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Rural Health Information Hub

Asset-Based Community Approaches

One approach that shows promise in addressing social determinants of health (SDOH) in communities is known as asset-based community development (ABCD). According to the Collaborative for Neighborhood Transformation, this approach:

“builds on the assets that are already found in the community and mobilizes individuals, associations, and institutions to come together to build on their assets, not concentrate on their needs.”

ABCD focuses on leveraging the people and resources in communities as assets to make improvements to address SDOH.

It acknowledges that every community has 5 important types of assets, which include:

  • Individuals who live in the community and their unique skills and contributions
  • Associations of groups of people who come together around a common purpose
  • Institutions including businesses, schools, and other private or government entities
  • Physical assets including land, natural resources, and built environment
  • Connections or relationships formed between individuals

Programs that use this model often undergo a process known as asset mapping to identify key strengths and opportunities for change. Often, individuals are recognized as a community's strongest asset. ABCD highlights how relationships and associations between people make it possible to achieve goals to improve community well-being. Communities that implement ABCD focus on the importance of social capital in driving positive changes to address SDOH. Social capital, which includes factors such as civic engagement and social cohesion, is the level of connectedness between residents in a community. Social cohesion is the ability of residents within communities to collaborate to address common challenges.

Another promising asset-based approach to bring about improvements to well-being and quality of life is known as appreciative inquiry (AI). AI also focuses on identifying assets, strengths, and successes in people and organizations to bring about positive change while simultaneously identifying community needs. AI includes 5 key steps:

  • Define the issue and topic of focus
  • Discover the strengths and assets in the community through discussions
  • Dream about what the future could hold by thinking about past successes
  • Design what the change should look like in the community
  • Deliver the change so that it becomes an integral part of the community

Asset-based approaches can be promising strategies for rural communities working to build community capacity to address different SDOH, like improving economic stability for residents. Research has identified common assets and strengths in many rural communities that can help improve health and equity to address SDOH, some of which include:

  • Civic and community engagement
  • Population characteristics
  • Rural culture and history, including a strong sense of resilience and pride
  • The value of faith-based and educational institutions, especially land-grant institutions
  • Entrepreneurism and local businesses
  • Strength of social networks and relationships
  • Natural resources

In some rural communities, residents are leveraging assets such as local arts, history, and culture to make changes to the social and economic environment. One innovative economic development approach is known as creative placemaking. A model currently being used in rural Appalachia is known as Community Cultural and Economic Development. For more information about place-based economic development approaches see the Economic Development section. For more information about strategies to identify rural community assets to improve the social and community context, see Identify Community Needs and Assets in the Rural Community Health Toolkit.

Examples of Programs that use Asset-Based Community Approaches

  • Seneca Towns Engaging People for Solutions (STEPS) is a grassroots, neighborhood health status improvement program that used an ABCD approach to address 3 areas of focus in southern Seneca County in New York. The program focuses on improving the county's physical environment, increasing economic and educational opportunities for residents, and improving personal health and wellness. STEPS used asset mapping and community building strategies to identify key strengths in the communities that could be leveraged to address SDOH. Some of the accomplishments by Seneca County residents that came out of STEPS include developing a community garden, hosting cooking classes to encourage healthy eating, free books for youth, and connecting residents to local volunteer opportunities.
  • S.O.A.R (Strengthening Our Area Residents) is a project using an ABCD approach run by the Cornell Cooperative Extension of Wayne County, New York with funding from the Greater Rochester Health Foundation. The project brings together residents, organizations, and local businesses to improve the health and well-being of the community. The project involves community collaborations that identify and build upon the strengths and assets in the participating towns. Residents are building up the local economy by improving local attractions to drive up rates of tourism. In addition, the initiative is working to build walking trails, improve the food system and availability of healthy foods at farmers markets, and improve literacy by giving families free books for their children.
  • Impact Lufkin is a community-driven organization in Lufkin, Texas that used AI strategies and participatory action research methods to engage the community in identifying strengths in order to address community challenges that impact SDOH. The AI strategy included community residents as key drivers of the research process, since these residents were most impacted by the findings. The goals of the project are sustainable community improvements driven by the community itself. After the AI process concluded, the project began addressing some of the identified community needs, and continued to empower residents to create a process of ongoing change and revitalization. Through Impact Lufkin, residents have built stronger relationships and connections, attended trainings and workshops to help with healthy eating, connected students with internships, and much more.
  • The Thrive Regional Partnership's Thriving Communities project guides community leaders in the greater Chattanooga region of Tennessee, Georgia, and Alabama, through a program to identify cultural assets and enhance community development. The program uses creative placemaking and asset-based community approaches to develop ideas to drive change. The program also helps communities apply for foundation funding to help implement desired community changes.
  • The Letcher County Culture Hub in Whitesburg, Kentucky received funding from the Kresge Foundation as part of an effort to broaden the influence of their community-based programs and network building to improve the economic vitality of the county. Letcher County Culture Hub is a network of partners working together to strengthen and build upon local assets to improve community capacity and wealth. This network uses a new model of economic development called Community Cultural and Economic Development (CCED). This model focuses on using arts and culture to improve the community and to help residents identify community assets that can be used to build community wealth.

Implementation Considerations

The ABCD model was originally developed to explore and build upon the assets in urban settings. In more recent years, rural settings have also adapted this model for their own communities. Since one of the most important assets in rural areas are the residents themselves, implementing asset-based community strategies should involve community members in every step of the process.

In addition, while rural culture and history are also assets in many communities, the historical context of some rural areas can also be a challenge in addressing SDOH. Some communities may have a tendency to resist change. Community leaders are needed to encourage positive change and to identify assets.

Another challenge in asset-mapping can be its time-intensive nature. Since it is an essential process for implementing asset-based community strategies, it may be helpful to identify an anchor institution deeply rooted in the community to help lead this process.

Program Clearinghouse Examples

Resources to Learn More

Building Assets for the Rural Future
Guide presenting promising approaches for building up and identifying different types of important community assets in rural areas to improve health and well-being. Includes examples of rural community programs working to build assets.
Organization(s): University of North Carolina School of Government, North Carolina Rural Economic Development Center
Date: 6/2010

Kentucky Communities Unlock their Cultural Wealth to Lead the Way Forward
Describes how Letcher County, Kentucky is using an asset-based economic development approach to build community wealth. Community organizations and partners are using arts and culture to drive long-term change.
Author(s): Langston, A. & Chang, L.
Organization(s): PolicyLink
Date: 2/2019

Leveraging Culture and History to Improve Health and Equity in Rural Communities
Brief that describes how rural culture and history can be viewed as important assets to be leveraged to improve health and equity.
Author(s): Meit, M., Phillips, E., Rosenfeld, A., Bayne, A., Knudson, A., & Nadel, T.
Organization(s): The Walsh Center for Rural Health Analysis, NORC at the University of Chicago
Date: 2/2018

Rural Placemaking: Making the Most of Creativity in Your Community
Describes creative placemaking and how rural communities are embracing the arts as a community-based asset and economic development strategy.
Organization(s): Housing Assistance Council
Date: 2017