Inside Out or Outside In?

This is another way to think about the difference between asset based community development and deficit based community development.

In asset based development the work starts from within the individual or community.  It is their aspirations and goals (both assets) that initiate the work and give it momentum.  The work starts from within and moves out  as it engages others who can help, bringing their expertise and understanding to the task.

In deficit or needs based development the direction tends to flow the other way.  The need or deficit is usually recognised by an outsider (often based on a statistical analysis and hard data rather than lived experience of the community) and development then heads towards the community and various targets within it.

So, for example, when we plan a worklessness project based on unemployment stats in a part of town and then use community development approaches to tackle it we are doing needs based community development.

If individuals in a community decide that they want to do something to improve employment prospects in their area and then start work on it then we at least have a chance of being ‘asset based’.


However there is a risk that even from within the community we start to focus too much on deficits, the things that aren’t working, poor educational attainment, few employers with fewer jobs, people not prepared to start ion low wages etc, and before we know it we are talking about all of the ways in which our glass is half empty rather than the ways in which it is half full.  The focus is on what we are missing and not on what we have got.

On Track for Asset Based Development

To keep on track for asset based development we have to focus on what is working in the community and what is positive.  Who has found work?  How did they find it? Who helped? What do they like about it?  what can we learn from this? How can we encourage more on the same path?

This is not to say that asset based development ducks problems and challenges.  Frequently in trying to make more good stuff happen we will find all sorts of barriers and blockages in the way that have to be tackled.  But the direction of travel remains from the inside out, and the barriers are only tackled when they are really in the way.

Why Does This Matter?

Deficit based community development ‘from the outside in’ in my experience seldom works.  At least, not for the community.  It may work for the funder, but it usually leaves the community even more disempowered and dependent on well meaning outsiders, what Paul Theroux calls the ‘angels of virtue’.

Asset based approaches too are hard to make work well.  They progress at a pace and in directions  established by local people (two features that many funders find hard to reconcile with their approaches to outcomes, targets and milestones).  They can be easily taken over by minority interest groups who claim to work for the community while really pursuing their own interests. They are certainly not guaranteed to succeed. But for me at least they hold much more promise than deficit based models.

The key to successful asset based development work, especially if you’re an outsider, is respect and trust.  A willingness to facilitate local knowledge and insight rather than to impose your own.  This is a hard stance to maintain.  You are often tempted to offer ‘solutions’ that you have seen work elsewhere. Often this is what the community want you to do as well. They want an expert to come in and give them answers.  It seldom works, but the promise is seductive.

If all you have done is spend money and have not inspired anyone, you can teach the sharpest lesson by turning your back and going home. – Paul Theroux

What If Leeds…the video

At the What If consultation event on the future of Leeds they showed a video created by volinteers at Oblong.

If you were not there to see it, or would like to see it again, here it is:


Your thoughts, comments and observations would be very welcome.

Asset Based Community Development…

Last week I ran a workshop for the Yorkshire and Humber Community Development Network on Asset Based Community Development (ABCD), what it is, and why we should think about it.

And one of the questions I got was ‘What is the relevance of ABCD to health promotion?’

An excellent question.

But first let’s establish what we mean by ‘asset based community development’.  Or even ‘community development’.  But wait, can we even agree on ‘community’? Or ‘development’?

Community development, at its best, helps individuals and groups of people develop the power that they need to make the progress they choose in their own lives.

This is done either through a focus on ‘assets’ or a focus on ‘needs’, giving us ‘asset based community development’ or ‘needs (or deficit) based community development’.  The following table gives some examples of assets and needs as they might be described in relation to individuals and communities.

assets and needs in personal and community development

So, in ABCD we start with what people and the community already have and with what they want to achieve, individually or collectively.  Development starts where the people are, and works with what they have got.  It embraces a philosophy that says we already have everything that we need in order to make progress. “Start change from where you are, and with what you’ve got.”

On the other hand, needs based community development starts with some sort of judgement of what is wrong with a community or individual.  What is missing.  This takes the form of some sort of assessment, usually done by an external agency, with a view to working out what needs to be fixed and how this might be achieved.  The vast majority of what is described as ‘community development’ work in the UK takes this needs based form.  It starts from a philosophy that says  ‘we know what is good for the community/individual and we will work to bring it about’.    It might be characterised as ‘Start from where we want you to be, and work with what we give you’.  The vast majority of health promotion work is close to this needs based model.  These needs based projects often use the tools and techniques of ‘community development’ recruiting local champions, building interest groups and generally doing what is needed to achieve the funders policy goals.  But is it community development?  Does it give people and groups the power to work on their agendas, or does it merely seduce them into working on the agendas of the funder?  And if course when the funder runs out of money, or the policy goal changes the community development stalls.

It is worth noticing that if you adopt a need based approach your stance will essentially have to be one of nagging, nudging or nannying however carefully you present it.  Whereas if you choose an asset based approach your role will be to facilitate, coordinate and connect.

So what would an ‘asset based’ approach to health development look like?

Well first of all it would not be on the agenda just because a funder had identified a need.  It would only be on the agenda if local people or groups recognised that they needed to work on health issues in order to make the progress that they want to make.  This implies that funders would need to learn to respond to the self-determined needs , or wants, of the community.  They need to understand working responsively as well as their more usual strategic perspective.

Health would be negotiated alongside enterprise, culture, employment and many other topics that the community may wish to address.  The development agenda in an asset based approach is much more likely to be holistic, whole system and person centred.  This contrasts with need based approaches which frequently lack integration, only work on part of the system and are centred on policy goals rather than people and their aspirations

An asset based approach, starting from where we are, working with what we have got, would be much less sensitive to the changing funding priorities of policy makers and is more likely to enable prolonged and steady progress.  It is also much more likely to build long-lasting social capital, of all types.

So why then are so many, the overwhelming majority in fact, of community development projects ‘needs based’ rather than ‘asset based’?  Well it has little to do with efficacy, in my opinion, and everything to do with accommodating the policy goals, timescales and resources of funders.

With the asset based approach you never really know what issues you may end up working on or what might be achieved. And, regardless of what might be done to help individuals and groups of people develop the power that they need to make the progress they choose in their own lives, which funder is going to invest in a methodology that will not allow them to tightly control outcomes, milestones and resources?