Opinion: Co-creating social impact programs for improved development outcomes

The Girls First Fund is one example of co-creation resulting in enhanced development outcomes. The donor collaborative champions community-led efforts to end child marriage so that all girls can create their own future. Photo by: Aboubacar Magagi

The philanthropic community is facing two very real truths today: there is an average $2.5 trillion annual financing gap in achieving the Sustainable Development Goals by 2030 and programmatic advancements on any one of the 169 targets cannot be made in a silo. Partnerships of all shapes and sizes are underway in and between sectors, leveraging diverse resources and propping up programs around the world with laser-focused, measurable goals.

In some, not all, cases, there is a formula in place for achieving greater impact: co-creation. This is an iterative, equitable process that removes barriers for all actors to meaningfully contribute their knowledge and skills to achieve sustainable and scalable solutions to bring positive social innovation into the world. Examples of co-creation include collaborative philanthropic funds, social enterprise initiatives, and programmatic partnerships.

We believe the co-creation process can dramatically enhance the achievement of philanthropic, business, and programmatic goals.

Operating as philanthropic intermediaries, Global Impact and Geneva Global — organizations that aim to build lasting partnerships and resources for the world’s most vulnerable — have supported a myriad of co-created programs that have influenced giving from institutions, philanthropists, and every day donors, advancing progress on issues including education, disaster response, and child marriage. In October 2019, Global Impact merged with Geneva Global, giving co-creation experts seats at the same table.

To maximize money to do the most good, we rely on co-creation methods to guide our own working relationships with our clients. At the outset, collaborating with clients to understand their vision and adding our expertise to co-create a strategic plan that will enable our clients to accomplish their philanthropic goals is key.

When co-creating programs among grantees and donors, as a convener, our functions can include in-country assessments to collect data from stakeholders, coordinating actors globally and locally in strategic workshops to secure input for short and long-term objectives, and establishing feedback loops and sustainability metrics among other catalytic roles.

In our experience, these three kinds of co-creation see the most success:

Donor-donor co-creation

Donors are increasingly looking to collaborate with other peers to scale impact, share knowledge, and create systems-level change. But collaborating and designing strategies with other donors takes commitment, time, patience, flexibility, and compromise.

The Girls First Fund is donor collaborative that champions community-led efforts to end child marriage so that all girls are free to create their own future. During the fund's inception phase, we worked closely with the donors to co-create everything from the core values, key assumptions, and operating principles of the fund to its governance structure and its programmatic strategy.

To help achieve consensus among over 10 donors, we implemented a range of approaches including the facilitation of technical and advisory working groups made up of funder representatives tasked with hashing out decisions and strategies. These are then presented for approval by the larger governing body.

Tools and techniques such as simple surveys and forced priority ranking exercises also work well in facilitating decision-making on potentially polarizing topics, for instance, which geographies to focus on. This helps the group more easily identify key objectives and spot areas of dissonance, which they can then further discuss.

The fund’s donors want to be mindful of what others are doing to avoid duplication and add value to the sector. We also talk to many funders in the ecosystem who share similar values and approaches to learn from their experience and map out their unique contribution to the field. We present interview findings back to the donors as case studies and promising practices to co-creation and refine the way forward together in a mindset of continuous learning.

Donor-grantee co-creation

Corporations are, more than ever before, involving internal and external stakeholders in their philanthropy strategies. In doing so, nonprofit and social enterprise grantees shift to critical partners in the creation of corporate social responsibility programs.

Lumkani is a social enterprise in South Africa manufacturing a low-cost heat detection device for urban informal settlements. Johnson Controls is a multinational company producing fire security and suppression solutions. In 2017, an employee based in South Africa identified the under-reported issue of the prevalence of fire in slum communities and introduced the idea of partnering with Lumkani to bring security solutions to those who could not afford them.

Throughout the development of the partnership, we provided the strategic framework for the project, including clear goals, funding requirements, and partner agreements. Designing the program in close collaboration, Lumkani and Johnson Controls leveraged technology and resources from both entities with user needs and nuances at the center. Ultimately, 5,200 heat devices were installed in one of the largest urban informal settlements outside of Cape Town, protecting over 14,000 people living in that community.

Grantee-grantee co-creation

There are certain donors that have objectives to support their grantees, and a subset is encouraging grantees to co-create together, and, in turn, with the donor. Such donors believe that grantee-grantee collaboration deepens the connection between grantees and strengthens the broader community of the grant-making organization.

Despite this immense potential value, time and resources are often in short supply. Philanthropic intermediaries lift burdens off grant-makers and grantees by tracking organizational areas of potential alignment and facilitating conversations, moving projects forward through a curated process involving all stakeholders.

One such example is the Hilton Prize Coalition, an independent alliance of the 24 winners of the Conrad N. Hilton Humanitarian Prize, the world’s largest annual humanitarian award.

Established as a formal mechanism to promote the collective efforts of the Laureate community, the Hilton Prize Coalition and its signature programs — including its namesake fellowship program — were co-created with Global Impact in partnership with the Hilton Foundation, Prize laureates, and the coalition’s executive committee, in order to represent comprehensively the shared values of a diverse array of humanitarian organizations.

The team fosters open communication, flexibility, transparency, clarity of expectations, and roles, and shared ownership that makes for successful co-created programs.

We believe the co-creation process can dramatically enhance the achievement of philanthropic, business, and programmatic goals.

As influencers and practitioners of this approach, Global Impact and Geneva Global see co-creation setting the stage for human-centered design and community-based methodologies. The initiation of a collaborative program in this way is so critical and worth the investment. This is often overlooked or tasked to a team in-house that is either already at capacity or emotionally attached to the program in question. In the long run, this decision undoubtedly allows for subsequent phases of the process involving consumers or beneficiaries to be more effective.

About the authors

  • Doug Balfour

    As the former owner and CEO of Geneva Global, Doug Balfour has transitioned into a consultant role to support Scott Jackson and the executive team in making the transition smooth for staff while focusing on achieving the synergistic business development opportunities the new configuration enables.
  • Scott Jackson

    Scott Jackson is the president and CEO of Global Impact. Jackson has worked at all levels of the public, private, and nonprofit sectors in more than 60 countries. Jackson was a founding nonprofit member of The ONE Campaign and has worked on initiatives with Bono and the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation.
  • Amanda Meyer

    Amanda Meyer is a director at Global Impact, where she specializes in strategic planning for social impact programs of international nonprofits and corporations. Seven years with the firm, she works closely with the executive team on a number of organizational priorities including revenue diversification, product incubation, and thought leadership.