“Asset-based” vs. “Deficit-based” Approaches
One approach to understanding your broader community is called “asset mapping.” This is a practical exercise underpinned by an asset-based approach. We’ll first explore the approach and then offer suggestions for your own asset mapping below.
Effective leaders have probably used asset-based approaches to leadership and organizing since the beginning of time. Certainly interfaith leaders such as Dorothy Day and Martin Luther King, Jr. intentionally built their work on existing resources and skills.
The power of these asset-based approaches was illuminated by the research of Jody Kretzmann and John McKnight, both faculty at the Asset-Based Community Development Institute at DePaul University. As Kretzmann and McKnight worked with communities and community members (in the 1980s), they noticed that civic leaders tended to describe communities in terms of what was missing: jobs, grocery stores, educational institutions, opportunity. This mindset meant that strategies to address challenges in the community were often based on addressing needs and attending to problems. Kretzmann and McKnight observed that as community members saw their neighborhoods through this lens of deficit, they often felt disempowered and unable to take action on their own.
Kretzmann and McKnight sought to codify an approach that, by contrast, empowered local residents to take leadership in strengthening their communities. Rather than focusing on deficits locally, Kretzmann and McKnight highlighted the need for different questions: What resources do we already have? What can we utilize to strengthen our communities?
Kretzmann and McKnight’s research demonstrated the power of approaching our work with a focus on the assets of the communities involved. We don’t ignore challenges, but we seek to tackle those challenges by first asking: What resources already exist? This approach empowers us and our partners to use our strengths to make progress.