The Assets Model of Community Development

The “assets model of community development,” as distinct from the “deficits model,” has really caught on in philanthropy in the last 30 years.  Articulated first by John McKnight at the Asset-Based Community Development Institute, the notion has increasingly made its way into grantmaking guidelines and community development design principles, thanks to intensive effort by the Institute and several other idea-workers.  This publication offers my take on it, as offered to a grantmakers association in 1991.

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Effective Philanthropy:  Most funders, and therefore most of the organizations they fund, operate according to the deficit model, in which poor people and poor communities are maintained in a state of dependent clientage.  On the other hand, in the assets model people and communities are recognized as having assets and resources that can be developed.

This change in view is a radical one, shifting us from thinking that people are broken and we need to fix them, to everyone and every community has assets that can be developed, that they themselves can develop with the right investments.

The assets view is a growth model.  It’s constructive, creative, and progressive. One can see in it the invitation to venture capital philanthropy, impact investing, and pay for success models of philanthropy.


Program Evaluation: Such a shift in view changes the goal of a project from need-reduction to asset development.  It therefore changes how we evaluate, from choosing deficit-related criteria (“reduced mental illness,” or “reduced recidivism”) to asset-related criteria (“increased mental health,” or “increased reintegration.”


Nonprofit Management: If your people are ready and able to take things to the next level (and most of them are, given the opportunity), then pitch your project that way.  Tell your donors what you’re wanting to build, either for your client/stakeholders, or for your own organization, or better yet, both.


Community Development: Since the assets model is so “in” these days – and for good reason – it would be good to push your favorite program in that direction.  Help them fundraise with asset-building in mind.  Help them tweak their programming to be more asset-focused.  Help them focus on “building” more than “servicing.” It doesn’t have to be an either/or proposition; one can shift incrementally.  It’s more than reframing, it’s re-structuring the approach to the problem, enlarging the uses of money, and re-structuring “the deal.”

Originally appeared: Publication of Rainbow Research, Inc.
Number of pages: 11 Original date: November 1991
Author: Steven E. Mayer, Ph.D.

Effective Communities Project
Minneapolis, MN