What is community capacity building?

Community capacity building is one of three strands of community learning and development in Scotland. It describes a particular way of working with and supporting communities - to build skills and experience, increase opportunities, and enhance involvement in the decisions that affect them.

This can involve developing confidence, skills, structures and knowledge, to increase the opportunities communities have to make a real difference to the services, activities and changes that take place in their area.

Definitions of community capacity building

The Scottish Government's short definition of community capacity building is:

measures that strengthen the collective ability of a community

WALT glossary

A more detailed definition is given in the Scottish Government's Working and Learning Together statement:

...enabling individuals, groups and communities to develop the confidence, understanding and skills required to influence decision making and service delivery. This could include enabling communities to provide and manage services to meet community needs.


Our working definition of community capacity building is:

Development work that strengthens the ability of community organisations and groups to build their structures, systems, people and skills so they are better able to define and achieve their objectives and engage in consultation and planning, manage community projects and take part in partnerships and community enterprises. It includes aspects of training, organisational and personal development and resource building, organised and planned in a self-conscious manner, reflecting the principles of empowerment and equality.

Skinner, 1997

This definition was also endorsed by Community Learning and Development Managers Scotland in their PDf file: position statement on community capacity building in 2010.

What is a community?

A community is any group of people who feel a connection or a sense of belonging. It could be people living in a local neighbourhood, a town, or a block of flats. Or it could be people who share similar characteristics - like people of a similar age, gender or sexual orientation. Or it could be an interest group, like a lone parents group.

This useful online glossary includes a good definition of community.

The values set out in the PDF file: National Occupational Standards for Community Development can also inform community capacity building.

Underlying principles

Community capacity building is underpinned by the principles outlined in the Scottish Government's Working and Learning Together statement for all community learning and development work:

  • Empowerment - increasing the ability of individuals and groups to influence issues that affect them and their communities
  • Participation - supporting people to take part in decision making
  • Inclusion, equality of opportunity and anti-discrimination - recognising that some people may need additional support to overcome the barriers they face
  • Self-determination - driven by the principle that communities themselves drive capacity building activity, and people are supported to make their own choices
  • Partnership - recognising that many agencies can contribute to CLD.

All community learning and development activity should be driven by community need and demand, and developed jointly with, rather than for, the community:

A common defining feature is that programmes and activities are developed in dialogue with communities and participants.


Community capacity building is also importantly underpinned by:

  • Equality - taking an inclusive approach to community capacity building activities will strengthen and enhance everyone's experience, not just those from equalities groups
  • Collective ability - focusing not simply on building individual capacity, but that of the community as a whole. This means lots of activity to build and strengthen ways for people to come together in their communities.
  • Building assets - capacity building is not about focusing on what is wrong with a community. It is about taking existing strengths and giving these the opportunities and support they need to develop.

Key aspects

Community capacity building focuses on supporting community groups and organisations to improve the quality of life for their communities. It can look and feel different, and be approached in many different ways. However, there are some core activities at the heart of the approach, which include:

Strengthening skills to develop confident, skilled, active and influential communities, by:

  • supporting people to decide how and why they want to build community capacity - taking responsibility for identifying existing strengths, skills and resources, and meeting their own needs
  • personal development and training - to build on and develop individual and group skills and confidence
  • supporting people to become involved in their community and wider society in a fuller way

Strengthening structures to build effective and inclusive community organisations, by:

  • building structures - such as community groups and organisations, and routes to involvement in decision making
  • linking structures - supporting people to take part in structures that allow them to influence activity, and work jointly with others
  • supporting people to establish joint structures to manage or influence local services, activities and resources

Providing practical support, by:

  • making sure that communities have the practical help and support that they need to strengthen their skills and structures.

Find out more

You can download the PDF file: "What is community capacity building paper from the Churches Community Work Alliance website.

Tensions in community capacity building

There are some common underlying principles to community capacity building. However, this doesn't mean that there is always a common view or common understanding about exactly what community capacity building is, how it should be done, and what its purpose is.

There are differences in values and views that mean that often different organisations and individuals have different approaches to community capacity building. Just some of the tensions and variations in approach include:

  • Language - the words and phrases people use to describe community capacity building can vary. People can mean different things by them. For example, terms like 'community engagement', 'empowerment', 'participation', 'social capital' and 'community development' can be interpreted by different people in different ways.
  • Assessing skills - capacity building is about strengthening and building on the skills that communities already have. Sometimes, people take a deficit-based approach to capacity building, focusing on what is lacking in a community, and how to fix it. This does not sit well with others who are committed to an asset based approach, focusing on enhancing skills and building on existing strengths. Find out more from the PDF file: You Can Do Guide to Asset-Based Community Development.
  • Planning activity - sometimes community capacity building activity is led by what an organisation needs, rather than a community. At the heart of community capacity building  is the focus on community-led activity. But an organisation working in the field of community capacity building needs to start somewhere. In planning activity - even a strengths or needs assessment - the organisation's own priorities will almost always come into play. Simply being aware of this, and working to ensure that community priorities come first, will help.
  • Links to national outcomes - the Scottish Government is very clear about the contribution that community capacity building can make to national outcomes. With community planning partnerships now producing Single Outcome Agreements linked to national outcomes, these national priorities become important at a local level. So, many organisations working in community capacity building will need to demonstrate how their work links to these national outcomes. Most of the time, it will be relatively easy to make these links. But there can be a tension between working to national outcomes, and allowing capacity building to develop on communities' own terms. PDf file: Delivering Change sets out the outcomes that community capacity learning and development can contribute to, specifically identifying community capacity building outcomes.
  • Conflicting priorities - Sometimes, what a community wants can conflict with what your organisation wants. This can put staff involved in community capacity building in a difficult position. If, for example, your organisation has taken a decision to close a community facility, it can put you in a difficult position if the community you work with wants support to influence this decision. This means it is important that your organisation is clear about the support it can provide to communities, and what role you as an individual staff member can play. This should be made clear to the communities you support, so that people know the level and type of support to expect.
  • Responding to increased power and influence - much community capacity building work is about supporting communities to have more power and influence. Some organisations can be very resistant to communities having an equal say or leading in decision making. There can be tensions between a commitment to build community capacity on one hand, and a difficulty with the organisation working with communities that have increased their capacity. Elected members can sometimes feel that their power base is being challenged. There can also be conflicts and tensions between different community representative structures.

The Scottish Community Mediation Centre provides training on community mediation and constructive conflict resolution. Many practical guides and briefing papers are available online.

This guidance cannot resolve the tensions within community capacity building. It is natural for people to have different views about how best to approach capacity building activity, and there is no one right way to approach work with communities. We have tried to highlight some of these tensions and challenges throughout the guidance. Being aware of these tensions - and working to address these locally - is an important part of work to build community capacity. Dealing with challenging behaviour is part of building your own capacity in this area of work.

Working to professional standards can help you to find your way through some of these tensions. The updated Community Learning and Development Competences provide an overview of what makes a competent worker in the field of community learning and development, including community capacity building.

The 2008 report published on the Scottish Government's website - Delivering Outcomes in CLD: Current Issues for Outcomes Focused Practice in Community Capacity Building provides a useful overview of some of the challenges and tensions within the field.