The turmoil in Iran and the efforts of the nation’s citizens to overcome government censorship provide a good argument for why it is important to build capacity in communities.

Iran protests for the 5th straight day #iranelection by Flickr user .faramarz

Iran protests for the 5th straight day #iranelection by Flickr user .faramarz

Since at least 2004, Iran has been censoring social networking sites. So, according to this New York Times article, people have had about five years to figure out how to get around such censorship. People haven’t been fomenting Internet revolution all this time, though: they’ve been blogging about everyday things like sports scores and sharing pictures of cute cats.

But this created a reservoir of capacity. Iran has relatively many people who can write, use the Internet, and communicate digitally. They’ve got lots of bloggers. Now that this capacity is urgently needed, it’s available.

(There’s another story in the article about the role rugby bloggers in Kenya played in that country’s recent history.)

Here in the U.S., funders and others who support civic projects might take notice. Not all projects have an immediate “outcome” — but many have an important capacity building component that is often not apparent. Research (by Rich Harwood and others) has shown that for many communities, it’s community capacity that can be the difference between responding to adversity well, or spiraling downward.

What does “community capacity” look like? I like to think about it very simply:

Community capacity is the habit of working together on public issues.

This can take many forms, including formal “projects” but also neighborhood block parties, informal afternoons talking about issues while children play, and (natch) local blogs. It’s not a very widespread phenomenon. Even though there may be a few glimmers of hope, for the last fifteen years and more Americans have been turning away from one another.

So, sure we need “outcomes” when we think about community projects.

But we also need to position our communities to respond to future issues we can’t now imagine. We need to keep building the capacity to work together on public issues.