What is asset-based community-driven development (ABCD)?

Asset-based community-driven development (ABCD), or just asset-based community development, is a bottom-up way of working with communities that focuses on community strengths and assets. 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 needs. The half full glass represents the notion that communities (and the people who live there) have many strengths, capacities 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.

Have a look at a 5 minute video of Wendy McCaig giving 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.

Kretzmann (2010) suggest some potential consequences of the needs map when communities are labelled being 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. 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 can 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’ with in the community, more resources often flow into the community. As 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 your community?
When was a time you felt your 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 the 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, 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

When looking at individual and community assets, it is important to remember that we are looking for opportunities to build relationships and to build connections. We aren’t creating a directory. The 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

Originally ABCD was called asset-based community development, but some of us are beginning to use asset-based community-driven development (or asset-based and citizen-led development) to emphasise that ABCD is driven by the community; not external agencies. While external catalysts can play an important role, their focus is to assist communities to drive their own development: ABCD ‘emphasises that one leads best by stepping back’ (Bergdall, 2003, p. 3). If we start with the strengths and assets of communities we are more likely to see how they can take control of their future rather than relying on other people. We are more likely to draw upon, and harness, the skills and experience of local people to create change (Cameron, 2000).

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) suggest 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.

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 (Central Coast Community Congress Working Party, 2003) but our focus is on the resources the community has to address them. One way we can do this is by being future oriented. By exploring a community’s dreams and vision for the future, we do hear about what needs to change, but we do it in a positive way that provides a way forward.


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

  • Appreciative inquiry which identifies and analyses the community’s past successes. This strengthens people’s confidence in their own capacities and inspires them to take action
  • The recognition of social capital and its importance as an asset. This is why ABCD focuses on the power of associations and informal linkages within the community, and the relationships built over time between community associations and external institutions
  • Participatory approaches to development, which are based on principles of empowerment and ownership of the development process
  • Community economic development models that place priority on collaborative efforts for economic development that makes best use of its own resource base
  • Efforts to strengthen civil society. These efforts have focused on how to engage people as citizens (rather than clients) in development, and how to make local governance more effective and responsive. (For more of the theoretical underpinnings see Mathie and Cunningham, 2002.)

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.


By Graeme Stuart

15 August 2013

Read the original article here


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