Community-Driven Institute
Asset-Based Resource Development: How to Build and Sustain Strong, Resilient Programs
by Hildy Gottlieb
Copyright ReSolve, Inc. 2002, 2008©

Does your organization have everything it needs to ensure your programs are strong? And is it safe to assume the reason you are reading this article is because the answer is No?

One of my favorite keynote topics is sustainability. I often start by asking folks to raise their hands if this is the first talk (or workshop, or program) they have attended about sustaining their organization’s efforts - fundraising, resource development, etc.

And just like this is probably not the first sustainability / resource development article you have ever read, in those audiences, it is the rare attendee who has never before attended such a session. Usually, everyone in the room has participated in many such talks over the years.

Consider that fact for a moment. We have all been to workshop after workshop. We have all read article after article, and book after book. And still, we do not believe our organizations are strong enough to allow us to forego the next workshop, the next article, the next new approach.

And while sometimes that is due to an organization failing to implement what they have heard or read, just as often folks have indeed implemented what they have learned. And still, after all these years of doing things the way they have been taught to do them, the sense of fear, scarcity and dependence remains.

Perhaps, then, it is time to take a different look at this issue. Instead of always hoping we will fill the gaps between “what we have” and the ever-growing “what we need,” perhaps it is time we aimed at what it will take to build strong, resilient, confident programs the community can always count on.

Perhaps it is time to stop worrying about what we DON’T have, and start building upon what we DO have.

Doing What Wealthy People Do

Consider the life of extremely wealthy people. Bill Gates. Warren Buffet. The Walton family, heirs to the Wal-Mart fortune.

Those people do not work for a living. Warren Buffet’s company, Berkshire Hathaway, famously pays him a salary of only $100,000 per year - certainly not enough to make him the second wealthiest man on earth!

With only 24 hours in a day, if wealthy people were to base their income solely on what they could earn from working, their earnings potential would have a top end limit. There is only so much one can conceivably work in a day, even if you survive on only 2 hours sleep. And there is only so much one can be paid to do that work.

Clearly, what makes and keeps wealthy people wealthy is not their wages. What DOES make them wealthy and keep them wealthy, however, is their assets - the things they already own.

Wealthy people have learned how to let the things they own - their assets - make their money for them. Some may own real estate, or stocks and bonds, or even whole companies. Regardless, it is not what they do on a daily basis that makes them money (earned income) but how they invest in what they already own (assets).

When you rely on a paycheck, the income stops if you do not work. When you rely on your assets to generate your income, the money continues to grow, even if you stop working to earn it.

That is strength. That is resilience. And that is what builds confidence to create a better future.

So, how much of your time are you spending on the organizational equivalent of “working for a living?” Instead of all that effort, wouldn’t it be nice to let your assets do that work for you?

And while you may be thinking that assets are just money, you will see below that assets are so much more - and that you have them in abundance.

Wouldn’t it be great if your organization could generate the resources it needed by building upon the things it already has and the work it is already doing?

Traditional Fundraising Plans

If we were to whittle the traditional approach to fundraising planning down to its most basic components, those steps might look something like this:

Traditional Planning Step #1: Identify budget needs

Traditional Planning Step #2: Identify revenues you are certain are coming in (through contracts, through fundraising history, etc.)

Traditional Planning Step #3: Fill in the rest with a mix of fundraising tools (grants, direct mail, events, major giving, etc.)

An asset-based system adds one more step into the mix, between Steps #2 and #3:

Step #2b: Identify what assets and resources you already have to build upon. Then base your choice of fundraising tools (#3) on those assets.

As you identify those assets and begin building upon them, you will see something change almost immediately. You will no longer believe you are filling in a seemingly bottomless hole. You will instead see that you are standing on a mountain and building even higher.

Asset-Based Planning

The following are the steps that will help move you from the hole to the mountaintop. These simple steps are among the most energizing an organization can undertake.

Asset-Based Step #1: Know your mission and your vision, and make sure your budget is rooted in a plan that aims for both.

Asset-Based Step #2: Identify budget needs to both implement those plans and maintain other programs, and identify revenues you are certain are coming in (through contracts, through fundraising history, etc.)

Asset-Based Step #3: Identify all your assets and resources.

Asset-Based Step #4: Identify how each of those assets / resources could help move you forward.

Asset-Based Step #5: Build your resource development plan around the best of those ideas.

Step 1: A Plan that Reaches for Your Vision

What are you trying to generate resources for? The most critical thing to remember as you work to build strength into your work is this: Your work is not about your organization. It is about your community, and the people you serve.

People who have never heard about your organization - and therefore do not care about your organization - indeed care about your mission and your vision for building a better community. They may not know your organization even exists, but they care about animals or poverty or human rights or historic buildings.

So Step 1 is to ensure your organization’s plans are aimed at the change you want to create in the community, and to ensure your budget is rooted in that vision for the future of your community as well. When it’s all about the community, the rest will flow more naturally from that strong starting point.

Step 2: Identify Budget Needs/ Identify Revenue You Can Already Count On

This step is pretty straight-forward. If you need help with this piece, classes at your local nonprofit resource center can help.

Step 3: Identify Your Assets / Resources

We are so used to thinking of “assets” as the items on the balance sheet. But in its everyday meaning, an asset is something either of material value or usefulness, that can be built upon to make something stronger. (Consider the phrase, “She is an asset to the organization.”) If it helps to clarify your thinking in this area, think of the word “resources” instead of “assets.” But the bottom line is that your assets are the things you already have or already do.

The following are 4 categories of assets / resources every organization has. Some have more than others in one category or another, but every organization has these 4 sets of assets.

  1. Mission-Related Assets & Resources (not only your mission, but all the operational things you are already doing to make that mission happen)
  2. Physical Assets & Resources (your facilities, your equipment)
  3. Human Assets & Resources (not just your staff, but your board, your volunteers, your supporters, the participants in your programs)
  4. Community Assets & Resources (Everything within your community. Really.)

Mission-Related Assets & Resources

Mission-related assets and resources are “What you do.” The first items on this list will be your mission and vision. From there, you will list every program you have, and all the great things you do for the community - those are all assets.

There are also all the small sub-steps that comprise your programs. The easiest way to determine all those pieces is to map out each of your programs. Johnny enters the waiting room; he waits for the counselor; he sees the counselor; he heads to the appointment area; etc. and etc. What happens in each of your programs? What do participants do? Where do they go? Who do they see? Document all the steps for each of your programs. Those steps are all part of what you have and what you do.

Physical Assets & Resources

If mission resources are “What you do,” then physical resources are “What you have.”

If you use a building, regardless of whether you own it or rent it, list it. List what rooms the building has, and if it has a basement or an attic. List if it has a yard or a large parking lot. List it all.

Now list all your equipment. And if you have access to all kinds of equipment because the owner of the local equipment dealership is on your board, list that, too.

List all the facilities and equipment and other physical “stuff” you own or have access to.

Human Assets & Resources

Human resources are “Who you know.”

Who does your organization know? Who knows your organization? Who comes in contact with the organization for whatever reason? Whose lives does your organization touch? Who do individual board members and staff members know? And who do they know?

The list will start with your staff, board, and volunteers. Clients, certainly. Parents or children of clients, or other family. The media. Local government officials. And of course donors, funders, corporate sponsors. In some cases, a whole group will be listed: “Our volunteers.” In other cases, a few key individuals may shine through. “Mrs. Smith has volunteered here every week for the past 2 years!”

There is no right or wrong way to list people - in groups or individually. Just start listing! This is one list that tends to go on for miles. And the longer, the better!


Community Assets & Resources

Community organizations get so used to thinking of themselves in a vacuum; they forget that the communities that surround them are rich in resources waiting to be tapped.

While you may start this list during your brainstorm session, the list (often called a Community Asset Map) can soon get unwieldy and overwhelming. Your community has such an abundance of resources and assets, just waiting for you to activate them, that it is hard sometimes to get one’s arms around it all!

For this category, then, it may be helpful to reflect on a specific project or need. (That is why it is so important for the first step in this process to be the creation of your organization’s plans for where it is heading and the change it wants to create in the community / in people’s lives.) Once you have a specific need - a specific component of a project - ask, “Who in the community already has or does that component? Who might have access to that?”

Do you need someone to make deliveries? Who is already making deliveries?

Do you need someone to provide storage? Who already has storage space?

Our communities are rich in resources we tend to overlook. But once you begin to see them, you will notice them everywhere!

Step 4: Identify How Each of Those Assets / Resources Could Bring in More Money

As you look at the asset lists you’ve created, choose one of those assets, and make that asset the heading of a new sheet. Now brainstorm: How can that asset provide more benefit than it is currently providing?

Using a Mission Asset:

If people are routinely sitting in your hospital lobby, waiting for loved ones to come out of surgery, could you provide health information that would further your mission - perhaps a counselor who could offer a “free screening” for a critical health issue in your community? Does this give you the opportunity to partner with other organizations, to build stronger bonds? Could you provide healthy snacks (and generate revenue from those snacks)?

Using a Physical Asset:

Could the grounds or the roof of your building be a good location for a cell phone tower or a wind generator? (We have seen both.) Could your parking lot become a pay lot for a nearby arena’s overflow parking?

Using a Human Asset:

If 500 young people gather for each of your organization's performances, could that be appealing to a sponsor who wants to have their name in front of kids? Could you use the performances to generate volunteers? Could you ask those hundreds and thousands of kids to share their wisdom about how your program could be more effective?

Using a Community Asset:

If you have been offered a free booth at a community event, but you do not want to just hand out literature, are there ways you can use that booth to generate revenues? To engage people in your mission?

This is not the time to judge whether an idea is good or bad. This is the time to just keep those ideas flowing. Sometimes the dumbest sounding ideas have a kernel of possibility that can grow into something else. (What eventually became the Poster Babies Contest for the Diaper Bank we founded began at this stage as Jell-O wrestling!)

Step 5: Build Your Resource Development Plan around the Best of The Ideas

If you are anything like the groups we have done this planning with, you will find an abundance of ideas flowing, generating all kinds of excitement.

At this point, it is important to matrix the best of those ideas against objective criteria, to choose which will be the most effective for your needs. Just because another organization chose to use one particular approach does not mean that will be the most effective for your organization’s needs. By weighing your ideas against objective criteria, the results will ensure your resource development plan is built specifically for your organization’s needs.

What kind of criteria might you use? One obvious criteria is “How much money (or volunteers, or other needed resource) could it bring in?” Another could be “How long will it take to come to fruition?” Or perhaps “How much staff time will it require?” If a particular factor is important to your organization, include it for comparison.

Matrixing your ideas against objective criteria AND against each other, avoids the common phenomenon of making decisions in a vacuum. “Should we do this, yes or no?” is a bad way to choose, as it ignores all the other possibilities. By weighing all your ideas against each other, asking, “Which of these would be best?” your organization will have a range of choices, all of which have been measured against those objective criteria.


The Best Part

In summary, taking an Asset-Based Approach to Resource Development builds upon the strength your organization already has. The process is an affirming, energizing experience, as groups not only identify everything they have that is strong, but all the potential that has been hidden inside those assets. Regardless of the group we work with, the response is always the same: “We never realized we had so much!”

When we build upon what is already strong, those assets themselves begin to grow and flourish. Like compounding interest in a savings account, we are building strength upon strength, and that simply builds more strength. What a joyful cycle to kick-start!

But that is not the best part. For the best part, we will share one more observation about wealthy people.

Wealthy individuals do not see other wealthy individuals as competition. They see each other as friends, compadres, co-investors, partners.

Because wealthy people are building their sustainability upon what they already own, they don’t have to worry that by someone else getting more, they will be somehow diminished. No competition. No scarcity. No fear.

Wealthy people are therefore free to focus on what they have in common, and to build on that. They are free to live life with the knowledge that resources are not limited, but abundant.

Last year, Warren Buffet - the second wealthiest man on earth - announced that he would be bequeathing a large portion of his fortune to the foundation headed by Bill Gates - the wealthiest man on earth. He entrusted the money he had earned throughout his entire life to another wealthy person, to invest it in the future of our planet.

When we build upon our assets, we are free to see others who care about the same things we do - formerly known as our competitors - as allies, friends, compadres. We can share with them an abundance of resources. An abundance of supporters. An abundance of others who care about what you care about.

When we build and sustain our programs upon our strengths, we can confidently link arms together, to mutually aim at winning the best prize of all: creating a better future for our communities.

And that is a prize that grows larger and stronger the more it is shared.

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