Health promotion often comprises a tension between 'bottom-up' and 'top-down' programming. The former, more associated with concepts of community empowerment, begins on issues of concern to particular groups or individuals, and regards some improvement in their overall power or capacity as the important health outcome. The latter, more associated with disease prevention efforts, begins by seeking to involve particular groups or individuals in issues and activities largely defined by health agencies, and regards improvement in particular behaviours as the important health outcome. Community empowerment is viewed more instrumentally as a means to the end of health behaviour change. The tension between these two approaches is not unresolvable, but this requires a different orientation on the part of those responsible for planning more conventional, top-down programmes. This article presents a framework intended to assist planners, implementers and evaluators to systematically consider community empowerment goals within top-down health promotion programming. The framework 'unpacks' the tensions in health promotion at each stage of the more conventional, top-down programme cycle, by presenting a parallel 'empowerment' track. The framework also presents a new technology for the assessment and strategic planning of nine identified 'domains' that represent the organizational influences on the process of community empowerment. Future papers analyze the design of this assessment and planning methodology, and discuss the findings of its field-testing in rural communities in Fiji.