Appreciative Inquiry

Appreciative Inquiry: Strength-based Approach to Needs Assessment

Appreciative Inquiry: A Strengths-Based Approach to Needs Assessment

By:  Michelle Salazar-Martinez, Director of Program Planning & Grant Development

Neighborhood Centers Inc.

Are You Tired of Bad News?

Paying any attention to the headlines, we don’t have to look far for the latest depressing event stealing the world’s attention.  Writing grants and especially the needs assessment can often feel the same way.   In a traditional needs assessment, it seems the goal is to paint the bleakest picture of a community or situation that needs “fixing.”  Our job is to convince the funder that we understand the problem(s) best, and that funding is the key ingredient needed to change things for the better.

A contradiction

When I began working for Neighborhood Centers, one of the first things I encountered was the notion that –whether for grant writing or general program design –we do not undertake needs assessments, or at least, in the traditional sense.  As someone who has written federal grants for years, this was perplexing to me.  How can an agency begin to address the challenge if we cannot define it, quantify it, and give it substance and legitimacy?

What I soon found out was that the core of our community engagement approach is not to simply ask people what they need in order to improve their lives, but to flip that philosophy entirely on its head:  to begin with all that is going “right” in their lives, their neighborhoods, their community and build upon this.  This is the essence of undertaking a strengths-based approach to needs assessment.

Neighborhood Centers is focused on using assets and an appreciative approach to reframe community needs as opportunities.  Our illustrious leader has said it best, and in fact takes this message to organizations and leaders around the globe:

The first principle of community development is that the people

are not the problem, people are the asset. The second principle is

that the leadership needed in every neighborhood is already there.

                                                                                              Angela Blanchard, CEO

                                                                                             Neighborhood Centers Inc.

And while our experience speaks directly to that of community development agencies, I’ve also come to realize that appreciative inquiry and asset-based approaches are not embraced solely by agencies whose goal is to transform communities.  In fact, these are principles being successfully applied in business, healthcare, education, and pretty much every corner of human services and organizational development.

What is Appreciative Inquiry (AI) and what do we mean by an “asset-based” approach?

Process for Appreciative InquryAppreciative Inquiry is “A cooperative search for the best in people, their organizations, and the world around them through a systematic discovery of what gives a system ‘life’ when it functions at its best,” David Cooperrider.

It is carried out through a “5-D” approach that looks something like the following:

Asset Based Community Development (ABCD) is a strategy focused on sustainable community development in which micro-assets are linked to the macro-environment.  The premise of ABCD is that communities can drive the development process by identifying and mobilizing existing, but often unrecognized assets, and thereby responding to and creating local economic opportunity (ABCD Institute).

Why a Strengths-Based Approach?

In my short time with the agency, I have come to truly appreciate and embrace what a strengths-based approach means for program planning, grant writing, the organization and especially the people we serve.  The following highlights the differences and some of the benefits to undertaking a strengths-based as opposed to traditional approach to needs assessment from the perspective of a grant writer.  I believe that most of these results are true whether you are trying to transform an entire community, or ignite some behavior change or new way of thinking among a target audience:

Traditional Appreciative & Asset-Based
Defines the community/client mostly  in quantitative data/trends Provides for an in-depth analysis of qualitative data, that gives data “life” and focuses not only fixing a problem but achieving a vision
Demographics/socio-economic indicators often = disparity, inequality Demographic, other indicators = socio-cultural uniqueness
Analysis of other services/programs in terms of competition for scarce resources Analysis of other services/programs in terms of existing community assets, partnerships, leveraging
Focus on “needs” as gaps Focus on needs and strengths as opportunities
Community/individuals as “recipients” of services Community/individuals as co-owners of solutions
Conclusions point to resource gaps/shortfalls Conclusions provide a starting point for leveraging human, organizational and community capital to address challenges
Funding alone (often in silos) can address the challenge Funding is an enhancement and mechanism to support change, but not the ultimate solution

How to begin

There are scores of resources available to help guide nonprofits in AI and asset-based methods, some of which are listed below.  A simple takeaway are the tenets we’ve incorporated for turning a positive image into positive action:

  •         What we ask determines what we find
  •         What we find determines how we talk
  •         How we talk determines how we imagine together
  •         How we imagine together determines what we achieve together

So, also in the words of our prominent leader and others here at the agency, Change begins with the first new question.

Want to know more?

Check out these highlights of how we’ve used a strengths-based approach at Neighborhood Centers and resources for applying AI and related approaches in community and organizational development.

Angela Blanchard:  The Next New Question, TedX Houston 2011

How Community Engineers Are Changing Houston – Oscar Perry Abello, Next City (12/4/2015)

Appreciative Inquiry Commons


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Michelle Salazar-Martinez

Director of Program Planning & Grant Development at Neighborhood Centers Inc.
Michelle Salazar-Martinez, MPA is Director of Program Planning & Grant Development at Neighborhood Centers Inc., a community-development agency that has more than 100 years’ experience in providing services to Houston area neighborhoods with programs that help our neighbors “learn, earn, belong and be well.” Michelle has successfully coordinated and written grants for large and small agencies delivering health care, education, and social services for more than 15 years. Her perspective comes as that from someone who has worked in community development and health, and she has a deep interest in the intersection and inter-weaving of these two in order to holistically address the health and well-being of communities. Michelle is married with three children, a large and close-knit extended family, and several “furry” family members that all make Texas “home.”

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