Nurture Development

Asset Based Community Development (ABCD) come to life

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Five keys to broad and inclusive community engagement

Written by Jim Diers, Associate of Nurture Development, Faculty Member for the ABCD Institute and author of ‘Neighbor Power: Building Community the Seattle Way’


Strong linksBuilding strong communities is not easy. In Bowling Alone, Robert Putnam documents the decline of community life in North America. He blames poverty, suburbanization, television, and more time spent at work. Others have added fear, mobility, globalization, and increased professionalization and specialization to the list of culprits. Even so, my 37 year background in community building has taught me some simple rules of engagement that still hold true today.

Have Fun!

Of all the forces that are eroding community, Putnam claims that television is the greatest threat. That may be true, but if television is our main competition and we’re losing, we’re doing something terribly wrong. It shouldn’t be that difficult to make community more compelling than television.

Cesar Cala, a community activist in the Philippines and now in Calgary, told me, “The problem is those GD activists.” “GD activists?” I inquired. “Yes,” he said, “the grim and determined.”

We all know those sour activists who act like civic engagement is their cross to bear. They love to complain. Who would want to get involved with them? The key is to make community life fun again. As my friend Jeff Bercuwitz says, “Why have a meeting when you can have a party?” After all, the purpose is to get people involved and not to see who can endure the most suffering.

Start Where People Are

Saul Alinsky, who is often described as the father of modern community organizing, complained that too many activists start with the world as they would like it to be rather than the world as it is. If you want to get people engaged, he advised, you need to start where they are. This is true on several levels.

First, the closer the action is to where people live, the more likely they are to get engaged. While there will undoubtedly be a larger turnout for a citywide event, there will never be a higher percentage of participation than if the meeting (or party) is held at the block level. A more localized event makes transportation and child care much easier. It also gives people a greater sense that their participation is important. After all, if they don’t attend, who will?

Second, if you want to get people involved, you need to be mindful of their language and culture. This seems obvious in working with newly arrived folks from other countries, but even when communicating with people who speak the same language as you, it is important to use words that are familiar to them. Too often, we use jargon or acronyms that comprise a sort of secret code known only by members of a particular profession or by hard core activists. Not only do we fail to communicate, but those whom we are trying to reach come to believe that they lack the expertise required for participation.

Third, in trying to recruit people, it is important to start with the networks to which they already belong. Too often, we think that people aren’t engaged in community life simply because they don’t belong to our organization or group. In fact, just about everyone belongs to at least one network, either formal or informal. They likely don’t have time to join yet another group. Besides, they have developed relationships within their existing network that make them comfortable.

It is especially difficult to include people whose age, income, ethnicity or other characteristics set them apart from the existing members of your organization. If you want to create a multi-cultural community effort, it generally works best to identify and build alliances with the key networks involving people who are underrepresented in your membership. These local networks could be centered on neighbourhood, culture, faith, education, business, recreation, environment, history, art, crime prevention, service, a hobby, or something else. There are literally dozens of networks in every neighbourhood. When these networks are aligned, the community can exercise tremendous power.

Fourth, we need to focus on people’s passions. Too often, we try to convince people to care about our cause – what we are passionate about or what we are paid to promote. When people don’t join us, we call them apathetic. In fact, no one is apathetic. Everyone cares deeply about something. People will get involved to the extent that we can tap into their passion. The key is to start, not with an answer or with a programme, but with a question:

“What is your dream or what keeps you up at night?”

Finally, in order to start where people are, you need to know their call. I learned this lesson from John McKnight, Director of the Asset-Based Community Development Institute. McKnight taught me that different kinds of people respond to different kinds of calls, just like ducks.

Typically, the meeting call is the one that we use. For most people, this is the worst possible call. They’re afraid to come to the first meeting because they know they will be on the sign-in sheet and be sentenced to meetings for the remainder of their life. Those who have come to meetings usually see few if any results. And, many people are shy. They may attend meetings because it is the only option they are given, but they don’t feel like they are making a contribution.

In fact, everyone will get involved if they hear their call. Most people respond to the social call of community meals, parties and festivals. Shy people may respond to the volunteer call as a tutor or mentor. And, everyone seems to love the project call. With projects, unlike with meetings, people make a short term commitment and they see results. There’s a role for everyone- young people, elders, people with disabilities, architects, artists, construction workers, etc. The more varied the calls they utilize, the more broad-based and inclusive the organization will be.

Once people are connected, then they are more likely to go to some meetings because we need a few of those as well. But, we tend to lead with the meetings and wonder why the same people keep turning out. We’re often trying to engage community before we’ve built it.

Strive for Results

While it is important to start where the people are, it is crucial not to leave them there. This is especially true of people who have felt powerless and are getting involved for the first time. They need to see results if they are going to stay involved. So, you probably don’t want to start by working on world peace or global warming. Alinsky talked about the importance of focusing on issues that are immediate, concrete and realizable. Once people have a sense that they can make a difference, they will be more ready to tackle the larger issues.

Utilize People’s Strengths

Many activists tend to focus on the problems in their community. As a result, they look outside the community for the solutions and overlook the abundant assets that exist in every neighbourhood and in every individual. Everyone has gifts of the head (knowledge), heart (passion), and hands (skills). Identifying ways in which people can contribute those gifts to the community is a wonderful way to get them engaged. This is especially true for people referred to as at-risk youth, old people, non-English speaking, and homeless and disabled individuals. When we label people by their needs, they become clients in a service system, and when we focus on their gifts they become citizens of our community.

Celebrate Success and Recognize Caring Neighbours

Getting results is important, but much of the potential value is lost if you fail to celebrate your success and thank those who made it possible. Neighbours need to know that people like themselves were responsible. The sharing of such stories inspires people about what is possible when they work together and build on their assets. Social media presents us with a wonderful opportunity to tell the positive stories that are seldom found in the mainstream press.


Jim will be speaking at a number of events across the UK in November 2013 as one of Nurture Development’s key Associates. We will be tweeting about these events from @NurtureDev and will be blogging about the different discussions taking place. Watch this space!


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Felling the forest

This past weekend, I watched the film ‘Get Low’ – it was recommended to me by Cormac following a conversation about Community Builders (can you spot who the Community Builder is in the film?). It is a film filled with wonderful acknowledgements of the gifts we possess and find naturally around us. In many ways, it speaks to some of the core values of ABCD.

Image from the film 'Get Low' (2009)One of the scenes that resonated most with me sees the main character, Felix, walking through the forest that grows on his land with an old friend, Mattie, who he has reconnected with after 40 years of self-imposed isolation:

Mattie: “It really is beautiful out here. It probably looked like this everywhere 100 years ago.”

Felix: “If you leave things alone, they know what to do”

Now, while trying to avoid reading too much into this seemingly simple exchange, for me this is a comment on the society we have constructed. It brought to mind the discussion in McKnight & Block’s The Abundant Community, about today’s ‘depth of dependency’ on professionals and systems to fulfil the functions that were once the concern of families and communities. To bring it back to the film, it struck me that this scene is a comment about how the world now is (Mattie’s remark) and how it was and should be (Felix’s remark).

For those within the ABCD movement, this ‘depth of dependency’ is one of the core concerns. We have ‘outsourced to professionals’, those people who get paid, everything from the ‘well-being of our children’ to ‘physical health, entertainment, nutrition, employment, mental well-being, care for the elderly, and stewardship of the land.’

‘All have been outsourced to professionals. All are organized in systems designed to deliver these functions in as efficient, low-cost, and consistent a way as possible.’

The systematisation and professionalisation of everyday functions has deskilled many and has desensitised most to their abilities, talents and skills that enable them to lead self-fulfilled lives, create greater equality and ensure a healthier society. To exhaust the film simile further, we have felled the forest with the hope of creating a more efficient ecosystem but are now realising that the trees knew what to do all along. And when you fell the forest completely you are left with a desert; a baron wasteland.

The news headlines over the last couple of days have spoken to this ‘dependency’ – a ‘something for nothing’ culture. In many ways, worklessness is a manifestation of the dependency we have created and, according to research published in July, is being passed down through generations:

‘Unemployed young adults whose fathers were also out of work are actually happier when not working.’

Ivan Illich, the well-known critic of institutions within Western culture, offers an interesting perspective in his essay ‘Shadow-work’ on ideas around ‘worklessness’ which is tempting to bring in here, but deserves its own blog post. In the essay he points to a central tenet of dominant social theory that ‘work is presented as the stone of wisdom, the panacea, the magic elixir which transforms what it touches into gold.’

This is where asset based community development (ABCD) lends itself as a powerful non-political lens through which to view how we turn the tide on dependency – not just in terms of those claiming benefits, but more broadly on those everyday functions that you and I are best placed to do for ourselves and each other.

A system ‘solution’ to a system ‘problem’ isn’t really going to get us anywhere – these approaches miss the wood for the trees, and so just keep chopping the forest down. ABCD enables a different kind of conversation; it is a window to the forest that magnifies the ability of the natural world to work together, to nourish one another, and to thrive. This is what requires a more prominent arena for discussion.

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Guiding participation and inclusion

We welcome yesterday’s launch of NHS England’s Guidance for Participation and Inclusion which begins to lay a foundation for transformational change.

The central challenge for participation and inclusion more generally is how can we promote citizen-led innovation that stays local, but over time proliferates?

John McKnight, Marion Thompson, Cormac RussellOn Tuesday in Chicago, Cormac and John McKnight had lunch with Marion Thompson, the founder of La Leche League International. Both John and Cormac consider this one of the finest and most enduring examples of citizen-led health producing change there is. It also affords us a wonderful answer to the above question. It is an exemplar of what we can do to support people to share their healthfulness with each other.

When Cormac asked Marion how they managed to grow from five women meeting – as a breast feeding support group in a Chicago neighbourhood in the 1950s – to a worldwide movement, she simply said “we kept everything ‘mother sized’, and did not fall into the trap of trying to go to scale. Local is everything.” Programmes scale, movements spread.

It was this small group of women who, chapter by chapter, focused on the value of breastfeeding, who promoted world-wide the principles and values of breastfeeding. She emphasised “we did not take on the ‘formula industry’, we just doggedly focused on what we were passionate about.” In other words on what is strong not what is wrong.

But, by doing so they did push back the all-consuming message of that industry; that argued formula was far superior to breast milk.

The question such initiatives pose for us in terms of participation is how can we help people discover that which is invisible yet abundant within and around them.

This initiative and others like it remind us that health resources are largely in our communities. Our challenge is to identify, connect and mobilise them. Participation and inclusion that only focuses on getting more people using more government run programmes, misses this point. And that is what is most significant about these guidelines. Firstly, they begin to point to the resourcefulness that’s already in our neighbourhoods – albeit hidden in plain view behind labels – as the key starting point.

Secondly, by citing ABCD they open the way to a conversation that goes beyond a focus on individuals to a discussion about the ‘collective’ nature of health.

So, this guidance signals a widespread acceptance across the healthcare systems of the importance of meaningful ‘participation’ both of individuals and communities and it usefully begins to share ideas, approaches and examples of how this could be achieved. We congratulate NHS England on its recognition of the need to develop more connected powerful communities and of the potential of the ABCD approach and therefore a belief that the answers lie in communities!

We are looking forward to working with NHS England and others to further develop a greater understanding of the principles and value of the ABCD approach.

In a final analysis, as Prof. John McKnight would say: ‘you can’t know what a community needs, until you first know what a community has.’ 

For further information:

If you would like to learn more about Nurture Development and the potential of ABCD to nurture connected, healthier and happier communities read our previous blogs and visit our website.

We will be launching a new Health and Wellbeing Prospectus very soon. If you would like to receive an electronic copy or talk to us about our work please email us at or tweet us at @NurtureDev.