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

Problem Solving Versus Appreciative Inquiry

“The only irreplaceable capital an organization possesses is the knowledge and ability of its people. The productivity of that capital depends on how effectively people share their competence with those who can use it.”
— Andrew Carnegie

The development of the practice of appreciative inquiry (AI) traces back to David Cooperrider and Suresh Srivastva in the late 1980s. They felt that problem solving was often limited by focusing only on what isn’t working, and not on further developing what was working well. (Visit the Appreciative Inquiry Commons at Case Western University). The book, A Positive Revolution in Change: Appreciative Inquiry by Cooperrider and Diana Whitney, puts it this way:

Appreciative Inquiry is about the coevolutionary search for the best in people, their organizations, and the relevant world around them. In its broadest focus, it involves systematic discovery of what gives “life” to a living system when it is most alive, most effective, and most constructively capable in economic, ecological, and human terms.

If you have had any introduction to AI, you have probably seen the table below. I have yet to track down the original source of the table. If anyone knows please post in the comments section.

problem solving vs AIYou might look at this table and say, “that’s just semantics – appreciative inquiry is solving problems, right?” The difference, however, lies in AI’s capacity-centered approach, and its deep belief in human potential. Yes, AI solves problems, but it is deliberately constructive in its focus on keeping those same problems from reoccurring.

I plan on posting a number of ideas related to Asset-Based Community Development (ABCD), an approach which uses approaches like AI to mobilize communities. More on AI when we explore the concepts of ABCD.