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Christian Miess is Policy Advisor to Robert Schaddach, member of the Berlin parliament and freelance strategy consultant. Previously, he was Project Manager at Das Progressive Zentrum and Network Coordinator at Citizens for Europe.

The search for support is a crucial moment when grant makers 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 start to 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 grant makers 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.

The opportunity for systems-change

It is a popular saying that crises also always carry the seeds of innovation. I would like to paint a slightly different picture, here and argue that crises should more be seen as catalytic events, pushing ideas or projects over the hill, which were long for planned but never had the chance to run at scale. Put differently: the opportunity for doing things differently does not present itself in a vacuum.

The initial idea of the Fondation Charles Léopold Mayer pour le progrès de l’Homme (FPH) to “build” Citizens for Europe (CFEU) in 2009 was trying to answer a question: Is it possible for CSOs to use network effects to make their voices heard on the European level, politically without using classical ways through interest groups or parties? After more than 10 years of operation, the short answer must be: No. It did not work with Citizens for Europe. The network did not become a new kind of advocacy group or something else for that matter. Yet, it turns out that the real impact of Citizens for Europe can be found elsewhere.

Defining impact at Citizens for Europe

Over the years, the foundation FPH had partnered with some 800 organizations over the course of her existence since the early 1980’s. The idea to network better among those organizations was the backdrop against which the foundation perceived their new program they called Citizens for Europe. And the frame they set up to do things in 2009 was beneficial to experiments. It presented an opportunity to redefine impact.

Two factors stood out in the inception phase of Citizens for Europe: (1) The space for innovation: There were few strings attached. Aims for the “platform” CFEU should become were formulated very vague, there was a lot of room to learn and to discuss, compared to other players in the field of European civil society cooperation. On top of that, there was (2) the possibility for scaling: The project was led by an engaged project manager at the foundation who kept many channels open for constructive and transparent communication and who was always part of the discussions, documenting and fostering cooperation rather than competition among grantees.

Building co-creative processes from the bottom up

In its initiation phase CFEU as a project translated directly into core funding from FPH to a small group of organizations so that they were able to take part in this experiment. This group of organizations was selected partly based on a list of some former grantees but also featured new organizations that were approached by the foundation and the project manager. This group then made up the first “Core Team” and fluctuated heavily in the first years, from seven to almost 20 individual members at some point. Part of the frame for all this was also the funding by the foundation of around 300.000€ per year for the whole program.

The necessity to work with limited funding, which could not possibly help all the participating organizations in their efforts, combined with the shared conviction by most individuals to rethink the way grant makers and grantees work together brought together the first CFEU team. The agreement on the general aim was supported and reaffirmed through regular meetings and fixed workflows. This and the security that the shared conviction of the group was supported by the foundation were the seeds for confidence which made the network grow over the coming years.

From internal workflows to global learnings

Together, this small group of CSO operatives and foundation staff analyzed that civil society in general was lacking structures for continuous support and communication, perpetuating competition between grantees for short-term projects while making it hard for grant makers to exchange about their work at the same time. So, looking at that and the network of roughly 800 CSOs engaged with FPH, the CFEU team decided to use the foundation’s communication infrastructure to start a conversation with this set of organizations about their long term goals and projects.

The IT infrastructure at FPH comprised of (1) file sharing systems and (2) mailing lists. This was used to implement the first workflows to update among the small CFEU team. Later, building (3) a website on top of this in 2014, including (4) a constituency relationship management system in 2015, was essential to network more effectively among the bigger group of 800 NGOs, again turbocharging also workflows within the small CFEU team. With this setup, CFEU was able to upscale operations and subsequently professionalize and focus the time they all had together.

Co-creative workflows for effective grant-making

Over the course of the years, the perspective of CFEU changed from building internal workflows to providing support to more and more CSOs in the network. All these efforts and approaches combined make up what we today call co-creation.

The impact: Openness, learning from failure, always filling the gaps with seed funding for projects with democratic innovation potential, and early identification of trends like the closing/ shrinking space debate in the sector: This is what distinguishes CFEU as a funding and support structure from other players in the field today.

Today, co-creation is more than a formalized process, but also a work culture that allows for trustful and transparent decision making on a broad spectrum. Read how shared definitions of impact, innovation, and co-creation offer a range of applicability for actors in philanthropy and civil society when the last part of the series goes online: Support for Impact, Part 3: A shared definition of impact and the potential for co-creation (soon)