By: Kari Aanestad, co-director of

With input from: Andrea Sanow, Development and Content Coordinator at; Michelle Chang, Policy and Equity Coordinator at the Minnesota Council of Nonprofits

Over the past ten years I have told stories of various organizations to foundations using the same grant application template that has been in use for decades–a template that asks us to describe our problems and needs instead of our communities and opportunities. I began to realize that questions about “problems” that nonprofits work to fix with foundation funding frames communities as the problems that need fixing, nonprofits as takers, and foundations as saviors – ideas that perpetuate inequity and work directly against the idea of building the kind of trusting relationships the sector desperately needs. Grantseekers and grantmakers have the opportunity to work together in actualizing commitments to advancing equity in the sector and beyond: adopting an asset-based framework.

What is an Asset-Based Framework?

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. Teachers had been focusing efforts on correcting what was “wrong” in the students’ performance, which yielded minimal results and in some case actually made things worse. With such a focus on their learning deficits, many students quickly internalized a narrative that they were inherently “bad” and further disengaged from school.

The asset-based framework shifted the learning and teaching focus to center the strengths of the student as a key foundation for growth.  

Building on its origins, an asset-based framework centers the community’s existing strengths and resources and incorporates them into solutions for systemic issues. An asset-based approach distinguishes “problems” (which tend to blame the communities) and “issues” (which take a broader view to consider the historical and systemic forces that have led to centuries of wealth inequities and oppression).

Framing the:
·         Problem – Blames the community
·         Issue – Names a broader historical context or systemic force that has led to centuries of wealth inequities, economic exclusion, and oppression.

How Can I Identify Deficit-Based Language and Adopt Asset-Based Approach?

Let’s look at two deficit-based examples:

1. Meowton’s feline population has increased 300% in the last 5 years, placing new demands on homeowners, pet supply stores, and veterinary clinics. The Meowton community has struggled to meet the increased demand for services. As a result, homeless cats now account for 40% of the feline population, claw-based vandalism has spiked by 13% in the last year alone, and catnip addiction and abuse is driving herds of cats into poverty and poor health. There’s an unmet need for safe shelter, fancy feasts, and access to health care in Meowton.

Deficit-Based Asset-Based
The increase in Meowton’s feline population is equated with problems (ie. claw-based vandalism, catnip addiction, and demand exceeding available resources). The feline population is both the identified patient with problems and the cause of the problems within the community. Decades of federal and state funding cuts to spay and neutering services have created systemic inequities for communities like Meowton. While advocacy groups work for funding reform, there’s an opportunity to define a new era built on the opportunities of a rapdily growing feline population. With $50,00 in grant funding, Meowton Community Services will partner with 50 cats to offer a mixed use community center.

2. They say all cats have nine lives, but his owners feared the worst when Mr. Bo Jangles’ eyes were lit aglow by the headlights of an oncoming car. It took three surgeries and 6 months of rehabilitative physical therapy for Mr. Bo Jangles to even stand on his own four feet again. While trees were once his feat to climb, they now are sorrowful reminders of the life he once lived. With a permanent physical disability, Mr. Bo Jangles now spends most days in isolation as accessible transportation options are limited, his old cat friends feel awkward around him and don’t visit often, and depression and agoraphobia set in with crushing force like the car that hit him. Unfortunately there are thousands of cats like Mr. Bo Jangles who struggle with the implications of a permanent disability and a poor community infrastructure to support his newfound needs.

Deficit-Based Asset-Based
Mr. Bo Jangles is a passive victim, and a burden to the world. he is dependent upon the mercy of others to save him. Mr. Bo Jangles and his owners found joy in living an intra-abled life. During his recovery his owners centered Mr. Bo Jangles’ independence as much as possible and designed interactions and their home to meet his newfound needs – an act that has allowed him to remain social and connected despite poor publicly available community infrastructure to support him. With the support of his community, Mr. Bo Jangles has now become an advocate and organizer for cats with disabiliteis. They are proposing updates to community infrastructure, highlighting their own experiences that will benefit the whole community of Meowton.

What are some ways I can adopt an asset-based framework in my work?

First, identify the spots where deficit-based language shows up and then challenge yourself to reframe it. Here are a few common examples of deficit-based framing on nonprofit work, accompanied by some suggestions for an asset-based reframe:

Deficit-Based Asset-Based
Our mission is to give voice to the voiceless.Our mission is to amplify the voices in our community.
The communities we serve are strong and powerful. The communities we partner with are strong and powerful!
We provide youth with jobs in order to prevent them from committing crimes. Youth in our community are our future. We must invest in them as leaders.


  • Ask yourself, “How is the ‘problem’ and ‘success’ being defined in your grant proposal?
  • Is the community being blamed? Are you naming any historical events and/or broader systems that have adversely impacted communities?
  • Who is at the table in defining problems and challenges, identifying strengths, assets, and solutions?


  • Instead of asking about problems, ask grantseekers to describe the “issues that impact” their community to which the proposed work would address.
  • Reframe a core question in grant applications to encourage grant applicants to center the assets of community members. For example, you could ask:
    • What’s unfolding in the community in which the organization works, what activities is the organization leading or participating in that build on existing resources of the organization and assets of the community? Who is impacted by your work, and how have they informed the design of your activities and program evaluation?
    • What does the organization hope will be preserved or changed and why? What milestones are important to the work? What are key questions that need answering? Who is impacted or a part of this work, and how does the organization learn their perspective of its value?

What’s the Impact of an Asset-Based Framework?

Adopting an asset-based approach to grantwriting can change one’s entire orientation to community, which impacts program development, strategic planning, impact evaluation (and what gets defined as “success” and who is involved in defining and measuring it). Adopting an asset-based framework in grantwriting and grantmaking highlights the strengths and opportunity that a community holds, and impacts the way a community sees itself and how organizations see the communities. As a result:

  • communities lead change with their strengths;
  • voices are amplified to dream and create the world they want;
  • communities see themselves as agents of change and not just part of or a product of the problem;
  • authentic inclusion of the communities impacted by a nonprofit’s work, expands equitable access to power, resources, and money.


“Words Matter: Amplifying the Message Through an Asset-Based Approach” by Step Up