Strength-Based Work is Not Enough


If we want to create a healthy, vibrant, compassionate, resilient future for our communities and our world, strength-based work is not enough.

I know that’s stepping on a lot of toes, but hear me out.

Strength-based / asset-based work is seen in various places.  It is seen in community engagement efforts, to engage folks in solving their own problems.  It is seen in the counterbalance of “Yes, we did a needs assessment because the funder wanted it, but we also did an asset map to assess our strengths.” It is seen in the battle cry to not just look at clients and communities as a pile of needs, but a pile of strengths to address those needs.

All this is good stuff.  Heck, I even included the need for building on our strengths as Pollyanna Principle #5! As Jody Kretzmann of the Asset-Based Community Development Institute says when he speaks about a glass being half empty or half full, “When we consider only needs, we are considering only the useless part of the glass.”

That said, there is a gap that focusing on strengths cannot fill. When we use strengths to solve people’s problems – to help stabilize a homeless family or to eliminate crime from a neighborhood – our best possible outcome is that we will eliminate that problem.

And while yes, we indeed want to solve those problems, when all we do is fix what’s not working, we are limiting our potential. We are failing to reach for what is possible, because what is possible goes beyond just eliminating harmful circumstances. What is possible is – well – everything we can dream of!

We Accomplish What We Hold Ourselves Accountable For
We are Creating the Future, Right Now, Whether We Do So Consciously or Not

As the first two of the Pollyanna Principles note, creating visionary change in our communities and our world requires that we hold ourselves accountable for aiming at positive, powerful, visionary end results.

And that’s why strength-based work is not enough.  Strength-based work focuses on the means we use – tapping on the strengths every individual and every community has to create its own future.  But strength-based work towards marginal goals will still only take us so far.

The key is in the future we hold ourselves accountable for creating, for an individual client, for a community, for the world.

If we hold ourselves primarily accountable for getting homeless people back on their feet, that is where we will aim our strengths. And that is what we will continue to accomplish, over and over again.

If, however, we hold ourselves primarily accountable for creating an equitable society where not only does homelessness not exist, but everyone has the opportunity to reach for their own highest potential, then that is where we will aim our strengths. And along the way to that end goal, we will indeed get homeless individuals back on their feet.

I cannot guarantee we will achieve the equitable society imaged in the second example.  But I can guarantee that if we do not aim for it, we will absolutely not attain it. We will continue to fight poverty, fight drug use, fight terrorism – fight whatever sadness it is our mission to fight.

Try This
Question 1: Today, for every need you identify (in a client, in your organization, in your community, in your country, in our world), ask this question:

What is the best possible outcome here? For whom?

Question 2: Just by asking that question, what might change about your approach to the work you do?

If you have not already taken the first step in aiming at what is possible – for your clients, your organization, your community AND for yourself – The Pollyanna Principles can take you there.

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