Asset-Framing For Nonprofits: Writing Toward Hope

As a social impact consultancy, we’ve noticed an asset-based messaging trend. Supported by research and their field experience, nonprofits are losing interest in language that magnifies a community’s deficits. 

The mission-driven organizations we work with increasingly integrate strategy, storytelling, and programming to amplify and support community strength. And to be honest with you – we love this trend. Keep reading to learn why asset-based language wins and how to practice a strength-based writing approach.


What Is Deficit Language? 

Deficit-based language prioritizes a person or community’s gaps and problems. Alternatively, asset-based language prioritizes a person or community’s dreams, tools, and strengths. Here’s a hypothetical scenario of what each approach could look like. 


The context: Your nonprofit supports local organizations focused on community development. You’ve noticed that your grantees are talented, motivated visionaries who struggle to manage their organization’s financial resources.  

Your idea: Your foundation will provide a financial literacy course to all grantees. You need brochure, social media, and email copy that persuades your grantees to enroll and participate in the course. These are the two paths your messaging can take:

  1. Deficit-based language: “Ready to beat unpredictable revenue and cut unnecessary expenses? Enroll in our free financial planning course today.” 
  2. Asset-based language:   “Budget for today’s priorities and tomorrow’s possibilities. Enroll now to sharpen your financial planning.” 


The language in Path A prioritizes your grantees’ budgeting deficits, stirring up the discomfort and fear associated with specific negative outcomes: unpredictable income streams and inefficient expenditures. Path B creates space for your grantees to envision the ideal they’d like to work toward without defining their problems for them.


Why Asset-Based Messaging Matters – And Works 

Asset-based messaging is not denial. A compelling asset-based approach requires radical acceptance of reality to cast a vision your audience is authentically drawn toward. 


In the example above, Path A relies on fear to do the motivating. The problem with that approach – particularly among nonprofits and community-driven organizations – is that people are already afraid. Building a business model that expands education, community, and economic opportunity is a politically, financially, and socially risky endeavor. The changemakers in these fields don’t need any more fear. 


Path B taps into aspiration and the respectful assumption that grantees already have context and goals – they don’t need someone to tell them what to do or who to be. They want someone to support them as they reach for the goals they’ve set. 


The benefits of asset-framing have systemic implications:

  • Defining people by their strengths rather than their deficits provides an accurate, inclusive view of them and their communities – whether they are directors of nonprofits or K-12 students.  
  • Leveraging an asset-based approach throughout a larger brand and communications strategy includes and unites diverse stakeholders toward a common goal
  • Messaging that prioritizes the hopes and contributions of historically marginalized communities rewrites harmful narratives about these groups


Illustration of person sitting at computer writing with asset-based language

The bottom line: asset-based messaging works because it values and engages existing strengths. This efficient, democratic framing honors the tools each of us would like to hone and share. Illustration by David Espinosa Alvarez.


3 Common Examples Of Deficit-Based Language from Nonprofits (And How To Fix Them)

Creating inclusive, compelling brand messaging as a nonprofit takes an ongoing effort to understand your audiences and use language that supports them. It’s a challenge that pushes our team to continuously evaluate and deepen our commitment to diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI).  


Here are examples of deficit-based framing you can analyze to keep inclusive brand messaging a strategic priority.


Deficit-Based Approach #1: Positioning the Nonprofit As The Hero 

  • What it looks like: “We improve communities by facilitating youth engagement and developing entrepreneurs.” 
  • Asset-framed rewrite: “We partner with communities in their efforts to engage young people and inspire entrepreneurship.” 


Deficit-Based Approach #2: Positioning the Community As The Problem  

  • What it looks like: “We empower at-risk youth to overcome high-crime environments.” 
  • Asset-framed rewrite: “We help children navigate their circumstances to chase their dreams.”


Deficit-Based Approach #3: Overselling The Crisis, Underselling The People     

  • What it looks like: “Our approach dismantles disruptive barriers to racial equity in higher education.” 
  • Asset-framed rewrite: “Our anti-racist approach invites all students to enrich their institutions.”  


Try this: Take a look at some of your most recent communications, and look for examples of asset and deficit-based language. If you’re like most of us humans, you’ll probably find instances of both. Analyzing how your messaging prioritizes weaknesses or strengths can help you better understand and improve your overall communications strategy


Final Thoughts On Deficit VS Asset-Based Language 

Here are a couple of ideas to take with you:


  • Asset-based language is a reflection of asset-based organizational strategy.  Your messaging is most effective when it’s authentic. Asset-based messaging works best when a commitment to DEI drives your strategic planning. 
  • Asset-based language is not denial. People and communities experience very real challenges in very unjust ways. That’s likely why you’re doing the work you do. Rather than elevating their deficits, asset-framing prioritizes what impacted communities have to offer – it assumes that they deserve an active, leading role in their solutions.  


That’s a trend we’re excited to follow.