Communities are not just about what’s lacking; they’re rich with untapped opportunities. With minimal external help, they can grow and thrive on their own terms ~ Emmanuella Ezike

In the design of programs and interventions, there is often a tendency to amplify the needs or deficiencies within a community to address or alleviate them. While this approach has proven effective, it may not be entirely satisfactory as it overlooks opportunities to capitalize on existing “assets,” whether tangible or intangible, within the community. These assets have the potential to enhance the success of programs and improve community well-being significantly. This is where asset-based approaches come into play. While at Medici Road, I gained insight into the concept of an asset-based versus deficit-based approach for fostering innovation and community co-creation. So, before delving deeper, let’s clarify the definitions. What is the Asset-based and Deficit-based Approach?

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The Asset-based approach, otherwise known as asset-based community development(ABCD), focuses on identifying the strengths and resources that exist within a community rather than focusing on its weaknesses and problems. This approach encourages community members to actively identify and leverage their assets to solve the issues and create positive change. The appeal of ABCD lies in its premise that communities can drive the development process by identifying and mobilizing existing but often unrecognized assets and thereby responding to and creating local economic opportunities. An example of asset-based thinking in community engagement includes identifying and building on existing community partnerships, empowering local leaders and volunteers, and identifying and leveraging community assets such as parks, libraries, and community centers.

 Case study: Chicago’s Asset-based community development institute is an example of asset-based community engagement. The ABCD Institute helps communities build on their strengths and assets to create sustainable change. For example, the institute worked with the residents of a low-income neighborhood to create a community garden that provided fresh produce to residents and helped build a sense of community.

On the other hand, the Deficit-based approach focuses on identifying problems and weaknesses within a community, often focusing on what is lacking or deficient. This approach can sometimes lead to a top-down approach where outside experts or professionals are brought in to address the perceived deficiencies, creating a power dynamic that disempowers community members and overlooks the existing assets and resources within the community.

 Case Study: Non-profit XYZ is looking to implement a community engagement initiative that focuses on reducing crime in a neighborhood by increasing police presence, and implementing surveillance cameras can be an example of deficit-based thinking. While this approach may address the immediate problem of crime, it may not engage the community meaningfully or address the root causes of crime.

 So now we have our terms defined, why is incorporating an asset-based approach essential or relevant? Asset-based approaches are often more effective in engaging with communities because they empower community members to take ownership of the solutions and create a more collaborative and equitable process. Although no one approach is better, seeking equilibrium and balance would better serve communities in co-creation. So, how can we create a balance between these two concepts?

  • Identify the community’s assets alongside the needs: As a rule of Thumb, begin by thoroughly evaluating the community’s assets before identifying the needs. This gives a broader view of what is present and can be leveraged within the community. Common communities’ assets could include a community center with space for events and activities, local food pantries that provide meals to low-income residents, dedicated volunteers who organize clean-up efforts in local parks, or a community garden that provides fresh produce to residents.
  • Work with the community to identify and prioritize needs: It’s all about collaboration and not alienation. It is crucial to work with community leaders and residents to identify the most pressing challenges and what is most important to address, e.g., poverty, crime, or access to healthcare and education, and guide them through prioritizing these needs.
  • Identify potential solutions: Once you have identified the community’s assets and needs, brainstorm solutions that leverage those assets to address the challenges. This could involve partnerships between community organizations, collaborations with local businesses, or tapping into the skills and expertise of community residents. For example, a community might identify the following solutions: Establishing a job training program in partnership with local businesses to help residents gain new skills and find employment and collaborating with a nearby hospital to provide a mobile clinic that offers healthcare services to residents in need.
  • Develop an inclusive action plan: Once you have identified potential solutions, develop a plan with the community outlining specific steps for implementing those solutions. This could include timelines, budgets, and measurable outcomes. The community should ideally lead this process.
  • Sustain the effort: Over time, sustain the asset-based community strategy by forging partnerships, involving new community members, and harnessing the community’s strengths to tackle persistent challenges. 

In summary, balancing asset-based and deficit-based approaches entails harnessing the strengths and resources of a community while also addressing its challenges. By embracing the assets within the community, we can drive positive change and innovation. However, it’s equally important to acknowledge and tackle the areas needing improvement through targeted interventions and support. This balanced approach ensures that communities can maximize their potential for growth and well-being by leveraging their strengths while also paying attention to areas requiring assistance.

Additional Resources: University of Memphis