From negative to positive - shifting the bias

31 May 2016

Authors Emma Carter and Mick WardEmma Carter and Mick Ward

Taking an asset or strengths-based approach involves a basic shift in thinking – moving away from a deficit, or negative, model (what is wrong with a community or what are the needs of an individual) – to an asset, or positive, model (what does a community have that can be built on or what skills, resources and networks does an individual have).

This shift from a deficit to a positive model is a key principle of Asset-Based Community Development (ABCD). It is an approach which we have previously piloted in Leeds in three communities: Harehills, Middleton and Calverley when looking for a different way of addressing social isolation amongst older people. 

Case example:

Changing the way you work

Action for Gipton Elderly, one of Leeds’ Neighbourhood Networks, has now adopted an asset-based way of working across the whole organisation. This involves encouraging members to share their skills and take the lead in setting up new groups and activities to pursue their passions. It enables them to reach out to a greater number of older people in the area, whilst focusing their staff time on supporting the most vulnerable. 

Why is this important to the council?

An asset-based approach can help us to deploy resource more effectively by building on the assets that are already present. Working with people and communities to develop their own solutions can also deliver better outcomes. 

Case example:

Strengths-based conversations

Robin had been a member of Middleton Elderly Aid (MEA), a Neighbourhood Network, for a number of years, attending the luncheon club and social activities. One of MEA’s support workers decided to have a strengths-based conversation with Robin and found out that he was a keen whittler and made walking sticks for people. As a result of the conversation Robin offered to share his skills with others who might be interested in learning a new skill and he was supported to access a small grant to set up a group and buy some materials. The group meets regularly and as a result members have formed new friendships and now also meet up socially. 

What are the key principles?

Working in an asset or strengths-based way is not just a new approach to project management, nor is it about being prescriptive, but there are still some key principles to consider:

  • It’s all about relationships - it starts with people and at its core it is about building relationships so that you can have a different conversation - whether that’s with people in a community or people that you work with. So think about allowing staff to go and spend time with people and communities to build relationships.
  • Start with strengths – the clue is in the title – rather than asking people what is missing or what the needs are (the deficits), think about asking what is already there – for example what skills or assets does an individual, a team or a community have that can be built on? Ask people what they think the solution should be.  
  • Keep it citizen-led – this is key – it is not about ‘doing to’ it is about facilitating and working with people to come up with their own solutions. For example people will know much more about where they live and what resources are available than we will (and that is not just limited to physical resources) so we need to ask different questions to bring this knowledge out.
  • It may need a little funding to kick-start it - often people and communities can identify what they need to get things started from their knowledge of the assets in their local community. However, for the times that this is not possible, having access to a small amount of funding is useful to spark ideas and get things going – but be careful not to overfund. 

Case example:

Kick-start with a small amount of funding

The Migrant Access project took a different approach to awarding small grants to people who wanted to deliver initiatives in the community. Applicants had to make and submit a two minute film on their mobile outlining what they wanted to do and how it would benefit people. This was instead of filling out an application form - making it more accessible and encouraging a wider range of applicants. 

How can we embed this approach in our work?

Start off by having a different conversation and thinking differently. When taking an asset-based approach it’s important to identify:

  • What communities/individuals can do with some assistance.
  • What communities/individuals can co-produce/influence others to do.
  • What communities, geographical or interest-based, can uniquely do best themselves.

It’s important to recognise that this is not an approach that can be scaled up or industrialised – what works in one area may not work somewhere else, but we can at least put a spotlight on what is good so that we can learn from it and see how we could adapt or proliferate elsewhere.

About the author(s)

Emma Carter is a Commissioning Manager within Adult Social Care at Leeds City Council, with specific remit regarding enterprise and market development.

Mick Ward is Interim Chief Officer, Commissioning for Adult Social Care in Leeds City Council. He is currently leading on work in ASC to support ‘Better Lives through Enterprise’.

Related resources

Film: Engaging communities, building social capital, changing the relationship between state and citizen

Effective co-production: Key Issue

Asset-based work with communities: Research Messages Workshop 14 July 2016

Asset-based work with communities: Research Messages Workshop 15 September 2016


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