How do we define community assets?

Since we turned the calendar to 2021, the conference circuit has been electrified. It seems that we have figured out the best ways to host virtual conferences, and there are many opportunities to connect with people and partners from all across North Carolina and to learn from one another. I am here for it!

Last month, the Institute for Emerging Issues hosted their ReCONNECT for the Future forum – a four-day virtual series of content “to inspire and empower individuals and communities to come together, across lines of geography, race, income and politics, to address the biggest challenges we face as a state.”

Institute for Emerging Issues Fellow John Parker organized a series of capacity-building workshops and described their purpose as “creatively tackling the present and courageously engaging the future.” Themes centered around bridge-building, strategic leadership, innovative entrepreneurship, regional resilience, strengthening communities and creating equity. The agenda was bursting!

I was honored to be invited to join Tracey Greene-Washington, president of the Indigo Innovation Group, and Armeer Kenchen, executive director of CornerSquare Community Capital at the NC Rural Center, in leading a conversation about leveraging community assets into community investments.

We began the session by posing a question that would serve as a foundation upon which the rest of the discussion would be built:

How do we define community assets?

The zoom chat window flowed with a stream of answers from the session participants.

“All community members and the experience they bring”
“Leaders as defined by people respected in the community who are also motivated to create change”
“The insight and leadership of students and youth”
“Vacant spaces”
“Land and other natural resources”
…and more

The list was as diverse as the experiences and perspectives of the collection of session participants from all over the state, who represented sectors including economic development, nonprofit, government, churches and small business.

When foundations talk about assets, we are often referring to funds – “asset development” or “asset size.” There’s a place and a purpose for that language, and in fact, it is an important part of what philanthropy contributes to solutions. 

What I am offering is that there is a broader definition of the word, especially when we are speaking of the depth and breadth of assets within a community.

Community assets can include any number of resources within a community that can be tapped into as a means of addressing the needs of that community. By enhancing, strengthening or further developing what is already present and accessible, we can identify opportunities for investment.

In an article by Yvonne (Bonnie) Wichtner-Zoia of Michigan State University Extension, she identifies community capitals [or assets] as financial, social, cultural, built, human, political and natural. She writes:

“All communities have specific characteristics and resources that link to each other. Working together, these characteristics and resources develop a synergy that allows a community to grow and prosper. The process of identifying and linking resources takes effort, but the result can dramatically improve the economics of a community.”

This statement captures the inspiration and motivation for our affiliate foundation network.

As our 53 affiliate foundations across the state enter grantmaking season this year, our program officers are reviewing community needs assessments with them and facilitating discussions about the pressing needs in their local communities.  We are also encouraging them to consider the array of assets of their communities and ask themselves: 

In answering these questions, we are thinking beyond our immediate or most familiar communities as well. It can be easy to name the assets that you see and experience most often because they impact your life frequently or directly. It is not enough to answer these questions as individuals. How might another community member with a different perspective answer them? Is there someone we could ask?

So, do not be surprised if you hear that question from one of our board members or program officers as we venture through this year’s grantmaking season. We look forward to hearing from you, and thank you for what you contribute to your community’s assets.