Building Assets

2 minute read

Jeanne Tedrow, President & CEO, North Carolina Center for Nonprofits

How do we develop operational practices in the area of program design, management, and evaluation that incorporates equity and cultural sensitivity to those we seek to serve? In building our organizations, are we looking through an asset-based lens to design programs? How we view the community we serve and those who will receive our services influences our program design and subsequent management and evaluation of those services. 

Trabian Shorters  - author, social entrepreneur, and leading authority on the “Asset-Framing” approach to Diversity, Equity, Inclusion, and Impact and the cornerstone of his work with BMe Community - states that the narrative we use to describe who we are, who we serve, and how we serve has a profound impact on identity and behavior. His asset-framing approach that defines communities by their aspirations and contributions rather than by their challenges and deficits is one the nonprofit community needs to lift up.

Shorters’ asset-framing framework is built on the work of cognitive psychologist Daniel Kahneman, which suggests that philanthropy’s “habit of defining people by their problems (deficit-framing) creates powerful, lasting, negative associations that make engagement and equity harder to achieve.”  

“How you introduce someone or something makes all the difference in framing,” says Shorters. This is important because we build programs that support our perceptions and narratives we have constructed about the people and communities we seek to serve.

Too often in the nonprofit sector, we use a deficit-framing lens to articulate the programs and services we develop and deliver for those “in need.” Shorters defines deficit-framing as “defining people by their challenges, ignoring their aspirations or contributions, then remediating them to be less burdensome on society.” In his article on the Power of Perception, he goes on to say that “ever since “The War on Poverty” began 50 years ago, black people have been strongly associated with poverty and crime. That’s why our minds aren’t surprised when we hear of black poverty or crime, and our brains preload “poverty and crime” when we think of black people. Which does make it easier to believe that black people are predisposed to poverty and crime, unfortunately.” Given this narrative, we design our programs accordingly. Words matter.

An example from Shorters:

Nonprofits with missions like “Helping at-risk youth in high-crime neighborhoods to stay on track and avoid becoming negative statistics” are admirable, self-congratulatory, and
denigrating to the students all at once. Organizations could accurately describe themselves as “helping students who are striving for an education to overcome difficult environments
and to achieve their dreams.”

At the North Carolina Center for Nonprofits, we continue to seek new and improved tools to integrate equity into programs we design. Using this asset-based framework offers us an opportunity to change the narrative in how we “help” our communities. I believe that adapting our programs and our leadership to look through an asset-based lens will strengthen all we do to build equitable and thriving communities.


Program design, management, and evaluation is one of the 12 Principles & Practices: Best Practices for North Carolina NonprofitsCenter Members can download the guidebook as part of Member benefits. Find additional tools and resources in Information Central.

Equity, Diversity, Inclusion
Program Design, Management, & Evaluation