Why do some community-based natural resource management strategies perform better than others? Commons theorists have approached this question by developing institutional design principles to address collective choice situations, while other analysts have critiqued the underlying assumptions of community-based resource management. However, efforts to enhance community-based natural resource management performance also require an analysis of exogenous and endogenous variables that influence how social actors not only act collectively but do so in ways that respond to changing circumstances, foster learning, and build capacity for management adaptation. Drawing on examples from northern Canada and Southeast Asia, this article examines the relationship among adaptive capacity, community-based resource management performance, and the socio-institutional determinants of collective action, such as technical, financial, and legal constraints, and complex issues of politics, scale, knowledge, community and culture. An emphasis on adaptive capacity responds to a conceptual weakness in community-based natural resource management and highlights an emerging research and policy discourse that builds upon static design principles and the contested concepts in current management practice.