Instead of nitpicking over wants and needs, I find it much more productive to explore the differences between needs and assets. I’m using “needs” to mean things people want, desire, or feel necessary, and “assets” to mean things people are proud of, have in hand, or consider strengths.

Many organizations have a service model that is strictly needs-based. The theory goes: you have needs; we have programs to address them. You’re hungry; we give you food. You’re illiterate; we teach you to read. You’re socially isolated; we give you a community center.

While addressing needs is important, this service model can sometimes be demeaning and disempowering. It implies that the institution has all the answers. It suggests that the people served are passive consumers. It doesn’t invite participants to be active agents in their own experience.

Recent research in many fields, including education, public health, and public safety, shows that we can be more effective when we focus on assets as well as needs. In asset-based programs, the institution focuses on cultivating and building on people’s strengths instead of filling needs or fixing weaknesses. Instead of penalizing young bullies, asset-based crime prevention programs help assertive children take on leadership roles. Instead of lecturing families about the food pyramid, asset-based nutrition programs encourage families to share their own favorite recipes. Even when it comes to serious social challenges, evidence shows that asset-based programs can have sustained and surprising impact.

Asset-based programs especially make sense in cultural institutions, where we are often trying to invite people in on their own terms. Instead of emphasizing deficits—lack of education, culture, artistic ability—asset-based programs emphasize the cultural and creative skills that make people proud. These assets may be languages people speak, the storis they know, the art they create.

When we tell someone that they need to spend time in nature, or when we tell local politicians that they need to fund the arts as a community priority, the arguments may come off as patronizing or out-of-touch. But if we tell someone that they can show off their adventurous side on a challenging hike, apply their technical know-how to a kinetic sculpture project, or share their cultural heritage at a community festival, we invite them to find value through assets they have or wish to develop. Building asset-based programming gives people more ownership over the end result. They have something to offer to the project as participants, not just consumers or audiences.

Assets and needs complement each other. When we address needs, we’re filling essential gaps to build a solid foundation. When we strengthen assets, we’re constructing skyward from that foundation.

Strong organizations know when to address needs and how to cultivate assets. When Felton Thomas came to Cleveland as its new Public Library Director in 2009, he started with a deficit-based model. His team assessed social needs in the city, looking for ways to be helpful in meeting those needs. At the time, Cleveland was struggling. The city was in a painful recession marked by high unemployment, poverty, homelessness, and food insecurity. Felton didn’t just have one or two library branches in struggling neighborhoods. Almost all the branches under Felton’s control were in neighborhoods hit hard by poverty.

As you may recall, one of the ways Felton identified that the library could be helpful was by providing healthy meals to kids in the summer, when school was not in session. This needs-based program helped address a critical gap in young people’s access to healthy food. At the same time, the program started to position the library as an institution relevant to the most pressing needs in the community.

Felton started looking for other ways that the library could be a relevant partner in getting the city back on its feet. Two of the basic needs Felton identified were the lack of employment for skilled professionals and the lack of job training for people who were unemployed. In this case, Felton realized that the library had a huge asset to offer: free educational services. He knew that people were eager to work, and he thought there might be an opportunity to marry the assets of the library with the assets of determined adults seeking jobs.

The Cleveland Public Library pushed forward a new initiative, the People’s University. The People’s University had started as an aspirational brand, a slogan that presented the library as a place for everyone to learn and better themselves. In the mid-2000s, the Cleveland Public Library started printing the motto on their doormats and websites. And then one day, Felton got a phone call from a business owner in Cleveland doing a reference check for a job applicant. “He says he graduated from the People’s University,” the businessman said. Felton realized that the People’s University was much bigger than a brand. It was a launch point for the library to listen to their patrons’ dreams—what they wanted to do, where they wanted to go—and build new customized personal and workforce development programs based on those goals.

The Cleveland Public Library now hosts frequent community conversations to identify community needs and assets that the library can uniquely address. When community members asked for safer places for kids after school, the library beefed up its teen offerings and extended its food bank partnership to offer healthy snacks in the afternoon. When youth started sharing excitement about learning through technology, the library started hosting maker fairs and building maker spaces. When talented DJs and break dancers wanted to share their passion with the greater community, the library hosted Step Out Cleveland, a community-wide festival that was one part body-positive health workshops, one part getting down.

This work serves the library as much as it does the community. The library’s success is built on the diversity of people who use it and value it. The library depends on the strength of the local tax base to support its operation. When Cleveland succeeds, the Cleveland Public Library succeeds. By transforming their relevance as a community resource, Felton was able to strengthen the library and the city at the same time.