Stop Fixing Start Empowering

Stop Fixing Start Empowering

Last week I received a call from an exasperated university professor.  Her students had been volunteering in one of our communities and she said, “They want to get their hands dirty and really do something meaningful.”  I understand her frustration.  She only has a semester with these students and she wants their time in the neighborhood to be valuable and impactful.  The university places a tremendous value in place-based learning and as someone who does a lot of teaching, I highly respect their commitment.

The hard part comes when individuals who are only in the community temporarily see a need and want to address the need through a programmatic response.  Most professionals are trained to diagnose a situation from a needs-based approach and ask, “What is broken and how do we fix it?”

I am so thankful that the professor who is facilitating the student’s time in neighborhood respects that our approach is exactly the opposite of the traditional way students are trained.  We never start with the question, “What does the community need?”  We start with the question, “What do the residents care enough about to support?” and secondly, “What do they have to work with?”

This asset-based approach to community development is often frustrating for anyone seeking to have a significant impact in a short period of time.  Often, the things the neighbors care about are not the same things that the “professionals” think they should care about.  When groups enter into communities without proper training in an asset-based approach, residents can feel as though they have nothing to offer and outside groups feel as though their good deeds are not being valued.  In the end, everyone can end up frustrated and discouraged.

I do believe outside groups can add tremendous value to the health and well-being of a community if they are properly trained and if they understand that their role is not to “fix problems” but is instead to “support local leaders.”  Resident leaders may not have the educational training or expertise of the outside groups but they have something far more valuable – trust and relationships.  When you partner an effective local leader with an outside volunteer whose sole job is to support that leader, amazing things can happen.

In the next few weeks my associate Qasarah Bey will have the opportunity to teach these students about asset-based community development.  I don’t know if any of them will realize just how significant this paradigm shift is in their short stay in our neighborhood, but I do pray that the seeds that Qasarah plants will bear fruit in their professional careers beyond this learning opportunity.  It is a privilege to have the opportunity to sow into the lives of these bright and dedicated young people.

What would it look like if church missions groups stopped “fixing problems” and started empowering local leaders?


  1. This is a very helpful description of ABCD. The changes we need to keep making in the way we relate to communities is profound. This thought stuck me as I read your post- the volunteer who committs to supporting a local leader may see more of God through that work than the volunteer who wants to provide a fix to a problem or need. Supporting a local leader means to see what God has already been doing thorugh that leader.

    • John,

      I am so glad you were able to meet Patrice and Charles when you were here. I think this all makes perfect sense when you meet the people in the neighborhood who care enough to get involved. It is often frustrating to churches and other groups when we tell them that we have to start by listening to the neighbors and that we don’t start anything without a resident leader. This is a lot harder and a lot slower but in the long-run you end up with something more lasting. Do you know yet if and when you will be joining us in RVA permanently?



  1. A Picture of Partnering | Wendy McCaig - [...] my post “Stop Fixing Start Empowering,” I asked the question, “What would it look like if church missions groups …

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