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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Defining impact in civil society

In this series, I have shown that the build-up of robust communication structures offered opportunities for systems change and long-term cooperation for a network of grantmakers and grantees. Opportunities that presented themselves could be turned into meaningful impact for the network through co-creation. Yet, despite this individual case, one has to acknowledge that there are many different definitions of what constitutes impact in civil society.

A definition that tries to offer a practical and structured approach comes from Seelos and Mair (2017). Building on the experience of different civil society actors and philanthropy they defined two kinds of impact: “impact through innovation” and “impact through scaling”. While impact “through innovation” is described as a process of experiments, research and uncertain developments, “impact through scaling” describes a continuous process of workflows and trodden paths of engagement of organisations with their constituencies.

Looking back at what made the difference for CFEU was that co-creation was applied in processes of innovation and scaling. However, with a focus on the establishment of long-term relationships between grantmakers and grantees, co-creation in innovation was slightly less important than impact through scaling the communication infrastructure. But can this definition and this approach help other players in civil society under pressure?

Co-Creation as a mode of operation for scaling and innovation?

Applied right, co-creation in innovation processes can offer new information to all participating organizations and co-creation in scaling helps to integrate knowledge of cooperating partners into long lasting workflows. Thus, in a best-case scenario, where ideas are developed between CSOs and philanthropy, these workflows are supported by digitally automated process for even more effective outputs.

If you think of a pyramid of engagement, co-creation has a high level of engagement for a project manager at a grantmaking organization as well as a project manager in a CSO. A high level of engagement means first and foremost a high investment in communication. Classic project funding mediated by a formalized application process on the other hand would have only a low level of engagement for both sides. But also, the latter offers opportunities for impact.

How do I create impact through co-creative processes in my day-to-day work?

In general, the more you communicate about your goals, the more transparent a situation becomes, and the more responsibility can be distributed:

  • communicate to identify needs and goals together,
  • transparency makes uncertainty manageable, and
  • accountability provides for clear responsibilities.

All these seem small steps. Yet, in the daily business of CSOs or in philanthropy while actors on both sides of the table (!) are often under pressure to create innovative projects and impact across the board, the definitions of “co-creation”, “impact through scaling”, and “impact through innovation” offer a path for a common understanding of the needs of all players in the third sector. But applying co-creative processes in philanthropy and civil society does also have pitfalls:

  • Co-creative measures build on many iterations and stories of success and failure.
  • Long-term support for a co-creative approach can limit the scope for other initiatives, simply due to the allocation of work, time, and money that can only be spent once.
  • Another pitfall of co-creation lies in potential long-term dependencies of grantees on any given structure.
  • Looking back at the examples given before, the shift in application processes can take up too much time.

This is why, one must not abandon standing organizational procedures. Co-creation does not mean that organizations need to overthrow their work structures. Keeping the following points in mind will still help mitigate possible risks:

  • Setting benchmarks and time frames are essential.
  • Setting high aims while also defining an exit strategy is useful.
  • Defining clear channels for communicating back and forth

How is co-creation different from other forms of working together?

Many other modes of operation were tested over the years by philanthropic actors and civil society actors alike. Thus many different networks exist that exchange about participatory measures in their organizations and experiment with different forms of grantmaking. One of the most promising appraches is “participatory funding” where civil society actors use pooled funds from many different philanthropic actors to let a group of CSOs decide about its allocation. In its aim participatory funding and co-creative grantmaking have many overlaps with the ultimate aim of mobilizing civil society and structural change within the sector, as put forward by Carmen Dupont, here on this Website.

But in it’s mode of operation, participatory funding is different from co-creation. While most times, participatory funding builds on re-granting schemes in which civil society activists become the sole responsible actors who decide about grants, this process still perpetuates power structures through its limitation on the pooled funding. Co-creation involves grantmakers and grantees on a road to structural change in work relationships AND the distribution of monetary means which is the only way that can ultimately lead to a redefinition and a redistribution of power in the third sector.

The potential for co-creation to enable system change

The most promising mid-term outlook coming from co-creative grantmaking experiences is that it offers networks of organizations and especially grantmakers a path to redefine their position in civil society as “enablers” or “knowledge vaults”. Since small CSOs still work mostly on project basis, learnings from co-creative processes are not necessarily stored within the “economically weak” organizations. As powerful players in civil society, grantmakers can carry this burden and responsibility.

Grantmakers and grantees take on different tasks in civil society that are complementary. The number of global problems that need to be taken head-on calls for more cooperation in every sector of society. Yet, many roadblocks are still in our way:

  • Still, too often grantmakers and grantees do not perceive of each other as being equal players.
  • Still, too often we refer to philanthropy and civil society as if these were two different worlds when in fact, they are two sides of the same coin.
  • Still, too often grantmakers communicate about programs and portfolios only within their respective peer networks.
  • Still too often CSOs perceive of each other as competitors for funding and do not communicate with each other, either.

The third sector has enormous potential, and it is not any nation state, nor business, but civil society’s own role to preserve its own knowledge and set its own standards. We need to learn together, better.


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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