A strengths-based approach to collective impact

A word cloud based onstrengths-based collective impact. Other key words include change, power-with, people and community.
(Created with Wordle)

Collective impact is an approach to addressing complex social problems. As discussed in the previous post (Collective impact and community engagement), community engagement needs to be at the heart of collective impact, but the (sometimes subtle) message underlying too many initiatives is that the community is part of the problem. When initiatives take a top-down approach and do not involve the community from the start, they are implying that the community has little of value to offer.

Adopting a strengths-based approach to collective impact fundamentally changes the questions we ask and the way we relate to the people affected by the issues being addressed. Although the focus of collective impact is on creating change that will help address complex social problems, thus starting with the problem, it is still possible to be strengths-based. In addressing the issues involved, we can discover what is already working in the community, what their vision is for their community, what resources they can contribute to creating their vision, and who is passionate about helping to create change.

Dan Duncan 1, in discussing what collective impact can learn from asset-based community development, suggests that:

Professionals often believe that we have achieved community engagement when we ask people, “What do you need and how would you like it delivered?” Then we change our service model based on the input received. However, I believe we have the opportunity to make an even greater difference in our communities when we help the people we serve to move beyond their roles as clients and advisers to become producers of their own community’s well-being. My experience tells me that if we truly want to make a difference, we need the people we serve to act as co-producers. We cannot do it without them. (p. 5)

If we do not actively engage community members in creating change, it leads to them being the objects of change (having things done TO them) rather than them being the subjects of change (where they are the ones DOING something).

Asset-based community development and other strengths-based approaches to working with communities:

  1. Focus on community assets and strengths rather than problems and needs
  2. Identify and build on individual and community assets, skills and passions
  3. Are community led
  4. Are relationship driven.

If we see communities as being full of strengths and potential; having valuable insights and knowledge; and having access to a range of internal and external resources; we will start by actively engaging community members and the people most affected by the issues we are addressing. (Click here for more on collective impact and community engagement.) While practitioners bring valuable specialist knowledge, community members have valuable lived experience and local knowledge 2. As well as having insights about the nature of the issue or problem in the specific context, they also have other important knowledge and experience related to the community including the strengths of the community; what people value about where they live; local priorities; and who is good at motivating others, building connections between people or feeling the pulse of the community.

If collective impact initiatives start by asking questions like:

What does the community need?
What are the barriers to creating change?
How can services work together to improve service delivery?
What programs have worked elsewhere?

they are essentially operating from a deficit-based approach. By focusing on the needs and barriers to change in the community, we are more likely to look outside of the community for solutions (because we have created a picture of a broken community).

If we start by asking questions like:

What are the strengths and resources 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 helps make our community unique and strong?
What is your vision for our community?
How would you like to help make our community a better place?

we create a very different image of the community. We start discovering things about the community that can be a foundation for change. We start hearing what is important to the community. How the questions are asked are different too. The first group of questions are asked by professionals and services from outside the community. The second group of questions are asked by people who are part of the community. (A story of two communities looks more at the different pictures we can create of communities).

As Amanda Howard 3 suggests:

In framing problem solving and the responsibility for impact as resting with government and organisations, the risk of excluding community knowledge, processes and decision making is high. In SBAs [strengths-based approaches] who makes the decisions is critical and casting the community as a passive recipient of decisions made collectively by organisations (perhaps patting themselves on the back for their excellent collaborative efforts) reinforces and reproduces the power relations communities have experienced repeatedly when new government, university or organisational initiatives come to town. If collective impact reproduces these existing power relations, how will the impact be different? (p. 18)

Duncan 1 argues that:

For true community engagement, professionals need to step back to create space for citizens [or community members] to discuss their own hopes and dreams and the roles they can play to achieve their dreams. True support is when professionals allow citizens to be in charge of their own destinies and then step in when their help is requested. (p. 4)

He provides the following diagram to illustrate the difference between collective impact approaches driven by professionals, ones which see community members as partners, and ones which are community driven.

Who is at the decision making table (Source: Dan Duncan1)

Communities are not homogeneous nor conflict free, but encompass diversity, competing interests and priorities, and unequal access to resources and influence. It is thus important to think about who is at the table when making decisions. An equity lens and a commitment to social justice mean that collective impact needs to place a priority on ensuring that marginalised or voiceless sections of the community have the opportunity to be engaged. It can even be worth asking “Who owns the table?”

Strengths-based practice involves more than simply looking for the strengths of individuals, families and communities. A strengths-based approach requires professionals to reject power-over and instead focus on power-with, power-to and power-within 4. (For more see 4 types of power and Power and strengths-based practice.)

In a context of short-term funding, competitive tendering, evidence-based programs and outcome measurement, it can be difficult to devote the time, energy and resources to allow for a strengths-based approach to collective impact that is more process driven, bottom up and relationship building. But it can be done, and it offers an alternative to reinforcing existing processes and structures that contribute to exclusion and marginalisation.

I’d love to hear about examples of strengths-based collective impact initiatives.

In the next post I will consider strengths-based measurement in collective impact.

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

  1. What is collective impact?
  2. Collective impact and community engagement
  3. 10 things I’ve learnt about strengths-based community engagement
  4. Power and strengths-based practice
  5. What is asset-based community-driven development (ABCD)?
  6. What is the Strengths Perspective?

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.


  1. Duncan, D. (2016). The components of effective collective impact. Rockville, MD: Clear Impact. Available from https://clearimpact.com/wp-content/uploads/2016/10/The-Components-of-Effective-Collective-Impact.pdf
  2. Ife, J. W. (2013). Community development in an uncertain world: Vision, analysis and practice. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
  3. Howard, A. (2018). How can collective action be strengths based and community led? Paper presented at the Family and Community Strengths International Symposium, Newcastle, Australia. Available from https://www.newcastle.edu.au/__data/assets/pdf_file/0006/455865/Symposium-Presentation-Booklet-FINAL-003.pdf
  4. 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

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 Working with communities and tagged , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

2 Responses to A strengths-based approach to collective impact

  1. Carolyn Corrin says:

    I an simply loving the all the information on ABCD and collective impact. I plan to do a masters on Social Capital and Have bought Gary greens book plus collective impact based on k & k work.

    Liked by 1 person

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