The Unexpected Benefits of ABCD

NOTE: This post is a companion piece to the post, “Asset Focused Leadership,” which provides an overview of ABCD fundamentals.

“Happy accidents are real gifts, and they can open the door to a future that didn’t even exist. It’s kind of nice sometimes to set up something to encourage or allow happy accidents to happen.” — David Lynch

An asset-based community development (ABCD) approach to creating change requires a recognition of the fundamental humanity of every member of the community, and allows each person’s gifts, skills, and talents to be shared and celebrated. It should not be surprising that these basic tenets often result in unexpected discoveries of human ingenuity and accomplishment.

Communities use ABCD to uncover, and creatively implement ways to address local issues. Along the way, however, small groups of collaborators, many of whom have only recently met, begin to see their community through a different lens. As people work together to create positive change in their community, social capital, and trusted personal relationships are created.

That trust can be a key to a sense of belonging for people who formerly found themselves on the margins. Being surrounded by gifted, caring people does more than instill confidence that committed people can get things done. It often uncovers a generosity of spirit, and a level of compassion that the community had not previously seen.

The unexpected benefits of taking the time to ask people what they care deeply about, and what their talents are, consistently changes the conversation. People are forced to rethink notions about where wisdom and expertise reside. That gives them confidence to believe that they don’t have to wait around for someone else do something about improving the things that they are passionate about.

You Always Have Power

It is New Year’s Day, and my wish for you is to have a powerful 2017.

If you are committed to social change, the most important thing you can do right now is to remember that you are not powerless. The notion that you cannot do anything about the issues that bother you the most, is false. Here are three ideas to help you get rid of a feeling of powerlessness:

Stop relinquishing your power. Don’t give away the fundamental strengths that you possess. You may not have authority, but you always have power — and you don’t need anyone’s permission to use it (Read more about this idea here).

You are not alone. Find even one or two like-minded people. Organize. Your common self-interests will reveal even more power. Map your collective assets, and connect those assets to define actions (more here). Which brings us to one final recommendation . . .

Less talk, more action. Do something today. Once you’ve organized you group of allies, don’t be seduced into thinking that whining and complaining to each other is going to solve anything. Act. Accomplish small things. Those successes will attract more partners, who will bring even more assets to the table. In the words of the 14th Dalai Lama, “It is not enough to be compassionate – you must act.”

You are not powerless. Happy New Year.

Tacit Knowledge and Change Agentry

“We know more than we can tell.”
– Michael Polanyi, The Tacit Dimension

image: public domain via pixabay
image: public domain via pixabay

Tacit knowledge is the kind of knowledge that is difficult to convey to another person either verbally, or in writing. It can also be critically important in the process of affecting social change.

Common examples of tacit knowledge include things such as emotional intelligence, or how to speak a language that you’ve learned through immersion over a lifetime, or humor (we all laugh at things that we can’t explain why we find them funny). There are some people who argue (I am not one of them) that leadership itself is a skill that primarily leverages tacit knowledge, gained only from experience.

This intelligence that people often refer to as intuition, is more than a mere hunch. It is the result of subconsciously connecting many bits and pieces of knowledge that we’ve collected over a lifetime. Think about a chess player who makes a rapid succession of moves. Despite the pace of the game, the moves are as calculated as they are situational.

Tacit knowledge is not always correct. It is just as likely as explicit knowledge, to get caught in the trap characterized by that Mark Twain quote, “It ain’t what you don’t know that gets you into trouble. It’s what you know for sure that just ain’t so.” The deep roots of superstition, racism, and all sorts of other human failings lie in the faulty assumptions of tacit knowledge.

Take the so-called “golden rule,” for example: “do unto others as you would have them do unto you.” It doesn’t take training to practice. Its inward orientation suggests that it is based on self-constructed, tacit knowledge. Its biblical origins might even suggest to some that it is some sort of universal truth. The problem is that this “truth” has an inherent bias.  The more generous, and effective strategy for human interaction seems to lie in what is known as the Platinum Rule: “Do unto others, as others would have done unto themselves.” In other words, treat people the way they want to be treated, not the way you want to be treated.

Despite its imperfections, tacit knowledge can be crucial to organizing and motivating people to advocate for change. It is expressed in the wisdom of elders. It is the source of the confidence that people place in a community’s opinion leaders, people who have gained the trust of many people, and whose opinion on an issue serves as a sort of seal of approval for like-minded residents.

The transfer of tacit knowledge is so situational, that there is no easy method to measure, or make use of it. This reality is why distributed networks of grassroots activists are more effective than centralized, networks that look like corporate organizational charts.

Capacity inventories and appreciative inquiry interviews, like those that we use in asset-based community development, can go a long way toward uncovering forgotten or hidden assets. It is often, however, easier to discover skills and talents, than it is to discover what people know. Tacit knowledge often reveals itself over the course of the development of personal relationships. Recognizing when uncommon knowledge is being shared is an important skill.

Vision is Personal

Creating change is inescapably tied to a shared vision. People can’t keep their eyes on the prize, if they don’t know what the prize is. A common notion of what the future should look like, however, is not enough.

Visionary concepts can be abstract (“We see a world where everybody . . .”). Change is social and shared, but above all else, change is personal. The key to a vision being a motivator for action, is for each individual to see themselves in that future.

One of the reasons why I am an advocate for Asset Based Community Development (ABCD), is that at its core, ABCD mobilizes people based on what they care about the most, and how their personal talents can best contribute to positive change. A group, a community, a movement, is made up of individuals with both broader common interests, and specific self-interest. Don’t just rally around the abstract and the generalized. Ask people to put themselves in the future being created.

Balancing Charitable Maintenance with Actions that Achieve Real Social Change

We are frequently challenged by issues that divide our time, resources, and energy between short-term maintenance of symptoms, and strategic organizing around a real solutions to deeper social problems. For example, soup kitchens and food shelves do not solve the problem of persistent malnutrition. They are critically important, and potentially life-saving maintenance strategies, but they do not begin to get to the core of the issue of poverty.

The temporary solution, and the permanent solution have a complex relationship. The temporary fix frequently has a charity approach. The implementation of this approach often occurs without an eye to broader social change. For instance, if you are motivated by the Bible, and Matthew 26:11 says ‘The poor you will always have with you,’ then you may simply feel that it is your Christian duty to be charitable to a permanent class of needy poor people. Further complicating matters is the fact that the short-term charity is a quick exchange that makes the benefactors feel good about themselves. The complex unraveling of causes and options that could lead to a more permanent solution, just seems like hard work – because it is.people-875379_640

The permanent solution requires a commitment to the belief that the so-called “needy” have paths out of poverty. Identifying and navigating those paths requires political will, and investment in low income people’s abilities to be productive, gainfully employed residents of the community.

So what does all of this have to do with leadership? Let’s return to the example of hunger.

Who is actively working on the issue of hunger in your community? Was your immediate response organizations that are involved solely in hunger relief? Probably. People need to eat every day. Hunger, as a phenomenon, is a daily concern. Hunger, as a social issue, however, requires a simultaneous focus on increasing the wealth of individuals and families who have less money than other people in our communities.

Leaders engage in strategic planning. They need to know who is already participating in related work, and whose intellectual, relational, natural, and financial assets have yet to be leveraged to achieve their common goal.

Malnutrition, hunger, and related concerns are all most effectively addressed when we see them as community development, workforce development, and economic development issues. It’s simple, people with more money overall, have more money to spend on food. So by all means, feed people. Treat them with dignity, and recognize their humanity. Your efforts, however, must also be complemented by plans to increase the wealth of those same people as part of a sustainable solution to the challenges to seek to overcome.

Quit Putting People in Boxes

“I have learned throughout my life as a composer chiefly through my mistakes and pursuits of false assumptions, not by my exposure to founts of wisdom and knowledge.”
– Igor Stravinsky

Even though most of the pieces on this site feature tables that compare and contrast ideas or traits while putting them in boxes, I do not, in principle, believe in the practice of categorizing people by putting them in boxes. I know that assigning qualities or attributes to individuals based on things like the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator (MBTI) is popular with some organizations, but I don’t believe that it is important at all when organizing for change.

I’m not the only one out there who questions the value of such practices. In an article in Psychology Today, titled “Goodbye to MBTI, the Fad That Won’t Die,” Dr. Adam Grant, author of the bestselling book, Give and Take: A Revolutionary Approach to Success, writes:

“. . . in the MBTI, thinking and feeling are opposite poles of a continuum. In reality, they’re independent: we have three decades of evidence that if you like ideas and data, you can also like people and emotions. (In fact, more often than not, they go hand in hand: research shows that people with stronger thinking and reasoning skills are also better at recognizing, understanding, and managing emotions.)”

For a fairly concise academic article that looks at the scientific validity of MBTI, see “Measuring the MBTI… And Coming Up Short” by David J. Pittenger. One of the conclusions Pittenger comes to is:

“The MBTI reminds us of the obvious truth that all people are not alike, but then claims that every person can be fit neatly into one of 16 boxes. I believe that MBTI attempts to force the complexities of human personality into an artificial and limiting classification scheme. The focus on the “typing” of people reduces the attention paid to the unique qualities and potential of each individual.”

What does all of this have to do with leadership? Leaders who believe that they can create an effective team by making sure that they have people of every profile “type” are setting themselves up for missed opportunities resulting from the failure to uncover the hidden assets in the people with whom they are collaborating. Thinking that people fit some imaginary profile might lead to limiting expectations.

Preconceived notions of what people can do, and how they can grow and develop will keep things from happening, not make them happen. It is the systematic marginalization of people. This is the opposite of what a leader should do. Leaders see people at the sidelines, and invite them in as full participants in an endeavor.

Asset Mapping: a Better Option

Test-determined categorization should not be confused with asset mapping. Asset mapping is not categorizing and labeling people by “type.” Asset mapping looks at people who may have been told that they have limited value based on their type, and finds the value in their unique contradictions, their failure to fit molds, their creativity, and the exceptional perspectives that they bring to the table.

Since mobilizing people around asset mapping is based on discovery, social capital, and relationship development, it flourishes in a culture of blurred lines. It takes people out of boxes and explores the energy and creativity that emerges from not having to be the type of person you were artificially designated to be.

For more on asset-based approaches and asset mapping see the posts, Asset-Focused Leadership, and Asset-Focused Leadership Part II: the Importance of Associations.

Asset-Focused Leadership Part II: the Importance of Associations

“As associations proliferate, the space for leadership multiplies. And as leadership of each association rotates, the experience proliferates. In this way, America’s great space for leadership development is in associational life.”
–John McKnight

(Note: The following is an abridged version of my essay, “The Value of Associations and Four Strategies for Involving Them,” from the book: Asset-Based Community Engagement in Higher Education, John Hamerlinck and Julie Plaut, editors, Minnesota Campus Compact, 2014. It is based to a great extent, on the work of the extraordinary John McKnight)

Associations are the magnifiers of gifts and capacities of local people. Because they are voluntary, they are also the least expensive strategy for mobilization. The motivation to associate is based on personal priorities. If we know a community’s associations, we know what people really care about.  I have heard John McKnight refer to them as the “implementers of care,” because they mobilize people to get together and are a dominant force in any community.

The key to sustainable, democratic community change lies in groups of people who are at the table not because it is their job, but rather because they care too deeply not to be there. If we truly believe, as educators, in reciprocal partnerships, where the community outcome is just as important as the educational outcome, then those partnerships need to figure out how to involve associations.

Often we forget that not-for-profit organizations are institutions. They are not led by the people they “serve.” In his piece “The Four-Legged Stool,” McKnight explains some fundamental distinctions between associations and not-for profit corporations:

  • “Associations tend to be informal and horizontal. Not-for-profit corporations are usually formal and hierarchical.

  • Not-for-profits are legally controlled by a few. Associations are activated by the consent of each participant.

  • Associational participants are motivated by diverse incentives other than pay. Not-for-profit employees are provided paid incentives.

  • Associations generally use the experience and knowledge of member citizens to perform their functions. Not-for-profits use the special knowledge of professionals and experts to perform their functions.”

The table below illustrates key distinctions McKnight makes using four important questions as filters. It shows how associations need the capacities of citizens, who care about something, to come to a consensus, and act on their common interests. Institutions, however, need consumers whose needs can be met by consuming goods or services produced under specific controls.

associations vs institutions
This comparison makes no judgment as to the relative value of either group. The table is simply meant to illustrate the distinct differences between the two types of organizations. Both types of groups are crucial to a democratic society and both must have the noted characteristics in order to work effectively.

It is in these non-elected, non-paid groups who come together for a common purpose where one will find social assets like caring, mutual trust, reciprocity and collective identity. Associations are not always easily identifiable, but they are all around us. Sometimes they have an obvious identity like a book club or quilting group. Other times they are just a group of people who have coffee at the same café three times a week. These groups represent the un-mobilized workforce of community change. They are simply waiting for someone to ask them to act on what they care about.

Four Strategies for Finding and Working with Associations

Mobilizing associations is critically important in ABCD.  How might we work with, and support the work of these groups of community members? Here are four places to start.

1.  Increase the number of personal relationships in the community.

Whatever your other goals might be, it is always useful to include increasing the number of personal relationships in the community. When people realize that there are others who care deeply about the same things that they do, they start looking for more out there who share their concerns. Pretty soon the talk becomes talk about doing something. Suddenly, a group of concerned residents organize themselves and begin to advocate for change. These associations are at the heart of our democracy.

2. Be deliberate about mapping associational assets.

If you are already committed to addressing a particular issue and your project meetings are only attended by people whose jobs brought them there, then you may not be recognizing the assets of associations. Early on in your planning process, identify community stakeholders and try to identify even a few formal and informal associations to lock arms with in your efforts to improve the community.

Even if these associations don’t immediately seem like they would share your project goals, try anyway. Think of the adopt-a-highway programs all around the country. Most of the student councils, local businesses, and book clubs that volunteer to pick up roadside trash don’t have mission statements about littering or environmental stewardship (if they have mission statements at all). The people in these groups do, however, enjoy the time they spend with people with similar interests; and they enjoy doing things that improve the community’s quality of life—or at least appreciate the public recognition they get on roadside signs. Mapping assets can help find a campus-community partnership version of the adopt-a-highway program.

3. Allow institutions and associations to do the things that they do best.

It is necessary for institutions to produce goods or services under fairly strict controls. When you are on the operating table, you would probably not be comfortable with the surgeon looking for a general consensus by asking: “Where does everybody think I should cut now?” When that surgeon participates in her neighborhood book club, however, nobody expects her to take control by instituting rigid protocols and standards for everyone’s participation.

In 2001, the George W. Bush administration created the White House Office of Faith-Based and Community Initiatives. After the first round of grants to faith-based organizations revealed that local church groups weren’t necessarily very skilled at federal grant compliance, a subsequent request for proposals included an organizational development component—in other words, it aimed to turn them into institutions. Institutions tend to be good at things like accounting, assessment, and evaluation. Associations are good at things like organizing, caring, compassion, and trust.

Institutions can support associational work by supporting local organizers. They might, for example, serve as the fiscal agent for grants that support the work of people who are passionate about developing their community, but who don’t happen to work for a nonprofit or government entity eligible to receive certain types of grant funding. They might increase the amount of purchasing they do from small, locally-owned businesses. They might make more of their community-based research, community-based participatory research. Imagine ways to complement the work of associations, without taking it over.

4. Provide opportunities for residents’ voices to be heard.

There are countless ways to find a community’s associations. There are the usual lists that folks at a Chamber of Commerce or a Welcome Wagon might have, but there are also types of civic engagement that can help unearth the often invisible groups in a community. Citizen journalism, oral history, and community arts projects are just a few of the ways to listen to residents, and to have them lead you to associations you may not know about. Many community associations may be active in online spaces. Do not dismiss the value of the assets of those who chose virtual platforms to express their values and creativity.

You may find that what started out as a search for community connections might also identify specific strategies to implement any eventual projects. People who face daily challenges have unique insights into how those challenges might be overcome. Many associations came into being for the sole purpose of mutual benefit.

Read the first section on Asset-Focused Leadership here.

Asset-Focused Leadership

“Every single person has capabilities, abilities and gifts. Living a good life depends on whether those capabilities can be used, abilities expressed and gifts given. If they are, the person will be valued, feel powerful and well-connected to the people around them. And the community around the person will be more powerful because of the contribution the person is making.”
– John P. Kretzmann and John L. McKnight

If you are interested in developing many of the other concepts we’ve been looking at, such as collaborative leadership, supporting more effective networks of concerned people, and helping them find their power; then Asset-Based Community Development (ABCD) is the organizing strategy for you. I have dedicated a good chunk of my life to helping folks discover community-building assets. I have done countless ABCD workshops, and have written about it on occasion. ABCD principles contribute many useful ideas to a re-imagined concept of leadership; therefore, I’ll dedicate multiple sections to it.

Don’t be scared off by the word phrase “community development.” Community can refer to small groups of people who are passionate about the same issue, neighborhoods, or communities of interest – including those made up of people not sharing a community of place. For our purposes, development simply means to make better. Let’s start with the fundamentals.

ABCD, is an approach described by John McKnight and John Kretzmann, in the 1993 book, Building Communities from the Inside Out. It is founded on the belief that communities and neighborhoods thrive when built upon the knowledge, interests, and capacities of their residents, groups, and institutions.  This contrasts with the typical “needs-based” approach where the starting point is based on an assessment of deficiencies.

ABCD is not a formula. Rather, it is an approach to creating positive change that has many paths, but which necessarily includes three elements. One of the roles of leaders in asset-based endeavors to be a persistent compass when it comes to these three filters.

  1. ABCD is, by definition, asset-based. It starts with what already exists in the community. ABCD requires the community to inventory the skills and talents of individuals, the assets of formal and informal associations (including relationships) and those of local institutions.
  2. ABCD is internally-focused. The community frames the issues and challenges, and designs possible plans of action. This internal focus is intended simply to stress the primacy of local definition, investment, creativity, hope and control.
  3. ABCD is relationship-driven. To be successful, communities must be deliberate about constantly building and rebuilding relationships among residents, local associations and local institutions. Relationships create the underpinnings on which trust is built. Sharing common values and goals is one thing, but when you add trust to the mix, you have the beginnings of a recipe for power.

asset vs needOne way for leaders to assess their efforts as they begin is to ask themselves these questions:

  • Who decides what will be done? – Is this the vision of a small group of individuals, or is there a shared vision across a larger group of stakeholders?
  • Who are the producers of results? – Are “interventions” being done to, or for people; or are people accomplishing things on their own behalf?
  • How will the gifts of individuals & the community be identified and mobilized? – What approaches to asset mapping and strategic planning make the most sense?
  • Whose capacity is being built? – Are you simply replacing one rigid top-down system for another?

 Mapping Assets

Simply put, asset-mapping is systematically finding out what skills, talents, knowledge, relationships, and other assets currently exist in the community. This should include unearthing the capacities of:

  • Individuals – Talk to as many people as possible. Don’t forget marginalized people, those whose presence is not frequently (if ever) recognized.
  • Associations – These are social assets. They are not always easily recognized. They are identified by the fact that people are associating with each other without getting paid. The people in associations are together because they share a common passion or interest. Associations can be formal (a church congregation), or informal (a group of friends who meet every Tuesday for coffee at the same café).
  • Institutions – All public, private, and nonprofit organizations including schools, government, and businesses.
  • Physical Assets – This includes things like public space, buildings, and natural assets.
  • Exchange – Financial transactions, including things like deliberate local purchasing or boycotting.

Don’t panic. You don’t have to map the assets of the entire community. This isn’t an exercise in database creation. This is about looking for opportunity. These opportunities reveal themselves during the process of finding out how newly discovered assets can be connected and leveraged to increase relationships and moving people to act.

Once you know what change your community seeks to make start mapping with folks who might already be working to create that change?  No special training is necessary, though there are many people who can help you get started.

Your early group of leaders will have to define your community, figure out who is available to do the work on the ground, and assess your initial resources to do the mapping. You can use any number of methods, either via surveys, or better yet through one to one conversations, or appreciative inquiry. Remember, lists of information are good, but stories are even better because they can reveal hidden social and cultural assets.

Useful Resources

More on ABCD to come