Uncovering a community’s hidden gifts and capacities


A highlight of last week’s Neighborhoods USA (NUSA) conference, for me, was a presentation by community asset mapping guru John McKnight. McKnight proved to be one of the most engaging speakers at the conference and offered a fairly thorough introduction to the philosophy and practice of asset mapping.


While McKnight’s and his colleagues’ work is based out of Northwestern University, it is deeply grounded in McKnight’s long career as a community organizer in Chicago. Years ago, he and his colleagues were able to identify five categories of assets from a collection of 3,000 stories they’d gathered in older, inner city neighborhoods and in what were perceived to be dying small towns. Whereas others had focused on what was wrong with those communities (i.e. their deficits), still the convention, this approach uncovered what people had done to make things better in their communities.

The five basic building blocks that emerged were:

1) Local residents. The one asset that came up in every story captured was that local residents are the primary asset of a neighborhood. Their gifts, skills, capacities, are the main building blocks, and are often hidden. McKnight emphasized what a departure this is from a needs assessment approach (done by an outsider) that comes up with a list of problems.

2) Associations. These occur when residents come together to pool or share their gifts, which results in multiplying or magnifying what any one individual has to offer. Associations (neighborhood associations are important, but so are less formal groups) are fundamental for getting things done, so in many ways are the most important asset of a community. 

McKnight noted that there are typically about 30 kinds of associations in a neighborhood. He connected assets #1 and #2 with freedoms of expression and assembly/association–the core of democracy. Democracy, he said, happens at the neighborhood level, in small, face-to-face groups, where people are empowered and can affect change. 

The other assets, which received little attention in McKnight’s talk, are:

3) Institutions (businesses, nonprofits, and government). He observed that all are organized in a top-down way and involve money. Too much of what we do McKnight argued, has been turned over to institutions. In the past, residents were more likely to know what their neighbors needed and had to offer. 

4) Land that makes up the neighborhood, everything under and on top of it.

5) Exchanges–giving, sharing, bartering, producing, consuming.

Community asset mapping process

The mapping McKnight described involves first uncovering hidden assets and capacities (gifts, skills, passions and teachable knowledge of residents) by going door-to-door and engaging in a conversation prompted by a questionnaire. To illustrate the treasure troves of gifts that surface, he did a quick survey by walking up to each person seated at the end of the aisles in the packed room, asking them to name one of their gifts.

Information that must be collected before assets can be mapped:

  • Main gifts of each resident. People are asked to name two or three. They normally come up with four.
  • Then, each person is asked if these are gifts that they will share with others.
  • The most significant skills of each resident.
  • Followed again, by asking if they will share those skills with others.
  • Passions. Especially important in moving toward action, because passion is what really motivates a person.
  • Teachables. Or what each resident knows well enough from her or his own life that they can teach it to a young person (or an adult). 

Once assets are known, they’re mapped or identified on a directory, consisting of names, addresses and information about what each household is able to offer (gifts, skills, passions, teachables) to others. Without that information, McKnight argued, it’s impossible to do effective organizing. Or as he put it, “the goldmine of the community remains buried beneath the ground.” 

Next, someone needs to step in and begin the connecting process. Most community building, he said, is done not by “leaders,” but by “connectors.”  

Connectors are:

  • Gift-oriented, see the capacities of others, not people’s problems.
  • Well-connected in the neighborhood, having formed a large and diverse range of relationships.
  • Trusted–are trusted by others so are best able to pull people together.
  • Believers in neighbors’ ability to act powerfully together.

How asset mapping benefits youth

McKnight is especially interested in how community asset mapping benefits youth who are commonly viewed as “at risk,” instead of as youth who want to learn and connect with community members who have something to teach them. 

The work he’s done shows that there’s a desire among youth who fall into this category to be part of the economy and to gain the skills and knowledge that schools aren’t offering.

In the end, community asset mapping reveals that there are people with a need, other people who are aching to be a teacher. This requires making a connection, which is what organizing is all about. 

For more information about community asset mapping, McKnight recommended that people visit: http://www.abcdinstitute.org