Needs vs. Assets: However You Engage a Community, Start with Listening
Six years ago, the organization I work for created a video to introduce its approach to Christ-centered poverty alleviation. In the opening line, the narrator sets up a contrast.
“When we approach God with our dreams and desires, we often focus on what we don’t have,” he says, “but when God’s people approach Him in scripture, He often responds with an unexpected question: What do you have in your hands?”
This contrast is a perfect illustration of two different approaches to engaging with a community. And God’s unexpected question can, in my opinion, serve as a model for the posture we should take as we apply them both.
The question itself—“What do you have in your hands?”—is the epitome of the first approach to engaging with a community, the asset-based approach. This approach focuses on what resources are already present in a community and on working with a community to empower them to take ownership in working towards a common goal, often identified by the community members themselves.
The second approach to engaging with a community is the needs-based approach. This approach focuses on what a community lacks, cataloging and prioritizing its needs and then working to address those needs for a community. In contrast to the asset-based approach, the needs-based approach often does not require community involvement.
You’re probably already thinking of how you’ve seen these two approaches applied in various ways by nonprofits, churches, local governments, and even in classrooms and healthcare systems. Wherever one group of people is seeking to serve another group of people in response to their circumstances, these approaches, to one degree or another, are present. And, as The Polis Institute describes it, their differences go beyond a “glass half-full/glass half-empty” distinction. They are “two different glasses”—two different mindsets with different motivations.
Take poverty alleviation as an example. When approaching those in poverty with an asset-based lens, one asks, “What do you have?” and then works with people to use their existing resources to help them achieve financial stability. Organizations like HOPE International, Vision Fund, or The Chalmers Center whose work focuses on financial services and equipping families often espouse this approach.
In contrast, a needs-based lens asks, “What do people need?” and responds by providing for those needs directly to immediately address what is lacking in a community. You can see this approach in disaster relief work of organizations like the American Red Cross, Samaritan’s Purse, or Catholic Charities.
So which approach should you take? The answer to this question is not that one approach is inherently wrong while the other is right. Asset-based and needs-based approaches are both good and, ideally, they work together dynamically as a response to Scripture’s repeated call to serve the poor. Discerning which approach will best serve a community is less about asking what to do and more about considering when.
Natural disasters, mass displacement during war, and other crises that demand community aid in the short-term call for a needs-based approach. When people have no food due to a major landslide that wiped out their crops, providing food directly to families is life-saving work. But problems arise when the crisis has passed and this approach remains. When crops can once again be harvested, what happens if food is still being provided? When a crisis has passed, what happens if those trying to help continue to look only at what a community lacks?
At some point, if a needs-based approach does not transition to an asset-based approach, we end up causing more harm than good, a topic covered in the 2014 documentary Poverty, Inc. It can also happen that outside observers characterize a community’s situation as a crisis and respond with short-term aid when, in fact, the community already has the resources to improve their own future and serving them best means working with them to learn how to unlock that potential. The root of the problem is when those who are trying to help center themselves and not the community they seek to serve—when they don’t try to understand a community’s context from the community’s perspective.
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This brings us back to God’s unexpected question. When God asks, “What do you have in your hands?”, he starts with listening. The question invites relationship and greater understanding. God doesn’t need to ask us anything. But when He responds to our circumstances, He often chooses to start with a question and an open ear.
This is the model I hope we follow. When we engage with a community—regardless of whether the current time demands a needs-based or an asset-based approach—we should always start with listening, remembering that our focus should not be on ourselves, but on those we seek to serve.
Claire Stewart is a writer, strategist, and climber. She currently serves as the senior manager of strategic initiatives at HOPE International, where she leads strategy design and management. Claire holds a B.A. in philosophy from Wheaton College (Ill.). She lives in Columbus, OH.