Applying community capacity-building approaches to child welfare practice and policy

CFCA Paper No. 13 – April 2013

Understanding community capacity-building

Defining community capacity-building

At the most basic level, community capacity-building approaches attempt to increase a given community's capacity to solve its collective problems. Although the term "community capacity-building" is used in a wide range of social, economic and environmental policy contexts, there is still disagreement over how best to define it (Noya, Clarence, & Craig, 2009).

In the context of socio-economic development, the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) considers community capacity-building as a:

… process of enabling those living in poverty to develop skills and competencies, knowledge, structures, and strengths, so as to become more strongly involved in community, as well as wider societal life, and to take greater control of their own lives and that of their communities. (Noya et al., 2009 p. 16)

In a child and family welfare context (which is the context most relevant to this paper), Chaskin (2009) described "community capacity" as:

… the interaction of human capital, organisational resources, and social capital that can be leveraged to solve collective problems and to improve or maintain the well-being of a given community. (p. 34)

Despite differences in definition, a number of key observations can be made about community capacity-building:

  • Key objectives include to strengthen community identity and a sense of belonging among community members; to build frameworks that can facilitate sustainable change; and to empower communities to address their own concerns.
  • Community capacity-building can be considered either as a process, a practice, an organising principle, or as an objective, and can be all of these things at once.
  • In a child and family welfare context, the key purpose of community capacity-building is to strengthen communities as a protective and nurturing entity for children and families.
  • Context is a primary factor in community capacity-building approaches (Chaskin, 2009). For this reason, it is difficult to provide a universal understanding without due regard to the particular characteristics of a given community.
  • The notions of community capacity-building, "community development", "community mobilisation" and "community strengthening", along with a range of other associated idioms are distinct concepts and there remains some disagreement about how they should be defined or understood.2 However, such terms can be understood as part of broader community capacity-building approaches.
  • Community capacity-building approaches are often targeted at the most vulnerable groups in a community (Chaskin, 2009). However, they can help to build strong, cohesive communities for the benefit of all groups in a community.

Principles of community capacity-building

Another way to understand community capacity-building is to identify the key principles or philosophies that underlie it. The following six principles have been drawn from an analysis of the community capacity-building literature. It should be noted that these principles are interconnected, and should not be considered in isolation - the absence of any one principle may undermine the effectiveness of community capacity-building efforts to produce positive outcomes for communities.

1. Focus on community needs

Understanding the collective needs of families is central to any community capacity-building approach. The degree and complexity of family needs will differ from one family to the next, although some needs may be shared more broadly among the community, such as in remote communities where families have difficulty accessing services and/or resources (Scougal, 2008c).

Collective community needs will be influenced to varying degrees by the changing political, social and economic conditions of that community (Bell, Elliott, & Simmons, 2010; Jackson et al., 2003; Noya et al., 2009). Services may not have the power or resources to influence many of these conditions, yet a focus on the needs of particular families can allow services to identify how families might be better equipped to solve their own problems (Dower & Bush, 2003).

Client-focused or family-centred services embody the needs-based approach (Community Matters, 2012). By consulting directly with program participants and other community members about their needs, practitioners can better understand where to invest their resources and to what degree families might require their support.

2. "Bottom-up" or "grassroots" practice

Successful capacity-building initiatives are largely driven by communities from the bottom up, where local people are free to decide how best to address the issues that concern them (Atkinson, 2006; Centre for Community Child Health [CCCH], 2012). For this reason, family and community engagement is a key element for services to identify and respond to community issues.

Investments from government agencies and other organisations from outside the local community are important to community capacity in terms of providing resources, advice and information (Dower & Bush, 2003). However, central to community capacity-building approaches is the ability of the community to exercise its own decisions about how such investments are applied (Bell et al., 2010).

3. Strengths-based approach

Community capacity-building requires an understanding of a community's collective strengths and how they may be used to address community challenges (Stewart, Lohoar, & Higgins, 2011). Services can contribute to this by harnessing and building upon the talents and contributions of individuals and families so that these community members can be better equipped to respond to their own issues. In doing so, the collective strengths of families can empower communities to provide local solutions to the community's own unique concerns (Haswell-Elkins et al., 2009; Leigh, 2008; Stewart et al., 2011).

4. Inclusive practice

In a community capacity-building context, "inclusion" refers to the process of partnering with as many community members and organisations as possible to work together to achieve common goals. Involving a broad range of relevant sectors and stakeholders aims to provide partners with access to resources and to stimulate further action on a community's behalf (Bell et al., 2010). However, it is the genuine participation of community members in the planning, delivery and evaluation of projects that is central to these approaches. Furthermore, community participants will ideally be included from the very start of the collaborations and should feel a sense of ownership over the decisions they make (Atkinson & Willis, 2006; Bell et al., 2010; Dower & Bush, 2003; Noya et al., 2009).

5. Investment in community capacity

Strategies to build community capacity require an appropriate degree of investment. This includes investment into a community's infrastructure, including a community's political, financial and social structures (Bush & Dower, 2002b; Dower & Bush, 2003). However, investments must also extend beyond the infrastructural elements of a community, so that they can resonate at the service delivery level. For example, resources are required to improve or implement the capacity of service networks, including strategic capacity, project design and management capabilities ("upstream" capacity-building). At the service delivery level ("downstream" capacity), investments are required to facilitate networking and information transfer, education and training for staff, and the provision of opportunities to engage families with services and programs (Bell et al., 2010; Chaskin, 2009; Dower & Bush, 2003; Funnell, Rogers, & Scougall, 2004; Noya et al. 2009).

6. Aim for sustainability

The aim of community capacity-building frameworks is to achieve sustainable change for the benefit of all families and groups living in a community. To achieve this, services must seek ways to sustain their own capacity (service capacity) so that they can continue to work with families to help them address their immediate needs. While service capacity is critical, the ultimate aim of community capacity-building approaches is for services to build the capacity of families (family capacity) to the degree that families have the confidence to address their own concerns in the longer term (Bell et al., 2010).

Adequate time and resources are required to enable community services to access ongoing support from existing community networks, whether they be from informal networks such as mothers' clubs, scouts or networks that promote civic engagement, or from formal support networks (who can receive referrals or refer their clients to other relevant services). Emerging or newly created services that have already demonstrated positive outcomes in other communities will also be a source of support for the community (Atkinson & Willis, 2006; Stewart et al., 2011). By enlisting the support of other agencies, services can pass on a range of knowledge and expertise to families so that their problem-solving capacities can be enhanced in the longer term. (Bell et al., 2010: Dower & Bush, 2003).

Services that use the community support network to establish advocacy and/or ongoing political support on behalf of the community are also more likely to sustain community capacity over time (Bell et al., 2010). If flexible systems are in place to accommodate ongoing refinements to service delivery and/or service policies, services will be better placed to respond to changing community needs (Bell et al., 2010; CCCH, 2012). This might be achieved by embedding client-focused evaluation and assessment into the organisational structures of service agencies as part of a continual loop of program refinement (Bell et al., 2010; CCCH, 2012; Dower & Bush, 2003).

Above all, a long-term commitment to the shared goal of protecting and nurturing children is required from each and every supporting partner in a community network (CCCH, 2012, p. 17). Such a commitment requires various degrees of investment from community partners.

Measuring community capacity

A number of tools have been developed to measure the capacity of communities (for review, see: Liberato, Brimblecombe, Ritchie, Ferguson, & Coveney, 2011). Such measurement tools can help policy-makers and service providers to identify the degree of investment that is required to strengthen community capacity.

The Community Capacity Index (the Index) is a popular example of a measurement tool that has been developed in an Australian context. It was devised to improve the ability to recognise, evaluate and address key problems within a community in order to produce improved public health outcomes in the longer term (Bush, Dower, & Mutch, 2002b; Dower & Bush, 2003).

The Index focuses on the organisational aspects of community capacity at a systemic level (i.e., how agencies work together to formulate policies, build access to resources and develop needs-based services) and uses four domains to indicate a community's capacity: network partnerships, knowledge transfer, problem solving and infrastructure (these domains are discussed in the section "Building Community Capacity Through Working With Children and Families").

In acknowledging the limited capacity3 of services to conduct assessments of community capacity, this paper encourages services to use the Index as a way to identify how their existing services might already be strengthening communities while considering how community capacity-building approaches might help to refine their future practices.


2 For further information about how these concepts are understood, see Atkinson and Willis (2006), Smith, Littlejohns, and Thompson (2001), and Traveso-Yepex, Maddalena, Bavington, and Donovan (2012).

3 Services may be limited in their capacity to conduct assessments of community capacity as their role is often to focus specifically on delivering outcomes for children and families more directly, rather than on contributing to community development initiatives.