The Assets Model of Community Development – A New Introduction

By Steven E. Mayer, Ph.D

The assets view is a growth model.  It’s constructive, creative, and progressive.

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 other activist knowledge workers. This publication offers my views on the assets model, as offered at the Mile High United Way in Denver in 1991.

John McKnight is most known for encouraging the human and social services and the community development fields to restructure their thinking, away from what he calls the deficit model to the assets model. He likes to use the imagery of a glass of water that’s half-full — or is it half-empty? 

The deficit model’s adherents, who form the vast majority of the human and social service sector professionals and volunteers, see people and communities as half-empty — broken down, suffering problems, pathologies, deficiencies, and needs. These people need fixing, says the model, so we have programs that do that, programs whose very name suggests deficiency: corrections programs, treatment programs, rehabilitation programs, therapy programs — the gamut of “social welfare” programs. 

Assets model adherents, which should include the world of investors and funders, see the glass as half-full. In this view, people and communities have resources and assets, skills and capacities, but for a variety of reasons their development is stunted and kept down. …In the assets model, people and communities are recognized as having assets and resources that can be developed.  

What we do have to do, I believe, is recognize that providing individuals with relief from the ravages of today’s economic and cultural climate, while a necessary activity that we as a nation must undertake, is a different sort of activity than developing the capacity of local communities to sustain themselves.”

The Assets Model Can Induce Greater Philanthropic Effectiveness, Community Development, And Nonprofit Management

The change in view from a deficits model to an assets one is essential for creating a more effective philanthropy. The assets model shifts us from thinking that people are broken and we need to fix them, to everyone and every community has assets that they can develop given the opportunity and the right support.

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

Since the assets model is so “in” these days – and for good reason – it would be good for institutional philanthropy to push their favorite community development programs 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.”

A shift in paradigm from a deficit view to an asset view allows a substantial change in how nonprofits manage their programs. 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.

The Assets Model Allows A Shift In POV For Program Evaluators

Adoption of an assets view of programming allows for a shift in how we conduct program evaluation. Such a shift in view changes the goal of a project from need-reduction to asset development.  It therefore allows us to change how we evaluate, from choosing deficit-related criteria (“reduced mental illness,” or “reduced recidivism”) to asset-related criteria (“increased mental health,” or “increased reintegration.”


How to cite this cover article: Mayer, Steven E., The Assets Model of Community Development – A New Introduction.  Minneapolis: Effective Communities Project. Downloaded from EffectiveCommunities.com, [month, date, year]. 

Our original publication can be cited this way: Mayer, Steven E., The Assets Model of Community Development.  Minneapolis: Rainbow Research, Inc., 1991.