Purpose - Building institutional capacity to prevent, prepare and respond to disasters is among aspects emphasized in the Hyogo Framework for Action 2005-2015 to enhance the resilience of disaster-affected communities. Lessons from past programmes could help the design and implementation of future capacity building interventions with a view to making them both a means and an end in themselves in building disaster resilience of communities and nations. This paper aims to explore the issues. Design/methodology/approach – The paper is based on the authors’ experiences and reports in institutional capacity building in Ethiopia. Findings – Institutional capacity building programmes should adopt a non-intervention approach, using existing structures. Programmes should be demand-driven and beneficiary-based rather than supply-driven and should be holistic and integrated with coordination being an important ingredient. Capacity building is a slow process and unless all partners are willing to make a choice in favour of assessing and working the holistic and integrated capacity building will struggle to make a lasting influence in reducing disasters and their impacts to Ethiopians. Practical implications – With capacity building being at the centre of the building community, resilience, coordination by donors as well as government agencies is fundamental. Originality/value – The paper illuminates areas of good practice as well as complexities surrounding the delivery of the disaster resilience through capacity building and how governments and development and humanitarian agencies are implicated.