Sustaining Community

What is asset-based community development (ABCD)?



[Updated 7 November 2017]

Asset-based community development (ABCD), or asset-based community-driven development as it is sometimes called, is a bottom-up way of working with communities that focuses on community strengths and assets rather than on deficits and problems. In another post I spoke about two communities. One was a ‘community in crisis’; the other was one with strong community relationships and bonds. Of course these two communities were the same community – it all depends on what we decide to focus on.

If we ask people to look for deficits, they will usually find them, and their view of situations will be coloured by this. If we ask people to look for successes, they will usually find them, and their view of situations will be coloured by this (Kral, 1989).

ABCD focuses on the half-full glass. The half-empty glass represents the notion that communities are deficient and have many needs. The half-full glass represents the notion that communities (and the people who live there) have many strengths, capabilities and assets. It is the half-full glass that gives us something to work with.

ABCD is built on four foundations (Kretzmann, 2010; Kretzmann & McKnight, 1993; Mathie & Cunningham, 2003):

  1. It focuses on community assets and strengths rather than problems and needs
  2. It identifies and mobilises individual and community assets, skills and passions
  3. It is community driven – ‘building communities from the inside out’ (Kretzmann & McKnight, 1993)
  4. It is relationship driven.

You might like to look at this 5 minute video by Wendy McCaig of a great example of ABCD in action.

Focuses on community assets and strengths

Many traditional approaches to community development start with a needs analysis or some other way of focusing on the community’s needs (Henry, 2013; Hipwell, 2009; Kretzmann & McKnight, 1993; Mathie & Cunningham, 2003; Peters, 2013). This gives us the half-empty glass. In creating a needs map we focus on the problems in a community, and can overlook many community strengths. When talking about individuals we might focus on how they are unemployed, drug users, apathetic or unskilled. Families are seen as being dysfunctional, abusive, or violent. Communities can be labelled as being toxic, disconnected or unsafe, with high levels of unemployment and isolation. So it isn’t surprising that, with all these problems, the control of funds and services go to external organisations.

Jodi Kretzmann (2010, see also Kretzmann & McKnight, 1993) suggest some potential consequences of the needs map when communities are labelled as needy and deficient. People living in the community may begin to internalise this portrayal and see themselves as being deficient. It can be a vicious cycle because as a community is labelled as unsafe, toxic and deficient, residents stop turning to each other for support and can become scared of their own community. Relationships within the community thus start to deteriorate.

As funding comes into the community, the funds often go to professional helpers and external services (often for narrowly defined programs) rather than to the community itself. In this context, the best way to obtain funding is to emphasise community problems and ‘how bad things are here’ (Kretzmann, 2010, p. 485).

When I worked on caravan parks, we were more likely to get funding if we talked about unemployment, domestic violence and marginalisation, rather than the sense of community and informal social networks. (See ‘I try and make it feel more like a home’ – families living in caravan parks for two different ways of seeing caravan parks.) The irony is that if programs are unsuccessful in addressing the ‘problems’ within the community, more resources can be given to the services trying to “fix” things. As Jody Kretzmann (2010) suggests ‘All of this tends to feed a downward spiral, leading to residents who share a negative self-image and an experience of growing hopelessness’ (p. 485).

But we can ask questions in two ways.

We can ask:

What are the needs of your community?
What needs to change in your community?
What are the barriers to creating change?

Or we can ask:

What are the strengths and assets of our community?
When was a time you felt our community was at its best?
What do you value most about our community?
What is the essence of our community that makes it unique and strong?

By focusing on the strengths and assets of a community, we can create a very different picture to the needs-based one. We start with what helps make the community strong. All communities have strengths and assets (Kretzmann, 2010; Kretzmann & McKnight, 1993; Mathie & Cunningham, 2003) and ABCD recognises the everyone in a community (including individuals, voluntary groups, businesses and organisations) has skills, interests and experience that can help strengthen their community (Central Coast Community Congress Working Party, 2003).

So rather than starting with what is wrong with the community—the half-empty glass—we start with the half-full glass—what the community already has that helps strengthen the community. Like the ‘two’ communities mentioned above, how we see the community really shapes our response to it.

Identifies and mobilises individual and community assets

There are at least six broad types of assets in communities (Kretzmann, 2010), many of which are likely to be missed if we focused purely on community needs.

  1. We recognise the skills and abilities of individuals within the community and find people who are passionate about the community and who are good at making connections.
  2. We identify voluntary community organisations and networks and what they offer (or could offer) to the community. (These are often called associations in literature from Northern America).
  3. We look at what institutions (e.g. non-government organisations, not for profits, government agencies, businesses) are already connected to the community. We pay particular attention to small, local institutions.
  4. We look at our physical environment (both natural and built) in a new way.
  5. We consider the local economy in a broad way so that we include the informal economy (e.g., people swapping goods and services, voluntary work) as well as the traditional economy (e.g. production, consumption).
  6. And finally we appreciate the stories, culture and heritage of the community

Some approaches to ABCD emphasise formal asset mapping (e.g., capacity inventories) as a process (Kretzmann, McKnight, & Green, 1997; Martin, Peters, & Corbett, 2012). If we adopt such an approach, it is important to remember that we aren’t creating a directory. The real value in asset mapping is bringing people together so they discover each other’s strengths and resources, and to think about how they can build on what is already in the community. One way we can do this is by fostering the relationships, or the place, where assets can be productive and powerful together.

Community driven

ABCD is usually called asset-based community development, but a few authors prefer asset-based community-driven development (Peter, 2013) or asset-based citizen-led development (Mathie, Cameron, & Gibson, 2017) to emphasise that ABCD is driven by the community—not external agencies. While professionals (or external catalysts) can play an important role, their focus should be on assisting communities to drive their own development. ABCD ‘emphasises that one leads best by stepping back’ (Bergdall, 2012, p. 3).

The role of the professional is that of a facilitator rather than an expert (Willetts, Asker, Carrard, & Winterford, 2014). Jim Ife (2013) emphasises the importance of valuing:

  1. Local knowledge
  2. Local culture
  3. Local resources
  4. Local skills
  5. Local processes

External people cannot know these local assets as well as people from the community and thus ABCD relies on the community to “lead from the inside-out” (Kretzmann & McKnight, 1993). Because change is community driven, rather than being the “objects” of community development (Mathie, Cameron, & Gibson, 2017), community members become the drivers of change. Alison Mathie and Gord Cunningham (2002) suggest that this involves community members becoming active “citizens” rather than being “clients” receiving a service.

Dan Duncan (2016) illustrates the changed roles for citizens (or community members) and professionals, in what he calls a geometry lesson, when community development is community-driven.

ABCD geometry lesson (Source: Duncan, 2016, p. 4)

It is important to recognise that many decisions may not be made around a formal table, but will be made in more informal ways. The way in which ABCD can be community-driven is demonstrated in the video by Wendy McCaig.

Relationship driven

ABCD is also relationship driven. Not only are the relationships and social networks that exist within communities assets in their own right, but building relationships between ‘assets’ within the community is an important part of ABCD and asset mapping (Mathie & Cunningham, 2003). Mathie and Cunningham (2002) argue that ‘ABCD is a practical application of the concept of social capital’ (p. 9) because of the emphasis it places on informal networks and by drawing on their power to mobilise other community assets. Through building relationships, communities are able to gain access to resources, networks and energy that might otherwise remain hidden.

In a comparison between asset-based and needs-based community development, Hanna Nel (2017) found that asset-based approaches tended to build relationships between community members, while deficit-based approaches tended to focus more on the relationship between the organisation and community members. She goes on to suggest that ABCD is based on “broad-based engagement, relationships and trust between community members” as well as “between the organisations that facilitated the development and the community” (p. 14).

ABCD thus emphasises the importance of horizontal community engagement and not just vertical community engagement. In other words, ABCD encourages community members to strengthen relationships by interacting with each other, rather than being at the centre of the process.


Cunningham and Mathie (2002) suggest that ABCD is built on:

Because ABCD starts with the strengths and assets of communities, some people worry that it overlooks needs and problems. When using this approach, we don’t ignore community needs and concerns, but our focus is on the resources the community has to address them. Because ABCD is community driven, the priorities and needs of the community are addressed in an ongoing manner.

One way to explore community priorities, without focusing on needs and problems, is to explore the community’s dreams and vision for the future. By being future oriented, we can explore what could change, but we do it in a positive way that provides a way forward.

Asset-based community-driven development challenges many of the ways professionals work with communities and require us to think carefully about our role. We need to give up our role as an expert and start listening to the communities we work with, and belong to. It can be the start of an interesting adventure.

If you are interested in reading more, I have created an extensive reading list on ABCD.

If you liked this post please follow my blog, and you might like to look at:

  1. An example of asset-based community development (video)
  2. More on ABCD in Ethiopia
  3. It’s nearly time to go: ABCD with transient caravan park communities
  4. Angela Blanchard – Building on the strengths of communities (TEDx talk)
  5. Seven principles for a strengths-based approach to working with groups
  6. What is Appreciative Inquiry?

If you find any problems with the blog, (e.g., broken links or typos) or if you have a different perspective, I’d love to hear about them. You can either add a comment below or contact me via the Contact page.


Bergdall, T. (2012). Facilitating asset based community development. In T. Timsina & D. Neupane (Eds.), Changing lives, changing society: ICA’S experience in Nepal and in the World. Kathmandu: The Institute of Cultural Affairs. Available from

Cameron, J. (2000). Asset-based community and economic development: Implications for the social capital debate. Presentation notes for Alison Burton Memorial Lecture.. . Canberra: Royal Australian Planning Institute. Available from

Central Coast Community Congress Working Party. (2003). Building Your Community – how to get started – an asset based community development toolkit. Gosford: Central Coast Community Congress Working Party.

Cunningham, G., & Mathie, A. (2002). Asset-Based Community Development — An Overview. Paper presented at the Asset Based Community Development Workshop, Bangkok.

Duncan, D. (2016). The components of effective collective impact. Rockville, MD: Clear Impact. Available from

Henry, H. (2013). Exploring an asset-based approach to nursing. Nursing Times, 109, 15-17.

Hipwell, W. T. (2009). An asset-based approach to indigenous development in Taiwan. Asia Pacific Viewpoint, 50(3), 289-306. doi: 10.1111/j.1467-8373.2009.01402.x

Ife, J. W. (2013). Community development in an uncertain world: Vision, analysis and practice. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Kral, R. (1989). Strategies that work: Techniques for solutions in the schools. Milwaukee, WI: Brieg Family Therapy Center.

Kretzmann, J. P. (2010). Asset-based strategies for building resilient communities. In J. W. Reich, A. Zautra & J. S. Hall (Eds.), Handbook of adult resilience. New York: Guilford Press.

Kretzmann, J. P., & McKnight, J. L. (1993). Building communities from the inside out: a path toward finding and mobilizing a community’s assets. Evanston, Ill.: Center for Urban Affairs and Policy Research, Northwestern University. Introduction available from

Kretzmann, J. P., McKnight, J., & Green, M. (1997). A guide to capacity inventories: Mobilizing the community skills of local residents. Chicago, IL: ACTA Publications. Available from

Martin, M., Peters, B., & Corbett, J. (2012). Participatory asset mapping in the Lake Victoria Basin of Kenya. Journal of the Urban & Regional Information Systems Association, 24(2), 45-55. Availalable from

Mathie, A., Cameron, J., & Gibson, K. (2017). Asset-based and citizen-led development: Using a diffracted power lens to analyze the possibilities and challenges. Progress in Development Studies, 17(1), 1-13. Doi: 10.1177/1464993416674302.

Mathie, A., & Cunningham, G. (2002). From Clients to Citizens: Asset-Based Community Development as a Strategy For Community-Driven Development. Antigonish, Nova Scotia: Coady International Institute. Available from

Mathie, A., & Cunningham, G. (2003). From Clients to Citizens: Asset-Based Community Development as a Strategy For Community-Driven Development. Development in Practice, 13(5), 474-486.

Nel, H. (2017). A comparison between the asset-oriented and needs-based community development approaches in terms of systems changes. Practice, 1-20. doi: 10.1080/09503153.2017.1360474

Peters, B. (Ed.). (2013). Applying an Asset-Based Community-Driven Development approach in Ethiopia, 2003-2011: Final internal evaluation report. Antigonish, Canada: Coady International Institute. Available from

Willetts, J., Asker, S., Carrard, N., & Winterford, K. (2014). The practice of a strengths-based approach to community development in Solomon Islands. Development Studies Research, 1(1), 354-367. doi: 10.1080/21665095.2014.983275