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Measuring community capacity: an electronic audit template

Greg Cock1, Lib Hylton Keele1, Brian Cheers2, Mellissa Kruger2 and Hilton Trigg3

1Department of Primary Industries and Resources, South Australia (PIRSA), Australia
Centre for Rural and Regional Development, University of South Australia (CRARD), Australia*
3Rural Solutions SA, Port Lincoln Office, Port Lincoln Office, PO Box 1783, Port Lincoln SA 5606Australia


In view of the evidence that community capacity is positively related to economic and social development and well-being in rural communities, it is important to be able to measure and monitor it over time. In this paper, we present an electronic template that communities can use to profile and increase community capacity that is based on residents’ on-the-ground understandings of the concept. The template was developed through participatory action research methodology involving literature reviews, framework development, workshops and interviews with two South Australian rural communities, trial audits in these communities, and community capacity development planning workshops. Although we set out to develop a tool to audit a community’s capacity to support primary industry growth, the template can be used with minor modification to assess community capacity more generally and for other objectives. In this paper, we present the template, template outputs, key underpinning concepts, project methodology, examples of community capacity profiles, and ideas for further template development.

Three key learnings: (1) Concept and template to measure and report community capacity has been functional and effective. (2) The participating communities have found it practical, useful and in itself a capacity building process. (3) The data and reports must be community owned, be for their eyes only, and should not be used as a comparative or benchmarking process.

Key Words

Capabilities, social capital, social infrastructure, template, audit tool, measurement


In this paper is presented an electronic template to measure community capacity in rural places. The template draws on rural and community theory, provides a tool for communities to profile and increase community capacity, and is based upon the participating community’s understandings of the concept. Presented in this paper is the template, its outputs, the methodology used in its development, and its uses for policy and community development1.

The template recognises that community capacity contributes to economic growth and social development in rural communities (Luloff 1996, 1998; Flora 1998; Claude, Bridger & Luloff 1999). Often funded programs can be handicapped in their delivery, not from the oft assumed lack of time, money and technical skills, but a raft of other capabilities and social infrastructure needs. In this light, the tool was developed in response to a need to profile a community’s capacity, where many existing instruments are too subjective, general, or narrow, based on vague definitions of community capacity, uninformed by established rural and community theory and research, or are designed for different contexts. Finally, an instrument was needed that is meaningful to, and readily used by rural people themselves.

This work work was done to inform primary industry development, but the template can be used with minor modifications to measure community capacity for various purposes, such as supporting the development of health and human services, delivering natural resources management outcomes or building community capacity per se. The template was designed to be based on, and true to, coherent concepts and frameworks, informed by existing theory and research, be as objective, precise, and comprehensive as possible. The template also had to be user friendly, easy to complete, engaging, based on strong information, capable of producing sound quantitative results and graphic outputs that are easy to interpret and useful for community planning, and accessible to all rural communities using locally available hardware and software.


The template was developed by a team from PIRSA and Rural Solutions SA staff, social researchers from the Centre for Rural and Regional Development (CRARD) at the University of South Australia, and community participants. We used a participatory case study design involving two rural, primary industry-based communities in South Australia. The methodology involved the following steps.

Step 1: Preparation.

The team contacted a key local person in each community, visited the communities, and engaged participants. In each community, participants formed a local group to work with the research team. Concurrently the community capacity literature was reviewed (Cheers, 2002a, 2002b; Edwards, Cheers & Graham, 2003; Cheers, Edwards & Graham, 2004a, 2004b; Edwards and Cheers, 2004) and scanned other literature, searching for potentially useful concepts, frameworks, and instruments.

Step 2: Conceptual development.

A conceptual framework was constructed to underpin the template, drawing on preliminary work by PIRSA (McClure & Cock, undated, 2003), established rural and community sociology theory and research, and a community strength framework (Cheers et al, 2004a, 2004b).

Key concepts

‘Community capacity’ was defined as follows:

Community capacity comprises the resources a community has that potentially can be used for primary industry growth, and the community’s ability to use these for this purpose in changing economic, social, and environmental contexts. This is similar to the Aspen Institute’s definition (1996).

Additionally, a classical understanding of a community of place as, ‘people living in the same location and their relations with each other’ (see, e.g., Wilkinson, 1991; Cheers et al, 2004a, 2004b) was used and includes social structures such as organisations, clubs, and social groupings. A ‘community resource’, then, is inherent in the people, organisations, and relations that comprise the community, the services available to it, and the community’s relations with its external networks, partnerships, and organisations.

Accordingly, the template concept was designed around an understanding that a community is made up of its institutions, organisation and its ‘people’ and that the capacity of the community is the sum of the ‘human capabilities’ that reside in those three ‘tiers’ and of the ‘social infrastructure’ that exists. This concept is depicted in Figure 1. Social infrastructure includes the resources that a community has available. The model distinguishes those, from the community’s capability to use these. Resources include, for example, financial and human assets, physical infrastructure such as facilities, the talents of individuals and organisations, relations between people and between organisations, access to services outside the community, and community attitudes toward local primary industries. Capabilities include such things as leadership, communication, strategic thinking and professional and technical expertise.

Figure 1. The model of a community, inclusive of the ‘tiers’ and it capacity being the sum of the capabilities and social infrastructure.

This work adopted this model whereby the capacity of the community to achieve any particular outcome, eg a health outcome, is the product of the whole of that community’s capacity and not just of the health sector: such is the nature, particularly of rural communities where there are so many cross linkages. For example, leadership in primary industry probably contributes more to the community’s capacity to support local primary industries than leadership in religion, but still, there may well be a contribution by a leading farmer in the church and thus that sector makes a contribution to the wider capacity of the community.

The template is informed by rural sociological theory and a framework of community strength, attitudes, resources and relations and draws on the following understandings.

1. Community strength is defined as people (encompassing individuals, groups, and organisations) in a locality engaging with each other and the social infrastructure2 for community betterment (Cheers et al, 2004a, 2004b) (Figure 1). People (and organisations) engaging with each other is incorporated into many capacities in the framework (e.g. networks and partnerships).

2. Community attitudes, or shared understandings of what is worthwhile in and for the community, appears on the template as a distinct capacity.

3. What is called community resources in the community strength framework embraces both infrastructure and capabilities as these are defined in the template framework.

4. Social relations, includes (1) the patterning of the links amongst people, organisations, and groups, and (2) social capital. Both are incorporated into the template, social patterning in a number of capacities, especially networks and relationships, and social capital as a capacity in its own right.

5 Social capital defined in terms of trust, reciprocity, and norms, such as cooperativeness, mutual support, partnership and the like, inherent in relations between people (e.g. Bourdieu, 1985; Coleman, 1988; Putnam, 1995; Portes, 1998). Social capital is defined as such on the template.

The template is organised according to sectors (e.g. primary industries, employment, and education and training,) and capacities (e.g. management and leadership).

To finalise the concept, workshops with representatives of two rural communities provided feedback and input and eventually, a matrix of 16 capacities by 11 sectors was constructed.

Step 3: Template construction.

In consultation with two champions’ in each community, the researchers drafted statements to present each capacity on the template, devised a scale to measure their strength, and drafted indicators for discussion at the next community workshops . During these workshops, a final review of capacities and indicators, changed statement wording, made final decisions about scales to be used on the template, and reviewed draft descriptions for each sector. The researchers then finalised capacity statements, indicators, and scales, sector descriptions, and an introduction to the template. We also finalised the electronic version of the template3 and entered existing statistical data about the communities.

Step 5: Audits and strategic planning.

Each community then conducted a community capacity audit. Graphic outputs were generated from the template (see below), which were then used in planning workshops to review each community’s capacity profile and develop capacity-strengthening strategies.

(a) The Template

The template is written in Microsoft Access and is the data is collectively entered by people from a community in interaction with each other rather than by a sample or population of individual respondents.

(b) Sectors

Thinking of a community being made up of sectors is so common that the concept seems universally obvious, which was the case in the two pilot communities. A sector is defined for the template as a sphere of human activity: a community of practice, in a community. The template is partitioned into 11 sectors, each of which is described on the initial screen for that sector. Table 1 presents these.

(c) Capacities and sub-capacities

Sixteen capacities were identified for the template: mass, programs, access, information, marketing, financial resources, human resources, facilities, equipment, management, leadership, networks and relationships, government, politics, social capital, and attitudes (Table 2).

(d) Capacity assessment

For each capacity and sub-capacity, the template records community perceptions of:

Capacity strength (CS) the strength of the capacity; measured on a 4-point Likert scale

Capacity importance (CI) how important the capacity is for total community capacity for the purpose at hand (e.g. to support local primary industries);

Capacity contribution (CC how much a particular capacity contributes to total community capacity relative to the others; and

Capacity confidence (CO) how confident auditors are in their assessment.

For each of these, the mean of sub-capacity scores for the variable is taken as the score for that capacity in the sector. Figure 2 presents a screen of the template demonstrating how they are presented on the template.

Table 1: Sectors and descriptions

Sector name

Template sector description

Social organisation

…all the people, resources, and community organisations as a whole

Primary industry

…all local enterprises and people involved in primary industries, and local / non-local organisations.


… all the local businesses and enterprises that provide goods and services, and local business support

Financial services

… all the financial services, whether they come from local or non-local providers.

Education and training

… all the education and training programs including local and non-local formal institutions.


…. includes agencies that help local workers to find employment and local employers to find workers..


… all the organisations and people involved enhancing the community’s natural environment.

Health/ human services

… all the health and human services, whether by local or non-local organisations.

Sport / recreation

… all the local sporting activities, events, clubs, organisations that involve people getting together.


…. encompasses arts and entertainment activities that involve people getting together


….all the local and non-local religious services provided to your community,.

Table 2: Capacities and sub-capacities




number & range of programs (services, provisions, activities, goods)4 and organisations available


Suitability of organisations and programs to community needs and context


Community access to programs and organisations


Availability of information about, and to, the sector


Marketing of the sector

Financial resources

Financial resources available to the sector

Human resources

Human resources available to the sector


Facilities available to the sector


Equipment available to the sector locally


Management of organisations and programs in the sector


Leadership in the sector

Networks and relationships

Networks and relationships within the sector
Networks and relationships between the sector and the rest of the community
Networks and relationships between sector and the community’s external environment


Government support for the sector


Management of diversity within the sector
Advocacy by the sector to governments and other external organisations for resources
Community success in attracting resources from government for the sector

Social capital

Social capital within the sector – trust, reciprocity, cooperation, and collaboration


The extent to which the community supports the sector

Audit Process

The audit process was a facilitated workshop process, initially with nominated representatives of a cross-section of the community, who were guided through 163 propositions about their community. They were asked, with the electronic template, as depicted in Figure 2, projected in front of them, according to a :Likert scale: The tool has a screen for each of the propositions and is organised by ‘sectors’ and ‘capacities’

What is your assessment of your community’s capacity in the [e.g. Social Organisation] Sector using the indicators provided? Indicate your assessment by clicking whether you

‘strongly disagree’, ‘disagree’, ‘agree’, or ‘strongly agree’ with the following statements using the indicators provided.

The assessment was made against the set of indicators for each capacity, ,chosen to be as objective and precise as possible, as few as possible for each capacity, but enough of them to provide sound information.. Three response options are provided: ‘strong’, ‘weak’, and ‘irrelevant’.


‘How important is this capacity in auditing your community’s total capacity?’.: ‘not important’, ‘minor importance’, ‘important’, and ‘extremely important’.


‘How confident are you in this assessment?’– ‘not confident’, ‘some confidence’, ‘confident’, and ‘extremely confident’..


is an assessment of how much a particular capacity is contributing to total community capacity at the time of the audit. It is obtained by multiplying capacity strength (CS) and capacity importance (CI) (i.e. CC = CS x CI).

Text comments.

brief comments relating to their assessment of each capacity. This provides contextual information, important for interpreting the quantitative ratings.

Figure 2: Template capacity screen for the capacity mass in the social organisation sector


The template produces various outputs, each of which contains a set of quantitative and graphic reports that present a profile of a particular component of the community’s capacity . These form the basis of community capacity-building strategic planning. The most immediately useful reports are:

  • Overall sector profile: strength, importance, confidence and contribution for each sector (Fig 3)
  • Overall capacity profile: strength, importance confidence and contribution for each capacity (Fig 4)
  • Capacities for the sector: strength, importance, contribution, and confidence scores for each capacity in a particular sector (Fig 5).
  • Sectors for the capacity: strength, importance, contribution, and confidence scores for a particular capacity in each sector (Fig 6).

All quantitative reports are presented in terms of actual performance as a percentage of the total possible performance for the variable. So, for example, a score of 50% for the strength of the capacity leadership in the education and training sector means that it is only 50% of what it would be if it were fully strong.

Figure 3:Overall sector profile for Community X

Figure 4: Overall capacity profile for Community X

Figure 5: Capacities for the sector – Community X primary industry sector

Figure 6: Sectors for the capacity – Community X mass capacity

Example: Sector report – Primary industry sector (refer to Figure 5)

Figure 5 presents the ‘Capacity for the sector’ report for Community X’s Primary Industry sector5. Total community capacity strength for Community X is a moderate 50%, which means that the community is performing at half of its maximum possible strength. As a sector, Primary Industry is performing better than this at around 65%. The auditors considered that this sector is highly important to total community capacity (over 80%),. Given that the sector is so important but its capacity strength is moderate, this sector was contributing only around 55% of its potential to total community capacity. Clearly, then, increasing the capacity of this sector would be a high priority.

But which particular capacities should be prioritised to increase community capacity?

From Figure 5, the poor performers in relation to capacity strength are information, financial resources, human resources, facilities, and government support. However, judging from the Capacity Importance (CI) scores, while all capacities are of some importance to the community’s total capacity, the sector can get by without improved access to information and facilities. Given the importance, the sector urgently requires increased financial resources, human resources, and government support.

These, it seems, would be the highest priority for the people of Community X. They would also prioritise developing and implementing strategies to increase their success at lobbying governments for resources because it was rated as highly important to the growth of local primary industries yet rate its strength as only moderate.

On the positive side, local primary industries tend to have sufficient industry support services and local enterprises (mass), there is strong local leadership in the industry, and the sector uses strong networks and relationships within local primary industry, between the industry and other sectors in the community, and between the industry and the world outside the community. There is very high social capital in the industry and the community has a positive attitude towards the growth of local primary industries (attitudes).

In view of Capacity Confidence (CO) scores on the right-hand side, this community can develop and implement capacity strengthening strategies with reasonable confidence. The exception is the capacity information. While strategies to increase this capacity can be developed and implemented the community should continue to seek further information relating to its indicators.

Further Development

This is the first version of the template. We are currently conducting a follow-up project focusing on several issues. Considerations and actions for the future include:

1. The template has been developed thus far with self-selected participants in each community. Consequently, some groups (‘youth’) and some sectors (arts and entertainment) were not represented. People from all groups and sectors are included in the current trial. Results from these are being compared with those from initial audits and discrepancies are being identified and corrected.

2. A panel of experts have assembled from government, communities, and social sciences to review concepts, the conceptual framework, and the template.

3. The formula for ‘capacity contribution’ is being reviewed (CC=CSxCI) with a mathematician.

4. The template was developed to assist communities to profile their capacity with respect to a particular purpose. An important aim is for communities to use profiles to develop strategies designed to increase capacity, implement them, and monitor outcomes over time. This will be done as communities use the template at regular intervals.

5. Also being reviewed are the meanings and wording contained in the template with a wider range of community participants and the expert panel, correcting minor spelling, grammatical, and technical glitches, constructing more sophisticated reports and graphics, and writing an electronic manual for the template that will also be available in hard copy.


The template has a number of uses. It provides a reasonably precise, quantitative, electronic tool and community activities aimed at increasing community capacity, which contributes to economic growth, social development, and personal wellbeing in rural communities. Communities can undertake community capacity building initiatives, monitor their success using sound empirical data, and modify their strategies accordingly. And governments, together with communities, can match programs to the particular needs of any given community, confident that they are likely to have the intended effects and that these can be monitored over time.


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1 For full details of the template and its development see the full technical report of the project (Cheers, Kruger, and Trigg, 2005) and demonstration template, which can be obtained from Hilton Trigg.

2 The term infrastructure is used differently in the community strength and community capacity audit template frameworks.

3 The electronic form of the template was developed by Justin Dixon of Rural Solutions SA in consultation with the research team.

4 The term ‘programs’ includes services, provisions, activities, and/or goods throughout this chapter and the template.

5 The profile is of an actual community although the name is fictitious.

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