Co-Creation: The Key to True Lasting Change

Community development, cooperation, and collaboration can go only so far. Greater impact requires a more equitable mindset.

Oftentimes, we start to approach our work in new ways without having a name for it. That’s what happened when we realized we were systems entrepreneurs—a person or organization that facilitates a change to an entire ecosystem by addressing and incorporating all the components and actors required to move the needle on a particular social issue. Now, we’ve realized that we’ve taken our systems entrepreneurship work to a new level—one that we’re calling co-creation.

As philanthropy consultants who specialize in maximizing money to do the most good, we pride ourselves on achieving performance philanthropy, and we know that partnerships are vital to executing on that belief—that’s why we’ve started to revisit how we view our work as being driven by co-creation. We define this term, as:

Co-creation 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.

I believe that finding a new way to describe what is required for significant, lasting improvements in places where change is desperately needed can energize and perhaps even revolutionize the efforts of all of us wanting a better life for the disadvantaged and underserved. That’s what we hope to address in our efforts to explore what co-creation is, how and when to do it, and the challenges and opportunities that lie ahead by using this approach in a philanthropic context.

Co-creation: The Genesis

Now, co-creation is not an entirely new concept, of course. In fact, it has been part of the lexicon of the business world for the better part of two decades, and increasingly so in the past few years. But it has only recently begun to find its way into the world of philanthropy, and we want to champion its adoption as a potentially critical step forward.

It was around the turn of the millennium that businesses began to realize that it paid to involve customers more seriously in their product development. You might say this recognition was child’s play because LEGO is often cited as an early adopter of the practice, originating new playsets from interaction with an online community of serious fans. But others were quick to recognize the value for their industries, too, from manufacturing to distribution.

The approach also soon gained further traction in the emerging technology space. Scrappy startups with limited funds realized that their “fail fast” mantra—put something out there quickly and refine and revise as you go—could be enhanced by inviting feedback and participation earlier in the process.


Co-creation: An Evolution

Innovation is often the result of a long period of incubation and cross-fertilization, like a plant that emerges from the soil. In the philanthropic world, that’s certainly been true of co-creation.

First there was the embrace of the need to approach change as “community development.” It was the initial step away from the long-time paternalistic attitude that those in the developed world had the answers for everyone else.

More recently, as philanthropy organizations increasingly acknowledge that business can in and of itself be a positive force for social change, they have recognized that the private sector has lessons to offer on effective collaboration. This approach views the various actors as more equal partners—though the scales still tend to tip in favor of those with the money and the power.

Taking that a step further has been the emphasis on the need for systems change, which we at Geneva Global, among others, have championed over the years. Simply put, that’s the conviction that true, lasting change on a large scale is only possible when top-down structures and systems and bottom-up implementation are integrated effectively—and the recognition that doing so is difficult, because getting disparate stakeholders to agree on how to put high-minded principles into practice in difficult circumstances is tough.

So, in many ways, embracing co-creation is just expanding upon the evolution and development of world change, bringing greater clarity and definition to what we have learned so far. But it is an exciting, innovative step on many levels. There is a sense of hope in the word itself—the cooperative, collaborative, and communal emphasis of “co,” and the positive focus of “creation,” which is more about participating in new life rather than just fixing old problems.

Co-creation: An Expanded Model

As co-creation has become an accepted paradigm in the business world, its adoption in philanthropy—something we’ve driven on behalf of clients in our work—is imminent. That groundswell was spotlighted in the Summer 2019 edition of the influential Sanford Social Innovation Review, featuring the first major article to point to the potential benefits of transferring the co-creation approach from the business world to the development world.

Studying successful new businesses in Latin America, authors Ted London and Urs Jäger noted that the key to success was in the businesses’ perceiving low-income markets “not as a context full of problems that need fixing, but instead as an environment rich in assets”—including economic, knowledge, leadership, network, and innovation.

What might that same sort of perspective unlock in a development context?

Looking back over our history, I can see how we’ve adopted elements of co-creation before the term came to the philanthropic world, such as with the Rural Health Integrated Network initiative we pioneered in Namibia almost a decade ago. It brought together an unprecedented range of participants—from government and local community leaders to different NGOs—to radically improve health services in the remote north of the country.

More recently, we have seen an attitude of co-creation drive the development of the Girls First Fund, which we serve as advisor and program manager. Here, individual philanthropists and organizations have come together in a remarkably collaborative way to address the issue of child marriage. In real time, Geneva Global is presently engaged with Global Impact on co-creating a combined entity to support their clients’ ambitious philanthropic initiatives.

Co-creation: A Challenge

I’m eager to see what further may result as we continue to develop good practices in co-creation.

One caution I have moving forward is that it is all too easy for people to merely adopt new nomenclature and mistakenly think they have done the hard work of internalizing and realizing what it actually means.

With that in mind, we will explore what co-creation means in practice—for everyone from donors to doers, from advocates to agencies, from grassroots activists to government leaders—in a blog series. Among the hard questions: Is co-creation always the answer? What does it look like in the board room and out in the field? How can you develop a co-creation approach in your business, foundation, organization, agency, or government?

Perhaps you have further questions of your own. Or even some answers! Either way, we would love to hear from you as we pursue the promise offered in seeking to effect lasting, positive change through co-creation.