Asset-Based Community Development

by Charlie Estes

Published 6/16/22

What is Asset-Based Community Development?

Asset-Based Community Development (ABCD) is both an approach to and a way of thinking about international development. It is a form of Community-Led Development (CLD), but is distinct from other forms of CLD.

ABCD focuses on what communities and their members bring to the work of development, not what they lack. It recognizes that communities have inherent skills and knowledge and defines them based on what they have instead of what they don’t.

Above all, ABCD puts community members on the same level as outside “experts,” because community members, if not experts in development work, are experts in their situation. They understand their problems, and the roots causes of those problems better than anyone else, and they bring that essential knowledge to the table, in addition to the other skills they possess. Under ABCD, every single community member is valuable, each bringing unique knowledge and skills.

There are five key assets in ABCD, per the Collaborative for Neighborhood Transformation’s ABCD toolkit:

  1. Individuals: At the center of ABCD are residents of the community that have gifts and skills. Everyone has assets and gifts. Individual gifts and assets need to be recognized and identified.
  2. Associations: Small informal groups of people, such as clubs, working with a common interest as volunteers are called associations in ABCD and are critical to community mobilization. They don’t control anything; they are just coming together around a common interest by their individual choice.
  3. Institutions: Paid groups of people who generally are professionals who are structurally organized are called institutions. They include government agencies and private business, as well as schools, etc. They can all be valuable resources. The assets of these institutions help the community capture valuable resources and establish a sense of civic responsibility
  4. Physical Assets: Physical assets such as land, buildings, space, and funds are other assets that can be used.
  5. Connections: There must be an exchange between people sharing their assts by bartering, etc. These connections are made by people who are connectors. It takes time to find out about individuals; this is normally done through building relationships with individual by individual.

What’s the difference between Asset-Based and Needs-Based Community Development?

Think about a half-full glass of water. Needs-Based Community Development (NBCD) focuses on the empty half, while ABCD focuses on the full half. Both recognize the glass is only half full, but the starting place is different.

From: Building Communities from the Inside Out

In Needs-Based Community Development, practitioners look at what is missing from a community. Perhaps there is a large unemployed population, so what the community needs is jobs. Perhaps there is a large underfed population, so what they need is a way to grow or buy more food. This can still be pursued in a sustainable and community-led way, but focuses on the deficits rather than inherent assets. NBCD projects usually form because, through consulting with the community, the organization identifies a need, then develops a project to address that need. “Although managers of the NGOs/CBOs tried to involve community members in decision making, such involvement tended to be to a limited extent and was often only consultative in nature” (Nel).

In comparison, ABCD starts with assets, not deficits—the full half of the glass. An individual’s or community’s assets can be any number of things that are not typically accounted for in development work. Caring for the elderly, mentally ill, disabled, young, or sick; being able to type or use a calculator; knowing how to cook, paint, wash dishes, mow lawns, drive a car, play an instrument, sew—all of these things are assets to a community. There are cultural assets as well; cultural traditions around trading skills to help others or collectively managing problems through organizations like community centers or churches are huge assets.

An example of ABCD versus NBCD, from “Building Communities from the Inside Out” by Kretzmann and Mcknight, shows how people can be defined by either what they lack or what they have: “’She is a pregnant teenager. She needs counseling, therapy, residential services, special education.’ But also, ‘She is Mary Smith. She has a miraculously beautiful voice. We need her in the choir. She needs a record producer.’”

ABCD helps to move past potentially limiting labels (unemployed, mentally disabled, ex-convict), as well as qualifications that can only be obtained through formal education and employment, and look instead toward what each person brings to the table. “In weak communities there are lots of people who have been pushed to the edge or exiled to institutions. Often, we say these people need help. They are needy. They have nothing to contribute. The label tells us so” (Nel). But this, of course, is not the case.

Is ABCD better than NBCD?

When all communities are told is that they are poor, they are needy, that messaging seeps in. “ABCD authors and practitioners believe leaders in many formal and informal organizations tend to unintentionally suppress community involvement by emphasizing deficiencies, needs, and problems, which then results in communities becoming dependent on services rendered by these organizations” (Nel). Even if the NBCD project is community-led, practitioners will find that the community is less involved because they do not have the confidence to communicate their ideas. Instead of recognizing their own skills and resources, they believe they need external help from experts to solve their problems.

By emphasizing needs, development experts unwittingly put themselves on a higher plane than the community. “You need this, but we don’t; we have it all figured out.” This subliminal message is embedded into the minds of the practitioners and community members alike. Rather than breaking the cycle of aid dependency, as much of CLD attempts to do, this simply reinforces it, while alleviating the consciences of the practitioners. They consult with the community, but finding them not as helpful or forthcoming as they want, simply move on without them.

A study comparing 12 ABCD and 12 NBCD projects (Nel) found that all 24 projects made change at the community level and benefitted participants, but the changes made were different. “In ABCD-sensitized communities it was found that local people drove their own development, gained skills and confidence, and were able to work together towards common goals. They organized their own initiatives and made use of resources available in themselves and the communities. Furthermore, people recognized each other’s competencies, co-invested their assets in a collaborative way, and utilized outside resources on terms decided by themselves as project members.”

One participant in an ABCD project said, “We value ourselves now and know that we can do it. Almost everything you see here was done by women who had a passion to make a difference. This organization does not exist because of money; if you want to get money or a stipend this is not the place for you but if you want to make change out there then you are welcome.”

How do you conduct ABCD?

ABCD is difficult to practice, if only because Needs-Based development has been so deeply ingrained into practitioners and communities. It requires continual examination of thought processes and reorientation of priorities.

The Compendium of Methods and Tools for ABCD Facilitation, which is for training practitioners, provides activities for introducing: 1) ABCD as a paradigm; 2) ABCD as a process; 3) Process facilitation.

Characteristics of ABCD, from Nel

  1. “Leadership should be locally shared and owned by community members. This leadership should be value-driven, participatory, authentic, and appreciative in nature. Leaders should recognize the strengths and capacities already present in the communities and utilize these on the basis of care and trust”
  2. “Second, the aim of community leaders should be to transfer power from organizations to community members so as to create independent and self-reliant citizens.”
  3. Third, leaders should facilitate change at three levels: personal, organisational, and community. It should start within community members on a personal consciousness level, where attitudinal and mind-set changes take place. Attitudinal and mind-set changes will primarily take place if participants are involved in activities that they are passionate about.
  4. Fourth, in terms of leadership approach, those organisations aiming to facilitate development should be structured in a flat, team-oriented manner. Community members should be seen as equal partners with the organisation, as experts of their situation

Guiding Principles of ABCD, from Collaborative for Neighborhood Transformation

  • Everyone Has Gifts with rare exception; people can contribute and want to contribute. Gifts must be discovered.
  • Relationships Build a Community see them, make them, and utilize them. An intentional effort to build and nourish relationships is the core of ABCD and of all community building.
  • Citizens at the Center, it is essential to engage the wider community as actors (citizens) not just as recipients of services (clients).
  • Leaders Involve Others as Active Members of the Community. Leaders from the wider community of voluntary associations, congregations, neighborhoods, and local business, can engage others from their sector. This “following” is based on trust, influence, and relationship.
  • People Care About Something agencies and neighborhood groups often complain about apathy. Apathy is a sign of bad listening. People in communities are motivated to act. The challenge is to discover what their motivation is.
  • Motivation to Act must be identified. People act on certain themes they feel strongly about, such as; concerns to address, dreams to realize, and personal talents to contribute. Every community is filled with invisible “motivation for action”. Listen for it.
  • Listening Conversation – one-on-one dialogue or small group conversations are ways of discovering motivation and invite participation. Forms, surveys and asset maps can be useful to guide intentional listening and relationship building.
  • Ask, Ask, Ask – asking and inviting are key community-building actions. “Join us. We need you.” This is the song of community.
  • Asking Questions Rather Than Giving Answers Invites Stronger Participation. People in communities are usually asked to follow outside expert’s answers for their community problems. A more powerful way to engage people is to invite communities to address ‘questions’ and finding their own answer– with agencies following up to help.
  • A Citizen-Centered “Inside-Out” Organization is the Key to Community Engagement A “citizen-centered” organization is one where local people control the organization and set the organization’s agenda.
  • Institutions Have Reached Their Limits in Problem-Solving all institutions such as government, non-profits, and businesses are stretched thin in their ability to solve community problems. They can not be successful without engaging the rest of the community in solutions.
  • Institutions as Servants people are better than programs in engaging the wider community. Leaders in institutions have an essential role in community-building as they lead by “stepping back,” creating opportunities for citizenship, care, and real democracy


Kretzmann, John P., and John L. Mcknight. “Building Communities from the Inside Out: A Path Toward Finding and Mobilizing a Community’s Assets.” ABCD Institute, Depaul University. 1993.

“ABCD Toolkit.” Collaborative for Neighborhood Transformation.

Nel, Hanna. “Community leadership: A comparison between asset-based community-led development (ABCD) and the traditional needs-based approach.” Development Southern Africa. 2018.

“Compendium of Methods and Tools for ABCD Facilitation.”

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