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Door-to-door community surveys are commonplace, especially in low income areas. I recently heard a long-term resident of such a neighborhood say, “We’re like rats in a cage here. People always studying us, trying to fix us.” Universities, non-profits, community groups, government officials – everyone wants to know “What should we do to help people in this community?” A common response to that question is, “Well, let’s first find out what people need.” This often prompts the commissioning of a needs-based survey that catalogs and prioritizes these needs. The results serve as supporting evidence for raising funds and as a baseline against which progress can be measured over time.

Asset-based approaches stem from a desire to know “What do people in the community care about enough to act on themselves?” And, “What resources are already present in the community to make a start.”  These types of surveys yield ideas, reveal trusted groups and leaders, and expose the talents and interests of residents. The survey process is used as a catalyst for conversation and the foundation of community-led initiatives.

The differences between these two approaches, and the types of surveys that result, go far beyond the mere ‘glass half-full/glass half-empty’ perspective. They are actually two different glasses used for two different purposes and having two different primary financial beneficiaries. The purpose of the needs-based ‘glass’ is to provide services to a community while the purpose of the asset-based ‘glass’ is to engage community interests and skills. The needs-based glass is designed to primarily benefit service providers financially while the asset-based glass should primarily benefits residents financially. Both approaches involve needs and assets and both can be viewed from ‘half-full/half-empty’ perspectives. The difference is in who owns the glass – service providers or residents – and what’s in the glass – talents of service providers or talents of residents.

For entities outside of a community that want to help, following an asset-based approach means doing things with the community rather than for the community. It requires emphasizing and utilizing what the community has to offer over what it lacks. And it is is distinguished by the types of initiatives that result – who is involved, what the goals are, who leads, how they are sustained, and who benefits financially. Greater community involvement results in more sustainable initiatives and greater community impact over the long term. If you want to empower a community to chart its own path forward, needs based services will never get you there. It is simply a different ‘glass’ altogether than the asset-based glass.

The table below contrasts some of the key differences between asset and needs-based surveys:

Needs-Based Surveys Asset-Based Surveys
Focus on learning about the needs of a community so that services can be provided for them or goods can be given to them. Focus on learning from a community so that initiatives can be built by the community and with the community.
Pose an extensive list of closed-ended questions to a minimum representative sample of a community. Pose a short list of open-ended questions to as many people in the community as possible.
Yield problems for which a service provider can provide solutions and programs. Yield ideas most likely to directly engage the community in addressing their hopes and concerns.
Constrains community-wide vision of the future. Unlocks community-wide vision of the future.