Appreciating a Strengths-Based Approach

In June Heidi Holtz, our director of research and projects, attended a week-long training in the strengths-based organizational model called “Appreciative Inquiry.” In this post she shares what she learned and its potential for our community. Learn More »

by Heidi Holtz

“The task of leadership is to create an alignment of strengths, making our weaknesses irrelevant.” – Peter Drucker

Only a few times in my life have I been fortunate to have one of those head-smacking, magical moments where a process blends seamlessly with a philosophy. You know the feeling – you talk the talk, and you even walk the walk – but how do you help others to “get it?” That moment emerged in mid-June, when I was fortunate enough to receive training in Appreciative Inquiry Facilitation. Gifford prides itself on building staff capabilities, and this training is just another example of a practice which enables us to be resources to each other and our community.


Simply put, Appreciative Inquiry (or AI) is a strengths-based approach predicated upon the idea that organizations thrive when they continually ask themselves about, and focus on, their own existing success. It explores what works in an organization or situation rather than what is not working. Positively framed inquiries and interviews help discover times and conditions when the organization or individual felt most successful, valued and fruitful.


Once a pattern of positive moments emerges, participants can begin to dream – to imaginatively envision what their organization or situation might look like were the defined discoveries always present and even enhanced. The possibilities are brought to life with specific commitments and actions. Innovation and initiative are encouraged, as is the idea that the action steps be owned by those in the room.


An entirely inclusive approach is vital to AI, from defining the inquiry through interviewing, from dreaming the possibilities to designing the future. All those that are affected should be at the table – from clients to all levels of staff to board members, for example. Gifford has always believed in the saying “do nothing about us without us.” It is embedded in our institutional DNA to hear from all those impacted by a situation, and thus the requirement for diverse voices in Appreciative Inquiries resonates loudly and clearly.


Appreciative Inquiry is an organizational development model developed out of the School of Management at Case Western Reserve University and has been successfully utilized in the corporate, higher education, nonprofit and government world – and even in personal coaching. Its utility for the Gifford Foundation, and thereby the local community, is readily apparent. We have always embraced an asset based approach, we regularly convene multiple and diverse stakeholders to discuss dynamic situations and we strive to convert problems to opportunities. In short, I learned in June that we have always been to a great degree operating under the philosophy of Appreciative Inquiry – but now we have the terminology, process and learning community to advance these values even further. To learn more about AI click here or contact me at

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