Bottom-up community development

Preparing the ground

“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.

In the LinkedIn Community Engagement discussion board, Dan Duncan recently 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 agree that programs are always bad and that they are 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.

Bergdall (2012) suggests that:

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. 3).

Our emphasis should be on 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, but to me that is the sign of an effective community worker.

If you liked this post you might want to follow my blog (top right-hand corner of the blog), and you might like to look at:

  1. What is asset-based community-driven development (ABCD)?
  2. 10 things I’ve learnt about strengths-based community engagement
  3. Ernesto Sirolli: Want to help someone? Shut up and listen! (Video)
  4. Jim Diers: Seven principles of asset-based community-driven development (Video)
  5. What is Kids’ Vegies on the Verge?


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

About Graeme Stuart

Lecturer (Family Action Centre, Newcastle Uni), blogger (Sustaining Community), environmentalist, Alternatives to Violence Project facilitator, 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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