Five Critical Elements to Building Thriving Communities

Small boy stands at school gates peering in. He wears a blue backpack and a school uniform

Community wellbeing is a vital aspect of promoting the growth and success of children, young people, and families. When communities are strong and supportive, individuals have access to resources and services that allow them to reach their full potential. This is especially important for those who are experiencing, or at risk of experiencing, vulnerability. By focusing on community wellbeing, services can reduce risk factors and increase protective factors to achieve positive outcomes for children, young people, and families.

The NSW Department of Communities and Justice recently commissioned the Centre for Social Impact to conduct an evidence review on the impact of community engagement and development initiatives on community wellbeing for vulnerable populations. With a growing body of research supporting the effectiveness of community-led and engagement initiatives, this review takes a closer look at what makes these approaches successful. Five critical elements were identified as important for services and initiatives aimed at strengthening community wellbeing:

1. Genuine and inclusive co-design and partnership. Initiatives that are co-designed with the community result in stronger engagement and better sustainability. Effective community engagement requires spending time and resources on building relationships, developing a shared vision, and working towards community independence, autonomy and control. Further, partnerships should be inclusive of all community members, regardless of their background or identity.

2. Leveraging strengths and building capacity. A strengths-based approach is important for successful and long-lasting change within communities. Leveraging community assets and supporting community learning and capacity building helps communities realise their strengths, take control of decision-making, and address issues of discrimination and inequity. A strengths-based approach should include an assessment of a community’s capacity, the development of mechanisms and resources for ongoing problem-solving, monitoring of effects over time, and the capacity for an initiative to evolve.

3. Creating safe and effective spaces. Safe spaces are vitally important for the success of community wellbeing initiatives. Such spaces are effective when they allow community members to build and improve social relations, encourage healing and inclusion, and promote social cohesion. Safe and accessible spaces are especially important for engaging marginalised, vulnerable, and culturally diverse communities.

4. Intersectional and safe approaches. Incorporating an understanding of how different aspects of a person's identity can expose them to overlapping forms of discrimination and marginalisation is crucial for delivering a more integrated, safe, and holistic suite of services. This step involves adopting culturally safe and intersectional approaches that consider the diverse experiences and identities of community members.

5. A whole system approach. Interventions that are part of a whole system approach interconnect multiple community cohorts and agencies, improving the effectiveness of services and achieving positive outcomes for children, young people, and families. This approach requires a holistic approach that focuses on reducing risk factors and increasing protective factors within the community.

The findings of the review highlighted the critical importance of community strengthening services in promoting the wellbeing of vulnerable, Aboriginal and CALD populations. While the five key elements above serve as a guide to inform the design and delivery of these services, it is important to understand that improving community wellbeing requires a long-term investment in local projects. Ultimately, by collaborating and integrating services, local communities can be empowered and supported in achieving meaningful and sustainable improvements to their wellbeing.

About the Author

Dr Rhiannon Parker is a Research Fellow at the Centre for Social Impact UNSW. She is a qualitative researcher whose work focuses on the intersections of social justice, health, and education.