Working for sustainable, healthy community change is a heavy lift for any community. Given the complexity and rigorous requirements of systemic change, a community’s capacity to meet this challenge is a strong predictor of success. For the purposes of this document, community capacity refers to the collective ability of people and community organizations to define, pursue and achieve their goals.
Communities with strong capacity have a combination of knowledge and skills, cohesion and commitment, structures and networks, and access to resources that support effective decision making and action over time. These kinds of communities are more likely to use assessments and evaluations to inform dialogue, develop strong constituencies and partners, and establish shared goals and distributed responsibility. They are generally better able to leverage resources, follow through on policy efforts and address institutional barriers. Communities with strong capacity can often identify and compete successfully for grants, and achieve results within short funding periods.
Communities with the greatest health challenges and disparities (e.g., rural communities or neighborhoods isolated by race, income, environmental justice concerns and/or a historical legacy of discrimination) may have less community capacity to address those issues. Despite strong leadership, knowledge and informal networks in many cases, these communities are more likely to have organizations with fewer professional training opportunities or internal support systems, more limited access to technology and fewer resources to sustain collective effort.
They often confront many pressing challenges, but with weaker connections to traditional avenues of influence or funding. They also may have less familiarity with policy or environmental approaches to health behavior, and a stronger orientation to programs and education. As a result, they are often not primed to pursue changes in policy, environments and systems as their first approach to community health improvement.
It is important to recognize a community’s current level of capacity, account for its various assets and build from there. Even communities with less capacity very often have robust social and civic networks; leaders in both formal and informal settings; core institutions; and a range of effective strategies for mobilizing. They also have cultural strengths, physical or place-based assets, wisdom related to struggle, and shared history, achievements and meaning.
An array of activities and supports can complement these assets and strengthen communities’ foundations for pursuing healthy community change. Some activities include building a common understanding of the issues residents seek to address, discussing the determinants of health, and thinking about residents’ relationship to the community’s history and current priorities. Supports for lower- capacity communities may also involve group education and training, action-oriented learning opportunities and network building with key organizations and potential agents of change. In the absence of this work, a focus on short-term, ambitious achievements may miss the mark by overlooking the context and necessary groundwork to be laid.
Whatever capacity a community has, setting realistic expectations and focusing on capacity building is a good way to position it for success over the long term. Here are some core lessons and principles about capacity building we have gleaned from community partnerships.