Background: Unlike traditional primary care centres, part of the Community Health Centre (CHC) mandate is to address upstream health determinants. In Ontario, CHCs refer to these activities as Community Initiatives (CIs); yet, little is known about how CIs operate. The objective of this study was to examine the scope, resource requirements, partnerships, successes and challenges among selected Ontario CIs.

Methods: We conducted qualitative interviews with 10 CHC staff members representing 11 CIs across Ontario. CIs were identified through an online inventory, recruited by e-mail and interviewed between March and June 2011.

Results: Most CIs aim to increase community participation, while addressing social isolation and poverty. They draw minimal financial resources from their CHC, and employ highly skilled staff to support implementation. Most enlist support from various partners, and use numerous methods for community engagement. Successes include improved community relations, increased opportunities for education and employment and rewarding partnerships, while insufficient funding was a commonly identified challenge.

Conclusions: Despite minimal attention from researchers and funders, our findings suggest that CIs play key capacity-building roles in vulnerable communities across Ontario, and warrant further investigation.