote a book illustrated by the worlds greatest artist titled, How to Ride a Bicycle, it would be a poor substitute for sitting on a bike, finding your center of balance, and pushing on the pedals. We learn by doing. Leadership is no different.

Every time that you: A) imagine something being different, or being better than it is; B) decide to do something about it, either alone or with others; and C) act to make that change happen YOU ARE DEMONSTRATING LEADERSHIP.

Leadership doesnt require great scale. It doesnt have to be obvious to everyone. Leadership is collaborative or distributed more often than it is positional. It doesnt need to be heroic; it just needs to effectively move you toward a goal. You lead anytime you do things like:

  • have the courage to challenge someones racist or sexist joke;
  • accept responsibility for (and learn from) your failures;
  • do what is right, rather than what is easy (to paraphrase Dumbledore);
  • see the gifts and talents of others, and acknowledge them; or
  • listen with the goal of understanding even when someones views or values conflict with your own.

Anyone who has a vision for something different and the desire to make that change happen can be a leader.

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Magnifying Assets


By John Hamerlinck, 2015-12-28

We tend to think of ABCD primarily as a strategy to change something that is broken, or not working, or wrong. It certainly is that. I would ask you, however, to also think about also using a capacity-centered approach to improving something that is not broken, but would be even better with a small amount of attention.

Think about it. The gap between something that is bad, and something that is good is so much wider than the gap between something that is good, and something that is even better. Development is not just about fixing; its about improvement. Complementing and reinforcing existing assets increase their capacity to positively affect more people, and more situations without fear of burnout, or a sense of going to a well too many times.

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Addressing Common Misunderstandings About ABCD


By John Hamerlinck, 2015-06-02

Over the years, I have had numerous occasions on which I have found myself responding to peoples negative reactions to the idea of Asset-Based Community Development (ABCD). I want to talk briefly about three common arguments:

  • first, that ABCD plays into a conservative, victim-blaming, pull yourself up by your bootstraps, worldview;
  • secondly, that it ignores the value of needs assessment;
  • and finally, that is somehow in conflict with confrontational organizing methods.

One of the biggest myths about the ABCD approach is that it somehow relieves oppressors and other bad actors from responsibility, and is subtly victim-blaming by telling people to count their blessings, and pull themselves up by their bootstraps. I contend that the opposite is true. At the root of successful ABCD is the idea that people are in fact, seizing power and finding solutions that turn them into producers as opposed to simply being consumers of programs and policies that are designed to oppress them. Demonstrating your assets encourages investment. Demonstrating needs will generally encourage little more than charity.

Speaking of needs, needs assessment is not necessarily the opposite of a capacity inventory. They both identify gaps. However, a lot of needs assessment seeks an unnecessary level of specificity. Needs assessment can actually become a barrier to action. For example, when climate change deniers say something like, We really need to study this global warming thing more thoroughly before we disrupt market forces , they are using the myth that too little needs assessment is a valid reason to do nothing.

What changes in our actions if we have 93 as opposed to 127 homeless families in the community? It might be impressive to develop an elaborate model incorporating a 15-category continuum of homelessness, but it is not necessary in order for us to act. If only 16.7% of our community survey respondents identified homelessness, or domestic violence, or hunger, as important issues do we just blow these things off? This is the anti-organizing, anti-community building trap of needs assessment. Do we only determine priorities by quantifying need, or do we create a way for everyone who is passionate about working on a particular issue, to connect with others who share their passion, to find creative solutions to the challenges that they face?

Negative responses to ABCD have often been the result of belief in the mistaken notion that it is somehow the opposite of achieving community change through a confrontational, Alinsky-esque organizing approach. It is true that there are many roads to creating change. However, painting this as some sort of dualistic, ideological smack down might be interesting to a handful of academic types, but it is simply seems counterproductive at best.

A confrontational approach works well in cases where the antagonist is easily identified. Increasingly, however, the enemy is an obscure corporate entity, hiding like a needle in the haystack of the vertical integration of a massive corporate entity. The more complex the issue is, the more important it is to know all of the tools (assets) at your disposal. ABCD doesnt need to know who a specific bad guy is. It can be used without permission, and can actually provide leverage in confrontational arguments, as it can demonstrate a proof of concept for might replace the status quo.

The two approaches can be, and are in fact frequently, complementary. It is easier to organize people in opposition to something, than it is to organize them in an effort to create the replacement for that thing. The best replacement for repressive, top-down, convoluted approaches is something rooted in the inclusive, community-building, and democratic culture of ABCD.

Some issues necessarily require direct confrontation. Others require identifying, connecting and mobilizing hidden strengths in an effort to strengthen community response. Some issues in our 21st century networked world demand strategies never imagined by either Alinsky or McKnight &Kretzmann. If proponents of various strategies have the same goals related, for example, to ending oppression, and the exploitation of people in the name of profits, then those people are on the SAME SIDE. Dividing and conquering a progressive majority over things like creating an argument over whose approach is better, plays right into the hands of those who want to maintain the status quo.

Capacity-focused or asset-based work is sometimes misunderstood because people have fallen into the trap of thinking that the strategy is only about mapping the assets, rather than being about mobilizing those assets. This is not the fault of the theoretical framework, but rather, it is the result of communities not having skilled community organizers who know how to leverage those assets strategically. As organizers, it is our duty to help people discover their power, set their own agendas, and make use of the many strategies that they have at their disposal.

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