October 5, 2010 Kim Hopes

Beware the Invasion of the Needs Surveyors

A friend whom professionals call “disabled” says, ”If you’re coming to help me, you’ve come to the wrong place.  I refuse to fill your need for needs.”  It’s his wry recognition that many people have jobs that depend on other people’s problems. They call these problems “needs” —­ the raw material of the service industries.

Like the glass half full of water, each of us is half full and half empty.  Our full half is our gifts, skills and capacities.  Our empty half represents our problems, deficiencies and needs.

The power of the empty half is that it creates a market for professionals whose income derives from fixing people.  To expand, this market needs more people to fix or more things to fix in people.

To expand their market the needs surveyors need more people to fix or more things to fix in people.

The search for “fixables” is called a “needs survey.”  It attempts to identify and quantify local brokenness, deficits and problems.  This search for needs is much like the work of mineral prospectors searching for the ore that powers many industries.  With a majority of all Americans working in the service industries, the search for needs is at the very heart of our economy.

Nonetheless, there is an alternative to the invasion of the needs surveyors.  This alternative is most obvious in functional neighborhoods. There, the community is powered by its full half — the abilities and skills of the residents that are connected and used in hundreds of ways.  While it is true that these neighbors all have deficits, they understand that their community’s future depends on using and connecting their gifts and skills.  They know that every effective neighborhood is built with the skills of neighbors who also have problems. However, if the invasion of the needs surveyors convinces the community of its brokenness, the neighborhood has no future.  It will become a place filled with people who believe that they are mainly empty and that powerful outsiders are their only hope.  This belief creates dependency and a colonized people.

It is a modern paradox that while strong neighborhoods are built by connecting the gifts and skills of neighbors, very few institutions have an interest in the full half of local people.  Universities flourish by studying neighborhood deficits. Philanthropies provide grants to those who can demonstrate local brokenness.  Governments provide funding based upon the quantification of local misery.  Newspaper and television stories focus on local problems and conflict, solidifying the popular image of needy local people. When the intellectual, philanthropic, governmental and media institutions all focus on neighborhood deficits, they are a powerful negative force.

Focusing on the empty half of people creates a culture of neediness.

The cumulative consequences of this institutional focus on the empty half of people and their neighborhood creates a “culture of neediness.”  This culture has many harmful effects:

  • Many residents come to believe that the most important thing about them and their neighborhood is that they are deficient, needy and a problem.
  • Because the people who describe them as “needy” are professionals,  they come to believe that it is help from these outside experts that determines their future.
  • This belief in outside experts erodes neighbors’ faith in and commitment to the support of the local community fabric of associations, organizations, churches and enterprises.
  • As a result, a new kind of local leadership emerges in the form of people  who are skilled at telling the helping institutions about how many problems there are in their neighborhood.  They are rewarded for their misery mongering with grants that convince local people that their leadership is valuable, because they are money magnets.
  • As grant finding becomes a dominant mode, local citizens come to believe that they can’t do anything without outside dollars.  They become colonized dependents of outside institutions.
  • Finally, within the institutional colony, people see that the outsiders have failed to make a real change in their neighborhood.  Cynicism grows and hopelessness pervades many of the neighbors.

In the end, this process has the net effect of replacing citizens and their capacities with clients and consumers who are dependencies of the “helping” institutions and professions.

So, neighbors, beware the needs surveyor!  What we really need is each other acting powerfully together to invest our skills, gifts and abilities in creating our own future.

~ John ~

, ,


Connect with us to receive information about
upcoming ABCD Institute trainings and events.


DePaul University Steans Center
2233 North Kenmore Avenue
Chicago, IL 60614


(773) 325-8344

John L McKnight

© 2011 – 2019 an initiative of Common Change in collaboration with John L McKnight