John Hamerlinck
I am passionate about helping people create social change. My website is

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training, research, writing, leadership development, strategic thinking/planning, workforce development, higher ed.

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Are people interested in exploring the use of ABCD principles to change institutional practice?

Category: Reflections and Ideas

Capacities and Capacity

By John Hamerlinck, 2023-05-22

ABCD is rooted in the belief that the capacities of community residents, leveraged with their collective relationships, can be organized to improve the quality of life of the community. Most people get the relationships part of this formula. They enjoy working with like-minded people, and understand the concept of "strength in numbers." They also understand the idea of capacities, or assets, as meaning the gifts, skills, and talents of all residents. The uncovering of the gifts of the hands, head, and heart is part of the appeal of asset mapping.

Capacity, however, seems to be more difficult for some folks to wrap their heads around. Community capacity, as it relates to community-building, is about producing desired results. Capacity is the ability to do something, to make something happen. 

We can get stuck thinking that we need some mysterious "critical mass" in order to achieve our goals. Sure, if you're looking at something that will be voted on, then you will need one more than 50% of the votes. For many small, but important projects, however, you can get positive results by connecting the capacities of small numbers of people. Achieving an ultimate goal often happens as a result of many tiny successes. If you are at 0, and your goal is 10, you don't necessarily need a plan to go from 1 to 10 in one giant step. Maybe the path to ten will be 2+8, or 4+6. 

Capacity has no magic number. Sometimes the assets two people is enough capacity. Other times you might need six people, or 41, or 13. Getting as many people as possible on board is nice, but getting just enough people to achieve a desired outcome is pretty good too.

Capacity also refers to the ability to understand something. The idea of community capacity suggests that there are multiple strategies to create community change, because different members of the community see issues from different perspectives. This is where capacity meets relationship. This is where ABCD is useful. ABCD reminds us to talk to the people on the margins. If your issue is homelessness, talk to homeless people to gain insight into possible solutions. If your challenges are in schools, ask students for ideas.

Don't get caught up in the numbers. You will find the capacity you require in the capacities you discover.

Evaluating Rural ABCD Efforts

By John Hamerlinck, 2022-10-27

During the recent Unconference, I participated in a session on evaluating and measuring the success of some seemingly unmeasurable ABCD efforts. In our small group discussion, I mentioned that ABCD projects might consider the community capitals framework for measuring progress. Successful ABCD efforts are frequently collections of small projects that came about as a result of small groups of people deciding to do something to improve their community, that didn’t require anybody’s permission to do.

Some of those small projects might enhance cultural capital, or natural capital in small ways, but make valuable contributions to someone else’s projects that are seemingly unrelated at the time, because those projects were focused on built capital, or financial capital. When you look at how the parts contribute to the whole, you see how personal relationships developed in one project created the underpinnings, or trust for another project to succeed.

In evaluation, you measure what you value. In ABCD you value increased connections and relationships. You value shared leadership. You value the wisdom of non-experts. Tell the stories of how these values led to small contributions by a diverse bunch of folks who decided to embrace their capacities.

If you’re looking for a good way to start to create your evaluation plan, I highly recommend a recently published report by the Community Strategies Group at the Aspen Institute titled, "What (and Who) Counts? Defining Rural Development Success." In a section of that report titled, “Needed at the Center: Community-Driven Measurement,” Ines Polonius, says that "community-centered measurement follows four principles: 

  • Locally Defined Progress - Measure your success based on locally-defined indicators. Don't compare your progress to that of other communities.
  • Equity Participation – When determining progress measures, "residents of diverse backgrounds – across race, ethnicity, gender, age, sexual orientation, income, and ability – must be involved.”
  • Unique to Place and Context - Each rural community is different. Each one should determine what progress looks like.
  • Relativity - Measure percent increases or decreases from an established baseline.

All of the above principles require the type of connecting and appreciative inquiry that is at the core of ABCD.  Remember, the people who are experiencing the challenge being addressed are the same people who should be creating strategies to address local issues, as well as identifying the measures of success.


By John Hamerlinck, 2021-09-10

“There is one word which may serve as a rule of practice for all one's life -reciprocity.”

-- Confucius

In the world of community-building there may be no concept more important than reciprocity. The acknowledgement of mutual dependence is at the core of a healthy society. Social psychologist, Jonathan Haidt calls it, "the basic currency of social life."

I realize that anthropologists, and economists have their own definitions, so I want to be clear. I am not defining reciprocity simply as some sort of exchange marketplace. I'm talking about reciprocity as the recognition of the fundamental humanity and value of every member of the community, and the recognition of the interdependence of each community member.

Recognition of mutual benefit is important. You see it demonstrated all the time in thriving communities. People with no school-aged children will vote in favor of school referendums because they understand the value of educating youth. People shop at farmer’s markets, and locally-owned businesses because it sustains community economic development.

A sense of reciprocity is also expressed through volunteerism. According to The Corporation for National & Community Service, one out of four American’s volunteer, two out of three Americans help their neighbor (informal volunteering). These volunteers are almost twice as likely to donate to a charity. To be reciprocal is to look at the world around you through a community lens.

Reciprocity is:

  • The place where trust resides;
  • A key to belonging;
  • A contributor to one’s sense of place;
  • Generosity of spirit;
  • The enemy of selfishness; and
  • A condition that allows each person's gifts, skills, and talents to be shared and celebrated.

Supporting Your ABCD Efforts During a Pandemic

By John Hamerlinck, 2020-09-02

So we can't gather. That’s unfortunate. However, we can still do a number of things to move our community change efforts forward.

We can always learn. You can never have enough evidence at your fingertips. Some types of research do not require in-person human interaction. Most data, and technical knowledge attainment does not require conversation. For more nuanced and context-laden research, we may seek out someone with insight into a particular issue.  You can still phone, FaceTime, or Zoom them.

Though it isn't ideal, you could also set up a videoconferencing option to do some appreciative inquiry. This will also give you opportunities to practice your listening skills. You might even be able to help each other work through a challenge that each of you are currently facing.

If you are currently engaged in Zoom meetings with a group of people. Don't just meet and take notes. Start a shared Google doc while still in the meeting. Remind people that meetings are part of an ongoing process. Give everyone some time to reflect and respond to the ideas the document.

Speaking of reflection, you can use all this newly gifted 'alone time' to think more deeply about what worked, or didn't work on a previous project. Get a number of people to do this individually, and later come together to learn from your collective experience and insights. You might also engage in some formative assessment of a project currently on hold due to the pandemic.

Finally, take some time to work on understanding your own tacit knowledge. Tacit knowledge is the kind of knowledge that is difficult to convey to another person either verbally, or in writing. Common examples of tacit knowledge include things such as emotional intelligence, or how to speak a language that you’ve learned through immersion over a lifetime. Thinking about the things you know, but rarely think about is one of the keys to uncovering individual assets.

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 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,