Jennifer Prophete, director of The Hopeful Neighborhood Project in St. Louis, works with a neighborhood gathering in Nixa. She is using a wheel chart in leading the group through a discussion identifying and organizing gifts that exist in their neighborhood. (Photo by David Burton)

To read this story, please sign in with your email address and password.

You’ve read all your free stories this month. Subscribe now and unlock unlimited access to our stories, exclusive subscriber content, additional newsletters, invitations to special events, and more.



It may be as easy to remember as ABCD, but practicing asset-based community development does not come naturally for adults.

Adults have a well-tuned and well-developed negative eye. Our natural tendency is to see problems and challenges of all types.

We easily spot the weeds in our neighbor’s yards, homes that are not maintained or the anti-social family. Often we spot those problems before we spot our own!

When it comes to using ABCD in neighborhoods, we must remember to look for what is strong, not what is wrong.

University of Missouri Extension’s Engaged Neighbor Program recommends the Hopeful Neighborhood lab approach as the first step toward learning and practicing asset-based community development in neighborhoods.

Hopeful Neighborhood Labs require a minimum of two hours of time and at least 12 participants from a single neighborhood. But sessions can start getting neighbors more connected and more involved in pursuing the common good.

Where the ABCD method started

John McKnight and John Kretzmann first popularized the power of focusing on possibilities rather than problems. Their neighborhood research and findings in the early 1990s challenged the traditional approach to neighborhood development.

Their 1993 book, “Building Communities from the Inside Out: A Path Toward Finding and Mobilizing a Community’s Assets,” started a revolution in community development by focusing not on what is wrong in the neighborhood but on what is strong instead.

This powerful approach of ABCD involves developing a detailed “map” of the many assets, or gifts, within a neighborhood.

There are three basic ways of discovering your neighborhood’s gifts: recall, reconnaissance, and research. Each discovery technique can help you build a more thorough inventory of the many neighborhood gifts surrounding you.

Neighborhood gifts include group, physical, and associational gifts and gifts found in the private, public, and nonprofit sectors. Part of what makes your neighborhood unique is the particular set of these gifts found throughout your neighborhood.

Hopeful Neighborhood Labs, like this one held in Nixa in April 2023, require a minimum of two hours of time and at least 12 participants from a single neighborhood. (Photo by David Burton)

An ABCD case study

To better understand the differences between an asset-based and a deficit-based approach to a neighborhood, let’s imagine two people — Jenny and Sam living — in the same neighborhood.

When Jenny looks around her neighborhood, she tends to notice problems first, but when Sam looks around the neighborhood, his eye is caught by all the gifts in the neighborhood.

Traditionally, most people who want to positively impact their neighborhood are like Jenny. The deficit-based approach is a common and understandable one. The desire to seek improvement often starts with seeing what’s wrong.

When Jenny walks through her neighborhood, she sees needs, problems, and scarcity. As a result, Jenny feels overwhelmed at the thought of making a difference, so she invites an outside organization to come into the neighborhood and bring their expertise, resources, and volunteers. These are the hallmarks of a deficit-based approach.

But Sam sees assets, gifts, and possibilities there when he walks through the same neighborhood.

As a result, Sam feels hopeful at the prospect of making a positive difference and naturally invites his neighbors to pool their individual gifts to strengthen their neighborhood together.

These are the hallmarks of an asset-based approach.

This asset-based approach reveals hopeful possibilities that focusing on problems alone never would. It also puts power and ownership of the neighborhood in the hands of residents.

Jenny’s deficit-based approach may solve a problem or two in the short term. In the long run, it leaves the neighbors marginalized, with all their gifts, insights, and wisdom untapped by the well-meaning experts and professionals who come from outside the neighborhood.

This deficit-based approach is problematic at best and potentially damaging at worst.

Sam’s asset-based approach, on the other hand, not only makes a positive difference in the short term but also taps into his neighbors’ gifts, insight, and wisdom in the process.

This collaborative effort leaves them empowered and engaged and hopeful for their neighborhood.

A practical application of the asset-based approach

During 2022, I had Michael Mather, author of “Having Nothing, Possessing Everything” as a guest on my monthly Neighboring 101 class to discuss ABCD.

Mather advocates for never doing something for someone in a community that they can do for themselves.

“If we begin looking for people’s gifts rather than people’s needs, then even better things than we thought possible might materialize,” Mather, former pastor at Broadway United Methodist Church located in an urban, low-income neighborhood of Indianapolis.

If you want to improve a neighborhood, involve the people there.

“I began my ministry seeing scarcity, seeing only the things that seemed to be missing in the neighborhoods where I pastored. What I learned from those neighborhoods was how to see the abundance,” said Mather.

The transformation began at the food pantry run at the church. “We stopped asking people about how poor they are and started asking about skills and interests instead,” said Mather.

When a lady said she was a good cook, they hired her to cook for some events.

“In a few months, she had her own small business, and we supported her in getting started,” said Mather. “At the food pantry, if we had asked her when she showed up, ‘Tell us how poor you are,’ we would’ve missed a business that made a real difference in this family’s life.”

But the church did not stop there.

“We would try to find ways to bring people together who cared about the same thing. If we found people who loved trains, we’d get people together. If we found people who grew things, we got those people together,” said Mather.

At the heart of ABCD is the gifts of the individual. Mather says it is important to listen first and discover what is already happening to make ABCD successful in your neighborhood.

Listening to residents of neighborhoods would be a great first approach in Springfield and the growing communities surrounding it.

More information

You can learn more about the ABCD Institute at DePaul online or about the use of ABCD to create Hopeful Neighborhoods at

If you would like to gather 10-15 of your neighbors, contact me by email at and we can schedule a date for me to conduct a neighborhood lab.

David Burton

David Burton has served as a County Engagement Specialist with University of Missouri Extension for over 20 years. To learn more about his “Engaged Neighbor” program, go online to or contact him by email or telephone at (417) 881-8909. More by David Burton