Bottom-up community development


Community group planning r

[Updated 15 March 2018]

“You cannot waltz into a community and fix the world…. no matter how well you can dance” (Melinda Jurd, a speech pathology student doing an elective on community engagement).

I love this quote and I think it is so true. A key idea behind asset-based community-driven development (ABCD) is building communities from the inside out. As community workers, our role is to help the community identify their strengths and potential, help them build relationships and listen to, and build on, the aspirations and priorities of community members.  Rather than adopting a top-down approach with us as the experts, we need to be skilled at bottom-up approaches.

A few years ago in the LinkedIn Community Engagement discussion board (you need to request membership to read it), Dan Duncan argued that:

People do not need programs to improve their lives. Programs are an artificial construct developed in the dance between grantors and grantees to help nonprofits re-package themselves to ensure continued funding. What people need are an increasing number of positive relationships and activities to help them become producers of their own and their community’s well-being. The best work nonprofits can do is to help the people they serve build relationships, especially in the neighborhood or community were they live and work to remove barriers so the people they serve have a real opportunity to become producers and not just program recipients. We need everyone’s gifts to build strong communities not more programs.

I don’t think that programs are always bad and that they are the only ways for nonprofits to maintain funding, but I do agree with most of what he says. At times communities do need external support and resources, but as much as possible we should build on what they already have.  We want to be led by the community, we want to help them remove external and internal barriers, and we want to encourage relationship building.

Jim Ife (2013) differentiates between expert knowledge and local knowledge. He suggests that community workers can fall in the trap of believing they have specialist, universal knowledge and that this expert knowledge is vital to the community’s progress and well-being. Instead, we need to value local knowledge which is held by community members. With local knowledge:

The outsider is not the expert: the outsider must listen and learn from the local people, who clearly have far more relevant local knowledge and expertise… A good community worker therefore will seek to value and validate that local knowledge, will listen and learn, and will not assume that their external expertise can provide all (or even some) of the answers. (p. 140)

Rather than being the expert, the role of the community worker should be that of a facilitator (Willetts, 2014) where our focus is on processes that focus on local knowledge and support communities to discover their strengths and assets, create visions of their desired future, decide how they will get there, think about how they will obtain external support or resources (if needed), and ensure that processes are inclusive and do not exclude some people or groups.

Adopting a bottom-up approach can be challenging. As Bergdall (2012) suggests:

Effective catalysts from outside of the community don’t do anything directly for people. They encourage people to do things are their own. ABCD emphasises that one leads best by stepping back. Communities drive their own development; catalysts facilitate the process. This implies a number of practical activities that are far easier to talk about than to do (p. 4).

In many ways our needs to be on enhancing horizontal community engagement (building relationships between community members) rather than vertical community engagement (having the community involved with our organisation and our priorities).

It can be difficult keeping the focus on the community and not taking the lead in what happens, so we need to be clear about our focus; continually reflect critically on our work; and listen, listen, listen.

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

  1. An introduction to community engagement
  2. 10 things I’ve learnt about strengths-based community engagement
  3. The relationship between community engagement and community development
  4. What is asset-based community-driven development (ABCD)?
  5. An example of asset-based community development (Video)
  6. Seven principles for a strengths-based approach to working with groups

If you find any problems with the blog, (e.g., broken links or typos) 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

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

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

About Graeme Stuart

Lecturer (Family Action Centre, Newcastle Uni), blogger (Sustaining Community), Alternatives to Violence Project facilitator, environmentalist, father. Passionate about families, community development, peace, sustainability.
This entry was posted in Strengths-based approaches & ABCD, Working with communities and tagged , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

3 Responses to Bottom-up community development

  1. Anonymous says:

    what is the role of bottom up approach in sustainable community development


  2. Very valid points – Thanks! When I worked (many years) for the UN, on sustainable agriculture projects, one of my responsibilities was briefing new field-level personnel. A cardinal rule for them was “Ears open wide, long before mouths open softly”…. I am also very pleased that you include a photo of gardening – fresh food production is a “universal” activity, and food / nutrition discussions are often the most effective entry point to any new community and community initiative… see:….

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Lynn Leggat says:

    Good article – it is difficult to step back and help people find their own strengths and follow the path that is best for them rather than the one we, as community workers, think is best for them. It is also important to acknowledge that the word ‘community’ means different things to different people and so the way we define ‘community’ for the purposes of our ‘project’ might not mean anything to the people we want to work with. It is better for community workers to listen to people and then develop a project from what they hear which they then take to funders to deliver. Even then, by the time funding is in place the ‘community’ may have moved on or found their own solution. Community work is a constant round of change, reflection and innovation and that is what enthrals those of us that have chosen to work in the field. Working from the bottom up is the most exciting way to do it.

    Liked by 1 person

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