The Evidence Portal

Community Strengthening Critical Elements

The Community Strengthening evidence review conducted in 2022 identified five critical elements that were common across the evidence which have a positive impact on community wellbeing.

Genuine and inclusive co-design and partnership

Evidence across the literature indicates that co-designed, bottom-up initiatives that aim to strengthen wellbeing result in stronger engagement, greater success and better sustainability 20,24,30,31.  Initiatives developed in authentic partnership with the community are critical for tailoring and evolving approaches in response to the community’s needs 26,32. True engagement with a community cannot be achieved by assessing their response to pre-decided program content and implementation strategies. The starting point is the engagement 32. This includes assessing and prioritising a community’s interest and “negotiating mutually agreed parameters”20.

For example, the Women’s Community Ally Network (CAN) project spent the initial stages of their project setting up trusting partnerships with community “by attending and getting-to-know communities within their established networks, events and community spaces” 26. Once these relationships were established, women who had survived violence and their support systems were invited to help co-design the content of the project. Inclusion of the community continued during in all stages of the project.

The effort required to build and maintain a strong partnership with community is considerable. The process of engaging and building relationships with community members is complex and dynamic7. The time and effort required of staff can’t be underestimated. It also requires a fundamental shift in traditional perspectives from ‘doing to/for’ to ‘doing with’. But the return on this investment is more responsive, efficient and sustainably effective services.

The evidence also emphasised that community wellbeing cannot be defined in a way that excludes one or another group of individuals. To truly meet the needs of a whole community, co-design and partnership should be inclusive of the diverse range of voices that might be impacted by an initiative 31. The intention behind this is not just to nominally include these voices but to give power and agency back to communities and ensure that their needs are successfully met. This is critically important when helping reduce power imbalances for vulnerable or marginalised communities (including Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander, culturally and linguistically diverse, refugee and LGBTIQA+ communities) 33,34.

For example, the literature repeatedly shows that in order to reach and meaningfully impact Aboriginal people and communities, Aboriginal voices must be intentionally included throughout the decision making, planning, and implementation processes 35.

From the literature, authentically partnering with community to improve wellbeing looks like:

  1. Spending time and resources on understanding and building relationships with community.
  2. Developing a shared vision, a clear rationale and, in many cases, a theory of change.
  3. Incorporating and leveraging local community assets and strengths (see critical element 2).
  4. Embedding community engagement and partnership practices into governance models.
  5. Providing space for legitimate access and opportunity to engage (see critical element 3).
  6. Engaging in culturally safe and relevant practices (see critical element 4).
  7. Working towards community independence, autonomy and control.


Place Planning Initiative

Kempsey Neighbourhood Centre’s (KNC) Place Planning initiative aims to build community cohesion and connection in social housing communities through programs that are initiated and co-designed by the community. The development of programs involved extensive consultation and engagement with community members and agencies. The programs included the voices and met the needs of diverse populations within the community. KNC make sure that the centre is a space for the community to legitimately help develop ideas that are then included in their approach. They also developed strong partnerships with a number of local services and organisations (including community groups, churches, and school groups). This resulted in more effective service delivery.

Weave Youth & Community Services

Weave Youth & Community Services (Weave) partnered with Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal clients, community, and staff voices through their Stories of Lived Experience project. In understanding what is most useful about how Weave and the sector can improve, Weave aimed to better support local Aboriginal people and families.

To better support local Aboriginal people and families, Weave Youth & Community Services partnered with consultants to understand what is most useful about how Weave and the sector can improve. By including Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal clients, community, and staff voices through a Stories of lived experience project, Weave shows how genuine inclusive initiatives designed in partnership with community can give power, agency and ownership back to vulnerable communities. 

Leveraging Strengths and Building Capacity

A strengths-based approach to community wellbeing initiatives was consistently shown throughout the literature as important for successful and long-lasting change within communities 20,21,36,37. Communities have a broad range of assets that can be pivotal to an initiative's success including the skills, capacity, knowledge, passions, networks and connections of local community members as well as local associations, organisations, institutions, and physical and economic resources.

A strengths-based approach helps communities realise their collective strengths and vision for change, enables them to take control of decision-making and helps them mobilise their existing assets 19,38. The evidence indicates that strengths-based approaches are successful as they are tailored to build on the unique assets of communities while also empowering these communities. In addition, using a community’s assets is important for protecting and maintaining existing resources and opportunities 1.

A strengths-based approach is also vital for addressing issues of discrimination and inequity within a community. Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities have repeatedly advocated for strengths-based solutions to community issues 18,20. For example, in domains such as domestic and family violence (DFV), the primary response of top-down legal and non-Aboriginal criminal justice interventions is particularly problematic for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples. Indigenous scholar Victoria Hovane explains that “this occurs within the context of a historical and ongoing mistrust of the police, courts and justice systems, and the perceived inability of these systems to provide responses that meet the specific needs of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples” (cited in 17). She advocates that a strengths-based responses to DFV can be found in the strengths and opportunities of Aboriginal justice models and Aboriginal Law and Culture which can provide “a pathway for achieving positive environments in which communities and families stand in support of those experiencing DFV, to curb the behaviour of perpetrators” (cited in 17).

Capacity development

While the literature overwhelmingly supports a strengths-based approach, it is also clear that leveraging community assets requires support. Initiatives need to avoid the risk of asking too much of a community and causing undue stress7. Sharing knowledge and supporting community learning and capacity building is an important step in circumventing this. Capacity building includes approaches that focus on enhancing individuals’ capabilities to provide advice, information and support, organise activities around health and wellbeing in their communities (e.g. volunteering and peer support) or increase skill sets that can protect against poor wellbeing 14. Other examples of community capacity building include the development of infrastructure, organisational networks, new power relations, and social and structural changes that provide sustainable solutions to collective problems 37,39.

Initiatives aimed at improving community wellbeing should therefore include an appraisal of not only the community’s potential contributions and assets but also its capacity for independent action. The capacity of a community to use the evidence base on best practices coupled with their access to and ability to negotiate the resources and infrastructure needed, indicates the level of external assistance that may be necessary. However, external assistance should include the involvement of the community in prioritising what resources are needed while also providing the opportunity for community members to learn the processes and skills themselves. For example, professionals from outside organisations may be the initial leaders of a project, able to use their knowledge to help implement the project as well as their status and social connections to advocate for it. But as time passes, community representatives should fill, and be accepted into, the primary leadership roles of a project 32.

Long-term outcomes rely on communities being able to successfully continue the practices and activities that outside organisations have helped initiate and the success of initiatives often depends on genuine ownership by the community 13. As a community’s assets and capacity are built up, their independence and autonomy are increased. Working towards community ownership of an initiative is particularly important for vulnerable and marginalised communities. This allows communities who have felt disempowered to gain control over decisions that influence their lives 28

To remain responsive to community needs, a strengths-based approach should therefore include:

  • An assessment of a community’s capacity for independent action
  • Development of mechanisms and resources for ongoing problem-solving
  • Monitoring of effects over time
  • Development of the capacity for evolution and self-renewal to address changing conditions.


Weave Youth & Community Services

Weave Youth & Community Services (Weave) is a Sydney and Southeast Sydney program that provides casework, counselling, social activities, creative arts and community development projects for children, young people, and women with a focus on supporting Aboriginal people and families. Weave’s client-centred focus means that their approach not only draws on their clients’ strengths and capacities but also works to empower them to make changes in their lives that are meaningful for them.

Client assessments take a strengths-based, narrative approach that identifies a client’s strengths and interests and then incorporates these into their case plans. But Weave’s strengths-based focus is also balanced by building their client’s skills, capacities, confidence, knowledge and connections. While this is primarily done at an individual level, Weave recognises that building shared hope across the community not only aids individual resilience and recovery, but also builds the capacity of the community.

Lazos Hispanos

The Lazos Hispanos program was developed to enhance the health and wellbeing of Latinx residing in low-income communities in the South eastern United States. The program both incorporated assets and built community capacity. Mobilising existing assets, the program trained promotoras (A Hispanic/Latino community member who received specialised training to provide basic health education in the community without being a professional healthcare worker) in the community to serve as a bridge connecting community, providers of health and social services. This benefitted the whole community knowledge on resources, services and support and resulted in an empowered committed community driven to connecting people to resources.

Leeds Community Builder

The city of Leeds in the UK established an asset-based approach to improving community wellbeing. Within this approach they hired a Community Builder for each initiative site who gained extensive knowledge of the community, found active community members and connected them to each other and to local organisations. That is, the Community Builder identified strengths in the community (people and organisations) and increased their capacity for change by connecting them. 

Creating safe and effective spaces

A commonality across many of the initiatives in the literature is the importance of spaces that allow community members to come together to build and improve social relations. An effective and safe space encourages social connection and allows people to be honest about their experiences and identities. Such spaces can help facilitate sharing of knowledge and resources, can operate as a supportive community of care and can create cohesive solidarity among community members 24. The evidence indicated that space has the potential for encouraging healing, cultural inclusion, identity-building, and the promotion of anti-racism 34,40,41. By providing opportunities for communities to connect, dream and be open about their stories, individuals are more likely to feel safe enough to “be honest, real about frustrations, challenges” 42,43. Further, spaces that are safe and accessible for all community members, especially marginalised, vulnerable, Aboriginal and CALD communities, are important for engaging, and thus improving the wellbeing of, the whole community.

From the literature, safe and effective spaces that contribute to community wellbeing often provide access to:

  1. Direct services that meet the community’s specific needs (e.g., childcare, family support and parenting program)
  2. Soft-entry points to important external services and information (e.g. mental and physical health services)
  3. Peer support and experience
  4. Volunteering pathways
  5. Social networks and capital
  6. Activities or other reasons to interact

Soft-entry points are particularly important for engaging hard-to-reach children, young people and families.

Community hubs and neighbourhood centres are often good examples of safe and effective spaces that have a strong impact on wellbeing outcomes. They can provide a single-entry point to a range of services and supports, they are embedded, and therefore known and trusted, within the community and they are often staffed by people with strong knowledge of the community 2. They are also particularly important for providing social infrastructure for disadvantaged communities 12.

Spaces that provide social activities are also a significant part of encouraging social connection, reducing isolation and improving wellbeing 17. Recreational activities can help community members, and especially young people, bond over common interests and expand their social networks of support and influence 44,45. Effective spaces include activities that allow community members to specifically come together to discuss community challenges and collaboratively help solve them 32,46. They can play an important role in the development of young people’s identity, sense of self, social and emotional skills and social networks, especially if it allows them to participate in identifying solutions and contributing decision making 47.

Effective spaces also provide avenues for volunteering. Volunteering is beneficial to individuals in that it increases confidence, skills, aspiration and employment opportunities 12. It also boosts civic engagement, encouraging both volunteers and others to be more engaged in their community.

Beyond the services and opportunities that these spaces provide, effective community wellbeing initiatives make sure that spaces are:

  • Easily navigable and accessible by safe, efficient and affordable transport
  • Well-designed, safe and pleasant physical spaces
  • Include culturally competent, empathetic and safe staff
  • Include peers with lived experience
  • Provide opportunities for community to make changes to the space
  • Availability of interpreters and multi-language written and audio resources for migrants and refugees as well as resources for those with disabilities.

These elements are particularly important for ensuring the comfort safety of vulnerable and marginalised communities.


The Parent Peer Support

The Family Inclusion Strategies in the Hunter Inc (FISH) implemented the Parent Peer Support Project (PPSP) which provides parents navigating the child protection system with emotional support, companionship and information. Child protection caseworkers and lawyers often have difficulty establishing trusting relationships in an environment where parents and children fear removal. As a result, the project uses parents with lived experience to support parents encountering the child protection system and help them overcome barriers to these services. Using peers with lived experience reduces power imbalances, builds trust, and encourages connections. PPSP provide cohesive solidarity in a space that commonly feels disempowering and isolating.

The Pao Arts Centre

The Pao Arts Centre is another example of how creating safe and effective spaces is a key to strengthening community wellbeing. Located in an ethnic enclave community within Greater Boston in the U.S., the Pao Arts Centre is a space that fosters a sense of belonging, security, and cultural identity through creative placemaking using art and culture. Pao Arts Centre emerged as a cultural space owned by, created for, and based in the community. This creation of safe and effective spaces allows for stories about the forgotten history of immigrant communities to be heard and amplified.

Intersectional and safe approaches

Successful initiatives understand that the social factors that lead to discrimination and marginalisation do not exist in a vacuum and can often overlap or intersect to create different experiences within the same system. It is therefore important for initiatives to widen their understanding of vulnerability and inequality by seeing the complex and cumulative way that social identity affects wellbeing. An intersectional approach recognises that there are multiple factors of a person’s identity (e.g. gender, sexuality, disability, ethnicity) which can have an influence on inequality and disadvantage 2,26,48. For example, Indigenous Australian women face disadvantage based on both race and gender. Similarly, gay men from a migrant background might face discrimination due to both their sexual identity and their migrant status. Accounting for the intersecting nature of inequality will enable initiatives to target people experiencing multiple and inter-related forms of disadvantage and provide a platform for the delivery of a more integrated and holistic suite of services and supports.

A significant part of tailoring initiatives to the needs of a community involves not just an awareness of the intersections of inequality, but the incorporation of approaches that are safe for all vulnerable populations. This is also an essential part of creating a safe space for these communities (see Critical Element 3 above).

According to the literature, 18,27,49 safe approaches:

  • Are developed with and supported by local communities and community leaders from vulnerable and marginalised populations
  • Incorporate cultural and spiritual practices, principles, laws and ways of knowing
  • Acknowledge the historical and social context of vulnerable and marginalised populations
  • Are trauma informed
  • Enable people to maintain their identity
  • Employ diverse staff who are able to be reflexive and aware of their own biases and privileges
  • Respect family, language and gender groups
  • Holistically meet the diverse and intersecting needs of children, young people, families and communities

Much of the evidence on safety specifically addressed cultural safety, which is a critical when working with Aboriginal, Torres Strait Islander and CALD children, young people and families 4. A culturally safe initiative is important for addressing community wellbeing as it is more likely to encourage healing, cultural inclusion, identity-building, and promote anti-racism and anti-colonialism. The literature on cultural safety emphasises the need for staff to be aware of a population’s historical context, their own biases and privilege and to be culturally trained prior to implementation of initiatives18. It similarly highlights the need for mechanisms such as data sovereignty and the delegation of statutory powers to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander community-controlled organisations (ACCOs) in order to safeguard Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people’s right to self-determination46.

Closely engaging with and learning about a community’s intersections of vulnerability and marginalisation is necessary for designing a nuanced approach that includes an in-depth understanding of the local context, history, practices and needs 50.


The CAN Practice Studio

The Women’s Community Ally Network (CAN) Practice Studio based in Queensland engaged community members to identify a model for responding to and preventing gendered violence in families, workplaces, and communities. The CAN project is underpinned by an intersectional understanding that women’s experiences of inequality and discrimination vary when things like gender identity, culture, and socio-economic status are considered. As a result, they aimed to make sure that the perspectives and knowledge of women from diverse backgrounds, including CALD communities, were given a voice in designing the project’s content. Accessibility was ensured by including interpreters and child-minding services, transport subsidies, using well-known venues and accessible time frames. Staff also made sure to acknowledge their own privilege and community members were recognised and compensated for their time and expertise.

Aboriginal Infant Development Program

The Aboriginal Infant Development Program (AIDP) based in British Columbia, Canada implements a culturally safe approach. Aware that families are wary towards them due to the historical trauma of children being taken away and their connection to welfare authorities, staff explicitly deferred developmental screenings and extensive paperwork in the early stages of their relationships with Aboriginal caregivers during the program. This allowed for greater trust and relationships to be established and built between workers and communities during the early stages. In addition, staff practiced reflexivity, acknowledged their own privileges and were aware of the historical trauma of the communities in which they served. 

A whole system approach

The drivers of disadvantage and inequality often occur at multiple and systematic levels within a community 24. The success of early interventions for children, young people and families can be limited if issues around environment, poverty and care are not addressed. To achieve enduring change initiatives need to be considered at the system level in order to provide comprehensive, protective and preventative support 18,43. This highlights the need not only to target both place and person, but to also ensure that services and supports are multi-levelled, integrated across different sectors and mutually reinforcing 11. Thus, successful early intervention initiatives need to be part of a whole-system approach that inter-connects multiple levels of people and agencies within a community. Such an approach is also more likely to be preventative rather than reactionary 2,31.

Integrating people and services at every level is important for meeting the complex needs of families and communities. Fragmented services available to young children and their families undermine the capacity of those services to support children and their families 51. Further, this is more likely to negatively impact disadvantaged families who may have limited skills, confidence, cultural or linguistic knowledge or support to interact with or negotiate these often complex systems 51. A truly integrated system means that all relevant services partner with each other, families and communities to provide holistic support to families. For example, there is increasing support within the literature for the use of a ‘web of accountability’ to protect women and children from DFV 52. The aim is to create an accountability system made up of people and agencies within a community who share information and work collaboratively. This includes legal and service systems as well as the informal networks of victims, families and communities. The aim is to hold perpetrators accountable through monitoring, engagement and early intervention. One of the significant aspects of this web is that services who encounter perpetrators where violence may not be the primary focus (e.g., mental health services) are also brought into the system to help manage risk.

Multi-level approaches are also important for addressing the multiple factors that shape the development of young children and the relational functioning of families. Unlike a single program or activity, systematic approaches can provide holistic, preventative and protective support, while helping address social determinants of poor wellbeing 20. A multilevel intervention can impact the multiple levels of the local ecology and change the social and structural contexts that contribute to community wellbeing. Indeed, community level change is more likely to occur when a whole community is involved. That is, when people and services are synchronised and supported across the levels of a community’s social system.

Nevertheless, it is important to note that organising service collaboration and coordination, especially across already fragmented and siloed service systems, is challenging 53. The high level of organisation and the establishment of working community partnerships is not easily achieved. However, there are many initiatives that have found avenues for integrating other services and supports. For example, many of the activities in the Community Strengthening stream of the TEI program are one-off events, but they still provide soft-entry points to the service system 54. This often saw better and more long-term impacts.


Early Learning Communities

In the UK, the Early Learning Communities program uses a whole system approach to improve outcome for children living in poverty. The program works to improve children’s learning environments and systems so that they have access to relationships, interactions and experiences that will support their development at home, in school and in the community. The UK government is working with program partners across the UK to form a network of ‘Early Learning Communities’ that will co-design and improve early learning systems in communities.

Children’s Community

In 2016, Save the Children UK launched the Children’s Community initiative in Wallsend. This initiative established a whole system, neighbourhood-level partnership between schools & children’s centres, the local authority, public health, the clinical commissioning group, the local churches & voluntary sector, police and the community. The goal was integration and collaboration between all local partners in order to provide children with holistic support across home, school, community, education, and health. The Children’s Community also seamlessly supports children throughout their lives with the understanding that progress made during the early years needs to be sustained and built-on as children get older.

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Last updated:

10 Feb 2023

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