The Power of Asset-based Language

By Paru Desai, SV2 Get Proximate Co-Lead, SV2 Partner

This article is the third in a series about the principles and practice of getting proximate:

“How do we create equitable outcomes for all members of our community? We can start by defining people by their aspirations, not their challenges.” Trabian Shorters 

Words like “voiceless,” “at-risk,” “vulnerable,” are pervasive in our field and while the work of funders and nonprofits is well-intentioned, language like this — deficit-framing language — which emphasizes statistics and disparities tends to “other” the places and people who are involved. Language can risk reinforcing negative stereotypes and perceptions or communicate the idea that these are inherent characteristics of a person/people rather the result of circumstances. For the person or group being talked about, it can have a stigmatizing effect and impact identity or behavior.

In a previous Get Proximate article we discussed the importance of listening to multiple narratives to gain a more complete and real picture of a community or issue. One of the tools to do that is using asset-based frameworks and language that is centered in the community’s existing strengths, resources and capabilities of each individual, community and organization  rather than their problems and challenges. 

Asset-based approaches connect disparities and community wide problems to systemic causes, that is, it takes greater account of historical and systemic forces that led to the inequity, rather than to individuals. Seeing a community through an asset-based systems lens helps us recognize that where harm has been done, it is usually not the result of self-caused problems.  It also allows a community to lead change with their strengths and it amplifies their voices. It can expand equitable access to power, resources, and money while a deficit based approach continues the old paradigm of one group/community being the recipient of charity or in need and the other of saviours who will fix their problems.  

The asset-based framework was originally developed in the education sector as a strategy for improving the learning outcomes for students who were “underperforming” based on predetermined state metrics. When the focus was on correcting what was “wrong” in the students’ performance, many students internalized a narrative that they were inherently “not smart” or that they were “stupid”. The asset-based framework shifted the learning and teaching focus to center the strengths of the student as a key foundation for growth. 

It is important to recognize that asset framing is not just about being positive and using better language; merely doing this can actually have the converse effect of painting too rosy a picture. Problems very much exist and need to be solved but we, funders and nonprofits alike, rely too often on commonly understood language that doesn’t necessarily paint the full picture. For example, we often tell success stories of individuals in order to elicit action and support, especially financial, and to show impact. 

But we need to express these narratives to also include what was fully required to overcome system-caused obstacles and challenges, and also talk about how not everyone can access the support that was required. Otherwise the story can have the opposite effect of making it easier to say ‘Why can’t everyone do that?’ I remember one of our rockstar grantee leaders telling us that getting to where she had gotten involved not just financial and moral support but help in breaking through systemic barriers and recognizing that not everyone can access that support.  ‘Without the barriers, she said, there would be so many more like me so just holding me up as a success story isn’t enough’  

By defining communities by their aspiration and contributions the focus shifts from what’s wrong with this person or community to what’s right.  Asset-based language leads with shared values and emphasizes collective responsibility for solving collective problems. Here are a few differences in the two approaches.

Asset Based Deficit Based
  • Strengths Driven
  • Opportunity focus
  • Internally Focused
  • What is present that we can build on?
  • May lead to new, unexpected responses to community wishes 
  • Needs Driven
  • Problems focused
  • Externally focused
  • What is missing that we must go find?
  • May lead to downward spiral of burnout, depression or dysfunction

Mission and values statements are often full of deficit-framing.

  • Our mission is to amplify the voices in our community.
  • The communities we partner with are strong and powerful!
  • Youth in our community are our future. We must invest in them as leaders.
  • Org X works with girls to prepare for graduation.
  • In Org X, teens sharpen their problem solving skills. 
  • Our mission is to give voice to the voiceless.
  • The communities we serve are strong and powerful.
  • We provide youth with jobs in order to prevent them from committing crimes
  • Org X seeks to reduce dropout rates and end the dropout crisis.
  • Org X addresses girls’ barriers to success.


Even as funder-grantee relationship practices are rapidly changing, especially in the aftermath of the COVID-19 pandemic and social justice movements, commonly understood language is harder to change. Creating this mind and language shift from deficit-based to asset-based might not be easy, but as they say… words matter.  

Some suggestions on how to shift to a more asset-based approach:

  • Examine, using the examples given above as a guide, the words we use when we talk about our work. What language are we using and what values do they reflect? 
  • Evaluate mission and value statements of the organizations you support or work with to see if they lead from a position of strength. What, if any, reframing is needed? 
  • Look more closely at what else is happening in the community we are seeking to serve and how organizations are building on existing resources and assets rather than coming in with answers and resources we think are needed. 
  • Ensure that success and impact are defined by the community and not our predetermined set of outcomes.   

At SV2, we are continuing to learn and push forward concepts like this through Get Proximate and our DEI (Diversity, Equity and Inclusion) efforts. We look forward to exploring this topic further both individually and at SV2, with more examples and small case studies, in our Get Proximate learning series in 2021. Please contact Paru Desai if you have any questions about Get Proximate — and don’t forget to join our community on mySV2.