Navigation Menu

What ICA Thinks: 2a

Effective action

Effective action begins with what people have, not what they don’t have


Though an obvious first step when one thinks about it, beginning with what one has is not the typical starting point for most of us when making plans. Many begin with a needs assessment that often leads to long familiar lists describing the “lack of” something as their problem. Eventually, however, reality is inescapable and dreaming about the absence of perceived fixes is not very helpful.


In their eagerness to seek something not currently available, many people overlook the gifts that are already theirs. This insight is held by the simple and widespread observation that there are those who look at life as a glass half empty, allowing themselves to become victimized or traumatized by its emptiness, while others see the glass as half full in order to build upon their strengths.


Everyone has gifts. People are born with a capacity for growth. That growth may be in skills, knowledge, or relationships. On this journey of growth, individuals search out basic questions like, “How do I fit in and be a part of a larger group? How may I be energized by the work I do? What is important about my thoughts? How am I cherished as an individual? How do I connect to something beyond the superficial?” Often the unique gift of the person is inhibited or stagnated by ignorance, neglect or misdirection. The challenge of change agents is to release the vision of those who do not fully recognize their gifts in order to make them available to the larger community. This requires an affirmation of the mystery, depth, and greatness of their lives, realized by embracing bumps and difficulties on the journey, not harboring illusions of escape.


ICA has long been a pioneer in facilitating participatory self-reliant development that builds upon the strengths and gifts already possessed by community residents and organizational members. This is one of its most distinguishing characteristics. ICA actively encourages development “by the people,” striving to move beyond the popular perspective of merely working “with the people,” while remembering that it is categorically different from development “for the people.”


This “asset based” approach has always been at the heart of ICA’s mission. ICA is not alone, however, in doing this. Many kindred spirits worldwide are driven by the same illuminating insight. The ABCD Institute (“Asset Based Community Development”) has published many studies at Northwestern University that illustrate development from “within” by releasing the power of community strengths. This is in contrast to the dominant “needs based” approach that overwhelmingly typifies assistance initiated by, and driven by, “outsiders,” be they government agencies, private foundations, or the vast majority of well-intentioned nonprofit organizations.


There is a popular story about an African villager who asks two ICA staff members, “Why have you been standing here so long in the hot sun?” to which the reply was, “We’re waiting for a bus to take us home.” The villager then told them a truth about which they had previously been unaware: “The bus don’t stop here.” Hearing this was GOOD NEWS! Only then were they finally able to decide upon realistic possibilities rather than false information and hopeful illusions for finding a way home. ICA is about enabling people everywhere to hear their “good news” and to embrace the reality of their situation and what they already have. This is always the starting point for effective action.


Resources for continuing the conversation:

  • The Abundant Community: Awakening the Power of Families and Neighborhoods, by Peter Block and John McKnight, Berrett-Koehler Publishers, San Francisco, 2010.

  • “Facilitating Asset Based Community Development” by Terry Bergdall, Chapter 9 in Changing Lives, Changing Society: ICA’s Experience in Nepal and in the World, edited by Tatwa Timsina and Dasarath Neupane, ICA Nepal, Kathmandu, 2012.

Video of Jim Diers on "Seven Principles of ABCD"