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Growing community capacity: Strategic Briefing (2021)

Published: 16/03/2021

Author: Tjoa, P


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Tjoa, P. (2021). Growing community capacity: Strategic Briefing (2021). Dartington: Research in Practice. Download citation file


There is increasing recognition of the need for new and innovative ways to support children and families, particularly at a time of increased demand and limited resources. Some local authorities are starting to move away from a top-down model of service delivery to one that empowers communities and facilitates active citizenship. The role and potential of communities has often been overlooked, yet evidence of their potential is strong and has been brought to the forefront during the pandemic. This briefing introduces a range of practice examples from across the sector and explores:

• What is meant by community development.
• Why developing community capacity is important.
• The challenges of community development.
• How to put community development into practice.
• Key steps to consider when developing community capacity.

This is a quick-read version of Growing community capacity: Strategic Briefing (2021), which highlights its key messages. To gain a greater understanding of the topic you can download and read the full resource.


Increased demand for services, limited resources and recognition of the drawbacks of top-down public service models has led to some local authorities seeking new and innovative ways to support the needs of children and families. This includes moving towards being more of an action enabler and means tapping into the latent potential of the community and stepping back from direct service delivery as a first resort. Instead, the community is supported to develop its capabilities and skills. The potential of communities has been brought into sharp focus during the COVID-19 pandemic, with local residents pulling together to provide support to each other.

What is community development?

A community can be defined geographically in terms of place, or based on relationships, with people coming together voluntarily around an interest or common purpose. Community development (including Asset Based Community Development - ABCD) aims to empower communities to address social isolation and socio-economic inequality, and create stronger, more connected communities. Key components of the approach include building on the strengths (assets) of individuals and communities and mobilising them to come together to realise and develop their capacity, skills, knowledge and connections.

Community development is distinct from community-based work or volunteering. It has the potential to be transformative and address inequality and disadvantage by enabling practitioners to redistribute power through changing their own behaviours. It moves away from a top-down, professionally-led delivery model to one that is led by the community, although professionals may be involved in the initial stages of contact-making and engagement.

There are a core set of principles and practices that enable community development, including being:

  • citizen-led
  • relationship-oriented
  • asset-based
  • place-based
  • inclusion-focused.

Why grow community capacity?

A decade of austerity has required new ways of working to achieve sustainable solutions to local challenges. There is recognition that, for services to be sustainable, they need to move away from being reactive to being preventative and involving wider local support networks. As part of the shift towards a more preventative approach in service design and delivery, local authorities are increasingly taking on the role of facilitator to foster a wider ecosystem of support and activity.

The challenges of community development

There are a number of challenges senior managers need to consider when they begin to put community development into practice:

  • Growing community capacity, especially in places where there are wide-ranging structural inequalities, requires investment in both resources and time, particularly at the outset.
  • Culture shift in both the council and community can take a long time and requires buy-in from leaders, the wider workforce, communities and individuals within the community.
  • A flexible approach to risk management is necessary when working with the community in order to strike a balance between supporting families and safeguarding children.
  • Local authorities have accountability and responsibility for local outcomes and can be reluctant to hand over control because of concerns that things may go wrong.
  • A huge disparity in community participation and social capital between affluent and deprived areas is a difficult reality.
  • Funding uncertainty, coupled with lack of resources, can limit the ability of councils and community groups to plan ahead and sustain existing community-led programmes.

Putting community development into practice

While putting community development into practice can be challenging, there are also opportunities for making it a positive experience. Establishing trust and a genuine partnership between the council and community is key. This requires a sharing of power and the removal of barriers to participation.

The following are some of the key steps for maximising success:

  • Adopt citizen-led approaches.
  • Foster a culture of collaboration and partnership working.
  • Integrate community capacity building into the whole council vision.
  • Normalise co-production with the community.
  • Learn from the lived experience of children and families.
  • Utilise different methods of gathering evidence.
  • Mainstream community commissioning.
  • Give the community responsibility for local resources.
  • Develop frontline skills and autonomy.
  • Embed holistic working.

Key steps to consider when developing community capacity

Practitioners and strategic leads have identified a number of key steps to consider when developing community capacity:

  • Work ‘with’ and not ‘to’.
  • Don’t underestimate the importance of networks.
  • Don’t get in the way but be generous with time, support and resources.
  • Have an open door.
  • Be open about intended outcomes and the support available.
  • Do not go into a community acting as experts.
  • Start somewhere, don’t wait until it’s perfect.


There has been a renewed interest in community development over the last decade. This has become particularly relevant during the COVID-19 crisis, where communities have worked alongside the public and voluntary sectors in response to increasing levels of vulnerability and inequality. There is now a growing appreciation of what communities can achieve if they are given the power and resources to act.

Questions for reflection

  • How does the culture and leadership of your organisation support ways of working that take account of the complexity of communities? How well do you know the communities you support? How might your understanding of these be developed further?
  • How do people experience structural inequalities in your community? Do professionals understand how disadvantage and inequality can affect the communities they support? What further training might the workforce need in this area?
  • How do you support practitioners to work in ways that empower communities and that facilitate collaboration, co-production and trust-building? Does the ethos and vision of the organisation reflect this? Do you lead and model this way of working?
  • How do you ensure that children and families are central to the design and delivery of services? How do you reach people who may not proactively volunteer their time, knowledge and skills?
  • What innovative methods of commissioning and evidence-gathering have you used to take account of a community development perspective? What changes could you make to develop this further?

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