Participatory methods are a common approach for giving voice to local communities in hazard and disaster research. Drawing on a study that trialled and modified a range of participatory methods in North Sulawesi, eastern Indonesia, this paper reflects on how such methods help document the capacities of small island communities. We assessed capacity from a sustainable livelihoods perspective, identifying the assets that enable villagers to cope with hazards. This overall approach promoted a discourse of strengths and resourcefulness, contrasting with vulnerability and needs-assessment approaches common to government and non-governmental organizations, which tend to focus on weaknesses and can sometimes fuel undeliverable expectations of funding. We provide a critical reflection on participatory methods and their significance for researchers, policy makers and funding agencies working with communities in hazard-prone regions. © 2016 Department of Geography, National University of Singapore and John Wiley & Sons Australia, Ltd.