The search for support is a crucial moment when grantmakers and grantees meet. This moment is often signified by uncertainty for both sides and already carries the seed of failure and success. So, what if we understand this moment as a starting point for mutual empowerment?

In a small series I want to draw the attention to the process of co-creation which can help grantmakers and grantees to better adapt to challenging situations within their respective organizational frames.

You will see how a process of co-creation was adapted at Citizens for Europe creating impact through experimentation (innovation) and impact through structured approaches (scaling) with the aim of mobilizing CSOs.

Moving towards shared definitions of key terms like “impact” and “co-creation” can contribute to more effective cooperation needed in the third sector.


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Civil society under pressure

The question how to support civil society has become more controversial in recent years. In many European countries, CSO operatives and philanthropic actors started using the term “shrinking spaces” to identify a process of increased pressure from anti-pluralistic movements and the lack of funding for civil society projects in many European countries. This global phenomenon has led to discussions in civil society and philanthropy about the way grants are given and how they generate impact in civil society under pressure.

Philanthropic actors at the same time started asking how they want to work in the future, re-evaluating their role in society. The demand for philanthropic actors to move in the light of climate change, shrinking spaces for pluralistic and democratic actors, and many more issues put a lot of pressure on the sector so that grantmakers did reconsider how they invest private means for public good, in general.

What unites both kinds of actors in civil society, CSOs and philanthropy, is the search for answers for two questions: How to create impact despite all these external factors? And: How to come to a shared understanding of the issues at hand? Working together in a co-creative manner is an answer to both.

What is co-creation?

The definition of co-creation comes from business. It describes a continuous process in which a customer/ consumer and a business establish a continuous flow of information about one or many products or services with the aim to provide and receive better services or products.

Applied to the world of civil society, co-creation means to establish a continuous flow of information between grantmakers and grantees about projects being implemented and the process of granting funds and support, respectively.

Different co-creative elements can be found in many projects and campaigns with the involvement of Citizens for Europe (CFEU). Two projects will serve as examples, here: (1) a campaign for voting rights of third country nationals and (2) a digitization project for civil society actors.

Project case (1): Voting rights for third country nationals

In 2019, CFEU anticipated many different campaigns coming from the community because of the elections to the European parliament that year. To better understand the needs of the community, CFEU opted for a multi-layered call for applications to provide funding.

Yet, the call was different. It was multi-layered in a sense that it was not the CSOs that had to apply in many different steps, but the other way around. In the first phase the call CFEU asked the community of 800 organizations if they were planning for campaigns around the 2019 EP elections and if so, what kinds of projects they were planning and what kinds of support they needed.

It was after the analysis of this first inquiry when Citizens for Europe wrote the final call, turning around the usual application process 180 degrees: The call-for-applications by CFEU was based on the input of all responding organizations, making it a much better fit for the needs of the organizations on the ground. This shows how a funding process can be co-created by grantmakers and grantees.

With expectations set for both sides transparent communication processes ensued, and a clear assessment of the projects shortcomings and its potential was possible. Also, the projects did not turn into long-term dependencies. CFEU only supported organizations that already had a plan in place and needed additional support to go the extra mile. A side-effect of this process was that applicants were not in danger to gear their application only towards the needs of a grantmaker.

Another lesson learned from this process was that some organizations were in real need of IT infrastructure. So, in one case, on top of monetary funding, the voting rights campaign “Wir Wählen!” got access to CFEU IT infrastructure, such as mailing lists and file sharing capabilities as well as personal connections to campaigns all over Europe. This lesson learned was later applied to another initiative that was supported by CFEU in 2019 and that will be described below.

Project case (2): European hub for civic engagement

Another project showing distinct features of co-creation was the setup of a digital infrastructure for CSOs in 2019, called the European Hub for Civic Engagement. The term “shrinking spaces” was already mentioned as an attempt to define the pressure of lacking funds and political pressure for CSOs in Europe. Das Progressive Zentrum and CFEU worked together on this project, but the DPZ did not apply for funding at CFEU. Instead, it was the shared analysis to counter-act the shrinking spaces by the DPZ and CFEU that brought together these two organizations in a co-creative process.

The idea to work on a digital infrastructure for CSOs named European Hub for Civic Engagement came from the DPZ. Funding for this project was already secured and came from various sources. CFEU on the other hand, having a digital infrastructure already available to some partners as mentioned above, saw the potential to scale-up this experience. CFEU decided to provide up to six work hours/ week to the project, meaning that one CFEU Core Team member was a part of the project over the course of 10 months.

The expertise of setting up networks using digital tools was a field where CFEU could provide insights from their year long experience. Sharing this experiences directly with CSO staff led to a much more effective project implementation and made this project to stand out in the field.

Is co-creation also for you?

Two characteristic qualities of co creation become visible through the cases mentioned above: (1) the possibility to experiment (with ways of funding) and (2) the sharing of infrastructure (even personnel) to scale operations. These are two co-dependent features when you look for the establishment of trustful communication processes between grantmakers and grantees.

Follow these simple steps to find out if co-creation is also for you:

  1. Co-Creation is for organizations/ projects/ initiatives that need to work with other organizations. If you work alone, you do not need co-creation.
  2. Think about how to manage the information, you create. If you did not think about how to manage the information you create, no-one else will be able to connect.
  3. Think about who will be the person most likely to work with the information you created, should you not be there.
  4. Always plan long term, even if you do not see the immediate benefit. Co-Creation is a marathon, not a sprint.
  5. Think about ways how you will process and integrate information you receive from different stakeholders in your initiative/ project/ institution.

Individual application will vary. The way you use your computer for example, your phone, and all other tools are first and foremost depending on your organization and your personal experience. Be outspoken about your own ways of communication. This is the first step towards co-creation.

Read more about how co-creation became established practice at CFEU in the next part of the series: Building co-creative processes from the bottom-up!


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Christian Miess is a policy advisor and freelance strategy consultant. Previously, he was project manager at Das Progressive Zentrum and network coordinator here at Citizens for Europe. Find him on twitter @miess