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Community Development

Definition of community development, underlying principles, the community development process, community-led disaster recovery, key skills relevant to a social work approach

This page has three sections:

  1. Background Material that provides the context for the topic

  2. A suggested Practice Approach

  3. A list of Supporting Material / References

Feedback welcome!

Background Material

Definition (Smart, 2017)

Community development is a process where community members are supported to identify and take collective action on issues which are important to them. The community development practitioner empowers and resources the community members and creates stronger and more connected communities.

Community development is a holistic approach grounded in principles of empowerment, human rights, inclusion, social justice, self-determination and collective action. Community members are considered the experts in their lives and communities, with their knowledge valued. Community development programs are led by community members at every stage - from deciding on issues through to selecting and implementing actions, and evaluation. Community development has an explicit focus on the redistribution of power to address the causes of inequality and disadvantage.

Community development should be distinguished from community-based work where an issue or problem is defined by agencies and/or professionals who then develop strategies to solve the problem. While they can hand over responsibility for the program to community groups, decision-making power, definition of the problem, timelines, and pre-specified outcomes still rest with the agency. This falls short of community development (Smart 2017).

Outcomes of community development

There are positive outcomes at both individual and community level for a community development program. Children and families may benefit from increases in skills, knowledge, empowerment and self-efficacy, and experience enhanced social inclusion and community connectedness. As community members are empowered and develop as leaders, they can begin to challenge and improve conditions which are leading to their disempowerment or negatively impacting on their wellbeing. At a community level, community development initiatives are likely to achieve long-term outcomes such as stronger and more cohesive communities, evidenced by changes in social capital, civic engagement, social cohesion, community safety and improved health (Smart, 2017).

Community Development and Participation

In community development, participation refers to the full involvement and leadership of community members in planning, developing, delivering and evaluating community actions or initiatives. Participation must not be tokenistic; community members must be participating in a way that is meaningful to them and to the community development project itself. It takes time to build full and meaningful participation (Smart, 2017).

Principles of Community Development

Community development practice involves a commitment to:

  • Powerless people and social justice - improving the lot of those who do not hold powerful positions in society, who are disadvantaged and who do not have ease of access to power structures.

  • Citizenship and human rights - ensuring that citizenship civil, political, and social rights are guaranteed.

  • Empowerment and self-determination - of ordinary people and transforming social structure, relations and processes.

  • Sustainability – is there a need for a program, and will it meet the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs?

  • Collective action - that draws on the combined wisdom and abilities of all members of a group.

  • Allowing diversity - conformity and agreement will not be universal.

  • Managing conflict - developing processes and strategies to move beyond conflict is one of the major challenges.

  • Participatory democracy – encouraging an open society with an informed public who can discuss issues (Kenny, 2011).

The Community Development Process

Kenny (2011) suggest community development is a process consisting of six interrelated elements or stages that generally overlap, can occur simultaneously and, at times, follow a clear sequence:

  1. Gather information What do we know? Facilitate access to both formal and informal information: theories, concepts, research reports, ABS surveys, budgets, and people’s own experiences.

  2. Authenticity What do the people think? Trust the people’s own knowledge and viewpoints.

  3. Pragmatism What are the facilitating or constraining factors? What are our choices? Take into account existing structures, processes and practices.

  4. Vision How could things be different? What would we like to happen? Examine alternative views of how things could be done.

  5. Strategy How to get from A to B? What is to be done and who will do it? Plans for getting to where we want to be.

  6. Transformation What changes have taken place? Changes to existing structures, processes and practices.

  7. Evaluation What do we think of the changes that have taken place? Evaluating the changes to existing structures, processes and practices.

Community-led Disaster Recovery

The Community Resilience, Wellbeing and Recovery Project (2021) highlights the importance of including the local community organisations in disaster recovery, in much the same way community development approaches encourage the inclusion of key local people and organisations in facilitating change. The outline below is a brief summary of the guide for local organisations developed by the project. Much more information is available through the link included in the reference.

Just as in community development in general, there is growing recognition that disaster recovery and resilience-building are more successful when they are community led. The guide suggests community organisations can contribute to disaster recovery and resilience building in many ways – providing four common ones:

  1. Everyday work. Local organisations build and maintain community relationships, something important in disaster recovery. Day-to-day activities build disaster resilience and wellbeing.

  2. Providing support to vulnerable people. Local organisations may be the first to be aware of the needs of some people in the community; they may be more likely to seek or accept help from you than from others.

  3. Providing information, referral and practical support. Local organisations are the first place many residents go for support after disaster. Many local organisations are unprepared for the high volume of people who seek them out after a disaster.

  4. Being present in the community before, during and after disaster. Specialist organisations can provide immediate support but often don’t stay for a long time. Local organisations are there before, during and after disaster and are uniquely placed to provide ongoing support through every stage of disaster recovery.

These four points highlight why it is important for facilitators of community development to consult widely with the community prior to commencing the community development process. The section of the guide on “ingredients for success” highlights the important aspects that should be present in a community development project. Note how specialists who arrive in the community are encouraged to work with local organisations to inclusively tailor their support to community needs.

Ingredients needed for success

What does it look like when it works?

What can it look like when it goes wrong?

Inclusiion of all parts of the community

Actions taken support the recovery, resilience and wellbeing of all people in the community.

​Some groups are not represented, and their voices and needs are not heard or recognised

Skills and knowledge

Local people and organisations are able to contribute their skills to disaster recovery and resilience and to build further skills through access to support from specialists in disaster resilience and recovery.

Mistakes are made, recovery is slower, and community wellbeing may suffer as a result.

Support tailored to the community's needs

The community is enabled to articulate its needs and disaster recovery supports, and services are sufficiently flexible to be tailored to varying needs within and across communities.

Disaster recovery supports and services are inflexible and generic. Some provide assistance but other needs are not able to be responded to, resulting a waste of some resources, community frustration, and slower recovery of wellbeing.

Physical and financial resources

Local organisations can access short- and long-term funding and resources that enable them to deliver both immediate supports in the early days after disaster and to support longer-term evolving recovery needs.

Little or no funding is available for delivery of support and services leading to staff and volunteer burnout and lack of effective delivery.

Support from non-local organisations (funding, staff, volunteers, practical resources)

Non-local organisations are actively engaged and work collaboratively with local organisations.

If non-local organisations descend on a community but don’t work with local organisations, the supports and services provided may not match community needs, resulting in wasted funding and resources.

Processes that deliver timely action

When there is a rapid need for action, local and non-local organisations can respond efficiently, without long delays in identifying and responding to needs. The right balance is struck between consultation, engagement, and action.

Lengthy and multiple community engagement processes cause fatigue amongst local residents, delay on-ground action, and at their worst, compound impacts of disaster.

Practice Approach

Moore et al. (2016) use the term ‘community engagement’ in their discussion of how to improve the lives of families. They suggest community engagement operates on a spectrum:

When operating at the right side of this spectrum, social workers will be engaged in community development, i.e. they will be involved in collaborating with and empowering communities.

Social workers are professional in their approach, competent to carry out their role, and emphasise empowerment of individuals and communities. They strive for bottom-up, participatory community development.

  • Social workers are professionals who form part of and identify with communities—they do not distance themselves from their clients as some professionals suggest should be the case.

  • Social workers are competent in their role. They provide problem identification, problem solving and strategic brokering skills.

  • Social workers are committed to empowering ordinary people, for this is central to all community development work.

# They need to be increasingly flexible and creative, understanding that empowerment has many dimensions, can be fulfilled in a number of ways and requires a wide range of knowledge, self-knowledge and skills.

# For some groups this may involve overcoming the belief they are inferior and have no right to power. Empowerment is about consciousness-raising but, importantly about change to oppressive conditions, altering the balance of power towards oppressed groups.

# An important skill for social workers is assisting individuals and communities to discern their needs.

# Social workers should emphasise ‘power to’ and ‘power with’, not ‘power over’ (Kenny, 2011).

Therefore community development involves:

  • starting from the community’s own needs and priorities rather than those dictated from outside

  • inviting and building local autonomy, giving leadership to people in the community and acting as a resource to them

  • building the capacity of the community to meet their own needs more effectively

  • having a flexible service system that can be tailored to meet local needs

  • balanced partnerships between providers and consumers based on mutual trust and respect

  • working with the community rather than doing things for them or to them

  • information sharing so that the community can make informed decisions, and

  • providing the community with choices regarding services and intervention options (Moore et al., 2016).

Community development may not be the best approach if

  • You already know what you want to do. There is no space for the community to determine outcomes and activities.

  • You have limited time or short-term funding. Community development is a long-term process. It can take several years to build the capacity of community members to lead a project and ensure sustainable results.

  • Your focus is improving specific individual skills. Building individual skills in a specific area (e.g., parenting skills or literacy) is best achieved by a program that targets these directly (Smart, 2017).

Principles to guide community development

1. Before starting community development

  • Be clear about the purposes or goals of the engagement effort and the populations or communities you want to engage.

  • Become knowledgeable about the community’s culture, economic conditions, social networks, political and power structures, norms and values, demographic trends, history, and history of efforts by outside groups to engage it in various programs. Learn about the community’s perceptions of those initiating the engagement activities.

2. For community development to occur, it is necessary to

  • Go to the community, establish relationships, build trust, work with the formal and informal leadership, and seek commitment from community organisations and leaders to create processes for mobilising the community.

  • Remember and accept that collective self-determination is the responsibility and right of all people in a community. No external entity should assume it can bestow on a community the power to act in its own self-interest.

3. For community development to succeed

  • It is necessary to partner with the community to create change.

  • Recognise and respect the diversity of the community. Awareness of the various cultures of a community and other factors affecting diversity must be paramount in planning, designing, and implementing approaches to engaging a community.

  • Identify and mobilise community assets and strengths and by developing the community’s capacity and resources to make decisions and take action.

  • To engage a community as well as individuals seeking to effect change, organisations must be prepared to release control of actions or interventions to the community and be flexible enough to meet its changing needs.

  • A long-term commitment by the engaging organisation and its partners is vital (Moore et al., 2016).

Implications for practice

  • Provide safe settings for people to meet, and ensure that there is an efficient and affordable local transport system.

  • Check regularly to ensure too much is not being asked of communities.

  • Multiple services that are trying to engage with the same community need to coordinate with each other.

  • Honour the choices made through the community engagement process.

  • Embed community engagement in ongoing governance practices.

  • Support local flexibility, respect local decision-making, and provide funding support to address locally determined objectives.

  • Regular feedback from communities should be sought (Moore et al., 2016).

Key skills for social workers involved in community development ( Kenny, 2011).

  • Facilitation skills: practise different techniques to help a community identify assets and issues, analyse issues and fulfil its needs, e.g. resource development, negotiation, representation, advocacy, lobbying, delegation and submission writing, working with local government.

  • Organisational skills: manage, develop and maintain information systems, committee structures and meeting processes; set priorities; implement tasks; develop policy, schedule work; and manage finances. Use organic leaders.

  • Strategy skills: setting goals, developing strategies, reassessing goals and evaluating progress.

  • Networking skills: fostering and maintaining networks through liaison with other groups and individuals and constructing alliances between groups.

  • Communication skills: this involves ‘giving voice’ to people: facilitating a place and a method by which ordinary people can express their ideas and views as well as participate in discussion and debate about the directions of their communities and the policies that affect their lives. Being involved is not the same as having a voice—people must be convinced they will be listened to. Eight key related characteristics underpin effective community development communication:

1. Community development workers should strive for empathy and genuineness.

2. Community development workers should always be open to new knowledge and new ways of thinking about issues.

3. Effective communicative competence occurs when communication is free from coercion, manipulation, deception and self-deception

4. A community development worker must be sensitive to the context in which a particular project or program is taking place.

5. It is essential to listen and attend to what is being said.

6. A community development worker must be able to respond to what is being said.

7. Community development requires assertion skills as a defence against domination and manipulation.

8. The message being presented must be clear, the style of presentation must draw people’s attention and the content of the message must be meaningful.

  • Research skills: the ability to find information, make sense of it and use it, and the ability to evaluate programs.

  • Ability to get people involved:

o Ensure that everyone’s interests are considered

o Accept the diversity of viewpoints and do not force conformity

o Ensure that everyone has a say

o Clarify what is involved in participation

o Hold meetings and keep them open

o Ensure that everyone knows what, where, when and how an activity takes place

o Ensure democratic decision making

o Ensure that something other than meetings actually happens

o Keep in touch with all members

o Keep the aims, objectives, strategies and action plans clear

o Understand and accept that people have varying levels of commitment

  • Build trust and respect through patience, humility, skill and respect for the community. This will lead to teamwork.

  • Ability to use technology: computers, Internet, social media sites.

  • Appropriate use of mass media.

  • Conflict management: identify a problem based on the needs of the protagonists (what is the problem and why do a group want a particular solution?) The basis of conflict is often a belief that something has happened that has reduced one’s control or rights. Get the protagonists to agree to meet with a co-worker as support. It is crucial to obtain agreement on the process of the meeting and then to find common ground. All parties must understand the options, articulate their viewpoints and their preferred outcomes.

Supporting Material

(available on request)

Kenny, S. (2011). Developing communities for the future (4th ed.). South Melbourne, Victoria: Cengage Learning Australia

Chapter 1 The Nature of Community Development

Chapter 5 Practical Foundations

Chapter 6 Deliberative Democracy

Chapter 7 Activities and Practices

Moore, T., McDonald, M., McHugh-Dillon, H., & West S. (2016). Community engagement: A key strategy for improving outcomes for Australian families. Child Family Community Australia (CFCA), Paper 39. Retrieved from

Smart, J. (2017). What is community development? Australian Institute of Family Studies, CFCA Resource Sheet, January 2017. Retrieved from

Yanca, S. J. & Johnson, L. C. (2009). Generalist social work practice with groups. Boston, MA: Pearson/Allyn and Bacon.


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