Our 13 Staging Posts in Learning and Development

Editor’s note: Cormac Russell is managing director of Nurture Development, a UK based consulting and research organization that seeks to support communities to reduce institutionalization and increase interdependency in community life. To mark the organization’s 21st birthday, he wrote a three-part series of blogs about what he and his colleagues have learned along the way. They are adapted for our readers and re-posted here with permission. To read the originals, visit http://www.nurturedevelopment.org/blog/13-staging-posts-learning-development.

The journey since 1996 has included many days and even months of confusion and doubt, but every so often there were moments of real clarity. In hindsight, it is now perfectly clear to us that a necessary prelude to all our learning was confusion, and a gnawing sense that we were off track. Over the years we figured out there was no track, or as Tom Dewar (a Nurture Development associate) says, “There is no map, only a compass.”

Those moments of clarity typically declared themselves to us when we chilled out, stopped panicking and really listened. It was during periods of pause––places where our journey was broken, stopover points so to speak, where we rested up, got some new supplies and our bearings again––that we also regained perspective. Like staging posts, such moments have punctuated the last two decades of our work and now, as we look forward, we hope they will illuminate the path ahead.

So, to start this year’s blogging, we will share the 13 staging posts that have imprinted themselves onto how we work.



Our first staging post has become like a wise old friend to whom we return most regularly – when working with practitioners and organizations keen to transition from a direct service provision model to a facilitative approach. It is our core invitation:

Instead of asking how you or your organization can create more value to/for or with communities, ask how you can create more space for community to create what they value.



The second staging came with the recognition that effective community work is not about ignoring what is wrong and solely focusing on what is strong. Instead, it is about recognizing that both problems and capacities need to be acknowledged, appreciated, and addressed. That said, we believe the best way to do that is to start with what is strong, and to use what’s strong to address what’s wrong, and make what is strong even stronger.



The third staging post relates to the growth of citizen power, and the importance of calling people’s attention to the three levels of assets:

  • Primary assets, which are local and within residents’ control.
  • Secondary assets, which are local but not within resident’s control.
  • External assets, which are neither local nor in resident’s control.

Much of our work has been to accompany people as they shift their change-making efforts from attempts at influencing external forces as their starting point, while neglecting internal (local) capacities and cultural, environmental and economic assets, to a process which intentionally starts with the discovery, connection and mobilization of primary assets; working from inside out. By reversing the order and building power from inside out, citizens assume a much stronger position to effect change. We have written about the process by which this unfolds in Question the Questionable Questions.



The fourth staging post came quite recently. We have recognized the importance of naming that there are three dominant types of helping at play in most contexts within which we work. These are: relief, rehabilitation and advocacy. Each of these has its place in the right dosage so to speak, but which if overdone can disable. It is important to show respect for the role that practitioners play in delivering supports across these three styles of helping. However, we look to help in a fourth and distinct way which is not about service delivery or advocacy, but about community power and the discovery and enlarging of civic space and associational life. It also became clear to us that many practitioners are very committed to cultivating practices that enable community power to grow and are prepared to do the hard work of disrupting the parts of their systems that do harm to community building efforts. We believe strongly in the importance of coming alongside such practitioners and supporting their efforts. Shaun Burnett, head of Community Building at Nurture Development, has written about this fourth expression of helping, and you can read about it here, and here.


There is a distinct way of helping which is not about service delivery or advocacy, but about community power and the discovery and enlarging of civic space and associational life.


The fifth staging post relates to our very strong conviction at Nurture Development that a fifth principle of ABCD needs to be included and explicitly stated. It is essential, that as well as lifting up the four core principles of asset based community development––citizen led, relationship oriented, asset-based, and place-based––that we make a commitment to a fifth principle of inclusion. Further to this, the fifth principle should be considered as foundational. With the rise of neoliberalism, we see it as critical that we are crystal clear that our work is not about saving systems money, but about saving people from institutionalization in preference for interdependent lives. We have written explicitly about this in The Welfare State is an extension of us, not a replacement for us, and in Community and the State: a question of proportionality.

We must be crystal clear that our work is not about saving systems money, but about saving people from institutionalization in preference for interdependent lives.


The sixth staging post revolves around the strategic shifts needed in organizational culture and structure, which in turn create space for citizen led community work to proliferate. As we have come to a better understanding of how these shifts occur, we have developed a spectrum of change. This spectrum is designed to further enable practitioners and organizational leaders who wish to transition from direct service delivery or advocacy towards community animation and community building. (We have written about the spectrum of change here.)


The seventh staging post is arguably where we have lingered longest. Seven years ago we started a process of support for local citizens and practitioners in the UK (and written about here) to make sense of ABCD in their own way and on their own terms. We emphasized that ABCD is not a model to be replicated or scaled, nor is it something that one rigidly has to stick to or have fidelity to. Rather ABCD is, as Jody Kreztmann suggests, about keeping your eyes open and paying attention to who and what is around you. That in mind, we are very committed to supporting the development of local and diverse expressions of asset-based community driven efforts across the UK and beyond. The idea of Learning Sites has captured the imagination of citizens, practitioners and organizational leaders in other countries too, and currently we are partnering with Bank of IDEAS in Australia to support the convening of Learning Sites across Australia.


The eighth staging post relates to our learning about eight of the more common and impactful practices which we have observed across each of the Learning Sites. These include the recognition of the importance of local resident connectors, the role of community animators, the value of sharable moments and the immense importance of celebrating achievements and impact, among many other practices of immense value.

One of our significant learning points relates to the title that we were using to describe practitioners: Community Builders. We have come to understand that the danger in referring to practitioners as community builders is that residents may come to assume that practitioners are the ones that do the community building, when in fact they are not, it is the people who live, sleep and work there who build the community. Hence, we suggest we shift from the term/time of Community Builder to Community Animator, as a more appropriate designation. We will write more about the term of animator but also the practices of a Community Animator.

The danger in referring to practitioners as community builders is that residents may come to assume that practitioners are the ones that do the community building. 


The ninth staging post marks a decision we made to actively and publicly cheer on complementary approaches to Community Animation (formerly known as Community Building). The details are for a later blog but in short order we believe that Time Banking, Community Circles, Community Organizing, Appreciative Inquiry, Transition Towns, Incredible Edible, Place Making, The Good Life conversation, and Strengths Based Approaches share the five common principles outlined in staging post # 5.



The tenth staging post is one we find ourselves returning to whenever we need to be reinvigorated. Here we plug back into our top ten most admired initiatives, (some of which are discussed in our recent blog on The Paradox of the Marketplace, which included the Nebraska Community Foundation, the amazing rural town transformation of Kulin in Western Australia (we also hugely admire Peter Kenyon’s work at the Bank of I.D.E.A.S) and the Co-operative movement in Emilia Romagna (Italy). We also have huge regard for the work of Jim Diers in his role as the inaugural Director of the Department of Neighborhoods in the City of Seattle and the work of the late Henry Moore in his role as Assistant Director Neighborhoods. We continue to be impressed and refreshed by the community building efforts of Rev. Al Barrett and his neighbors and colleagues in Hodgehill in Birmingham. Rev. Mike Mather and DeAmon Harges (Indianapolis) have managed to redefine what ministry means and their roving listening initiative and their bravery in shutting down all top-down services and relocating authority back into the hand of local residents is breathtakingly elegant. The work of the Wellspring Foundation, through their ABCD Schools & Community Initiative (Gasabo, Rwanda), never fails to bring a smile to my face when I think about it and I share some of my observation here in my TEDx talk. Our colleague Tom Dewar’s work on Community Alternatives to Prison (US) is among the finest and most hopeful examples. We hold a special place in our hearts for Marion Thompson and her lifelong efforts in supporting the proliferation of the Breastfeeding Movement to 87 countries around the world over the last 65 years (La Leche League International).



The eleventh staging post involved us getting really clear about the core questions that are most impactful. Here is a series of questions that we keep returning to, having witnessed over and over again their transformational power:

Specifically for neighborhood community work

Q1. What are the things that only residents/citizens can do in response to this issue?

Q2. What are the things that residents/citizens can lead on and achieve with the support of institutions (governmental, nongovernmental, for profit) in response to this issue?

Q3. What are the things that only institutions can do for us?

Q4. What are the things that institutions can stop doing which would create space for resident action?

Q5. What can institutions start offering beyond the services that they currently offer to support resident/citizen action?


Specifically for one-to-one learning conversations with citizens

Q6. What do you care about enough to take action on?

Q6.1.  What gifts (things you were born with), skills (things you have practiced/learned to do), passions (things you are currently taking energetic action on) could you tap into to address and realise your dreams for your community, or indeed address the concerns you have?

Q6.2   What would it take to get other residents involved?

Q7.     What would you love to do if three of your neighbors were willing to help?

Specifically for institutional leaders

Q8.     What will we do, that will precipitate the discovery and enlargement of free space, by others?

Q8.1     What will we not do, that will precipitate the discovery and enlargement of free space, by others?

Q9.   What are the community alternatives to incarceration, and how could current criminal justice resources be redirected towards those alternatives?

Q10.   If people in receipt of our services had our salaries instead of our services, would they use that money to buy our services?

Q11.   How can we organize our structures the way the people organize their lives, instead of expecting people to organize their lives the way we organize our services?



There have been hundreds of stories that have emerged from each of the Learning Sites. All of them are deep in value, yet every so often we encounter a story that literally stops us in our tracks and takes our breath away. Later in our blog, we will share the twelve stories that had the most profound impact on us. In the meantime, you can read about the many stories of significant change recorded in the various evaluations that have been conducted over the years here.



The thirteenth staging post saw us beginning to intentionally name the spheres within which local residents possess irreplaceable functions for the production of community wellbeing. We called these the domains of Community Powered Change. So far we have identified 13 such domains:

Our Health and Wellbeing

Our Safety

Our Environment

Our Safe food production and consumption

Our Local economic development

Our Children’s childhoods

Our Ageing

Our Culture

Our Civic action and Democracy

Our response to natural disasters and emergencies

Our curation of knowledge and wisdom

Our changing world

Our unknown and unknowable world

 All thirteen domains are critical inflection points within which we, as lay people, can collectively perform the functions of community and civic life. It is said in psychological circles that a mother is never happier than her most unhappy child. If that is true, it must also be true to say that a village is never happier than its most unhappy parents. A village without a community culture is not a well place, since at the root of many of our social, economic and environmental maladies is the “village problem.” The primary remedy for this is the application of civic muscle in the stewardship of abundant communities.


The primary remedy for a village without a community culture is the application of civic muscle in the stewardship of abundant communities.



As we at Nurture Development continue our nomadic learning journey, we draw on sage-like advice from people like Barry Schwarz, who in his TED Talk “Our Loss of Wisdom” reminds us that “a wise person knows when and how to make an exception to every rule. A wise person knows how to improvise. Real-world problems are often ambiguous and ill-defined and the context is always changing. A wise person is like a jazz musician––using the notes on the page, but dancing around them, inventing combinations that are appropriate for the situation and the people at hand.”

All that to say, the above staging posts are not offered as a linear step-by-step model, but rather are an attempt to be transparent about what we have learned so far, by coming alongside citizens and practitioners. The above framework will nonetheless inform how we work with and support communities and support organizations into the future, and no doubt it will deepen and change as we learn “to use the notes on the page, but dance around them.”


Originally published January 12, January 13 and January 16, 2017 at http://www.nurturedevelopment.org/blog/13-staging-posts-learning-development. Adapted and re-posted by permission. Images courtesy Nurture Development.





About the Lead Author

Cormac Russell
Cormac Russell
Cormac Russell is Managing Director of Nurture Development, Director of ABCD Europe and a faculty member of the Asset Based Community Development (ABCD) Institute at Northwestern University, Chicago. He has trained communities, agencies, NGOs and governments in ABCD and other strengths-based approaches in Kenya, Rwanda, Southern Sudan, South Africa, the UK, Ireland, Sweden, the Netherlands, Canada and Australia. In January 2011 Cormac was appointed to the Expert Reference Group on Community Organising and Communities First, by Nick Hurd MP, Minister for Civil Society in the UK which he served on for the term of the Group. Examples of recent work include: Leading all national sporting organizations in Canada, in conjunction with the Canadian Council for Ethics in Sport, to adopt a shared vision as to how sport can become an asset for community building. This is effecting significant changes in the structures of major sporting organizations but also at a local community level in terms of community empowerment and citizen driven development. Advising I&Dea in the UK on the development of an asset based approach to health and on addressing health inequalities in low income communities as well as how an assets approach can improve community health and well-being. Partnering with Youth Work Ireland on a national program involving hundreds of youth practitioners and thousands of young citizens to develop a strong culture of youth led initiatives. Working in partnership with the University of Limerick and Atlantic Philanthropies in Ireland to infuse an ABCD approach across the entire city of Limerick. Part of this process involved organizing an entire neighborhood to address issues of loneliness, fear and intimidation and to support citizen driven development. The long-term vision is of a city that puts citizens and communities in the driving seat, through processes of neighborhood organizing and bottom up planning and where services are organized in the way in which community is organized. 

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