Buzzwords come and go in fundraising. They get picked up as flavour of the month by fundraisers, charities and funders alike, and fade away just as quickly. Although the words frequently change, the concepts behind them are often more fundamental and enduring.
For me, one of the most important buzzwords in trusts fundraising at the moment is co-production. This is also commonly referred to as co-creation or co-design, and linked to ‘ABCD’ (or asset-based community development). Isn’t jargon exciting?
What is co-production and why is it so important?
Co-production has a broader definition in project management circles, however in a charity context it usually refers to the practice of involving your service users, clients or beneficiaries (more fun lingo to choose from) in the development of your services.
Funders value knowing that your projects aren’t planned in a top-down fashion based on what you think people want or need, but are genuinely based on their ideas, aspirations and unmet needs. This isn’t about token consultation exercises, but actively involving the people you support in your project design. For example here’s a guide to co-production in social care, along with some key principles.
This isn’t a new idea, and it’s not really a fundraising concept at all – it’s fundamental to service delivery.
However I’m seeing increasing examples of funders specifically talking about or asking for evidence of co-production. I review draft funding applications on a daily basis, and it's one of the most common areas where I feel that organisations can make improvements. In a competitive funding climate, failing to show evidence of this can give funders an easy excuse to discard your application.
So how can you build co-production into your project planning and tweak your funding applications to better emphasise what you’re doing?
Don’t underestimate what you do naturally
For many organisations that we work with, co-production can feel like a strange thing to focus on. It’s not something they consciously try to do, because it’s second nature already.
If you run a local community centre, for example, your frontline staff will be interacting with your service users on a daily basis, and constantly evolving activities to reflect their ideas and unmet needs.
And this is fine – in fact, it’s often ideal. Co-production doesn’t always mean contrived exercises. But don’t expect a funder to assume you’re doing it, or give you credit for it, unless you tell them.
Spend some time reflecting on how this happens organically in your organisation, then include at least a paragraph about this in your funding applications. For example you could explain how staff and service users typically interact, the questions that your frontline staff like to ask, and your internal processes for factoring people's feedback and ideas into service design.
Demonstrate how you gather structured feedback
Depending on the nature of your work, co-production may not happen quite as organically. And even if it does, it can be useful to gather more structured, formal feedback periodically.
Surveys are excellent for quickly gathering broad feedback. Online surveys usually enable you to reach more people more quickly and analyse data automatically, but only if your service users have online access. You can use focus groups to test specific ideas or explore topics in more detail and gather more in-depth feedback.
Demonstrate your approach to gathering feedback in your funding applications. Cite both your quantitative results (e.g. survey data) and qualitative results (e.g. individual quotes). If a funder asks a specific question about co-production, use the space to explain your approach and rationale in more detail.
If you have the budget, appointing an independent consultant or agency to design the feedback process and/or analyse the results can bring added credibility. We recently designed an independent consultation process for a charity and later helped them to write funding applications, and the independent feedback data has been invaluable in demonstrating the need for their work and the extent to which service users are involved.
Explain how you use feedback and work with people to improve your services
Of course, listening is only one part of the process. And it counts for little if you don’t act on what you’re being told.
Successful projects often have steering groups or committees who meet regularly to review impact data and service user feedback, then take action where needed. Steering groups should include (ideally multiple) representatives who have lived experience of the issue you’re tackling. Organisations that really succeed in embedding co-production in their work - and maximising their impact - often have representatives with lived experience on their Board of Trustees.
Providing evidence of all this should impress funders, however it can still sound a bit theoretical. So go one step further and include some concrete examples of how you’ve co-created services. For example, were your service users instrumental in designing any of your current services, or have you improved or evolved a project in specific response to feedback?
This is especially important if you’re trying to do something unusual or surprising that a funder may not naturally value. Funders often have specific ideas about how work should be delivered, yet also say that co-production is important to them, which can feel contradictory!
And what about if you’re writing a final report for a project which needs further support, where you already know that the funder won't provide simple continuation funding? Would they be more receptive if you demonstrated your learning and proposed a slightly different, co-created project as a follow-up?
Finally, not everything that you tell a funder needs to come from the horse’s mouth. Testimonials and endorsements – from either service users involved in your work, or delivery partners who are impressed with your approach – are great for increasing your credibility in a funder’s eyes.
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