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How to Move from Giving to Co-Creating: A Playbook for Program Officers

Date: December 12, 2023

Tracy McFerrin

Founder and Principal, Credo Advisors

Kathleen Boyle Dalen

Founder and Principal, KBD Consulting

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Our beliefs and attitudes determine how we interpret and respond to the world. This is no less true for how we define success and failure than it is for how we approach philanthropy. Our mindset can make all the difference in how we show up, interpret, and respond to challenges and opportunities. And how we foster — or inhibit — learning and growth.

Giving can conjure power imbalances, a one-sided transaction, ideas about the haves and have nots and shifting needed resources from one set of hands to another. There is a scarcity mentality that undergirds this way of giving. Moreover, giving through this lens rests on the premise of agency on the part of the giver — and the giver alone — in choosing to give or withhold. A co-creator mindset, however, shifts us out of scarcity and into abundance. It shifts giving from transactional to relational. A co-creator mindset asks not “how can this grant achieve desired results?” but rather, “what are the collection of resources necessary to achieve desired results?” and, “what’s my part to play here and what is someone else’s part to play?”

Four Guiding Principles of the Co-Creator Mindset

A co-creator mindset can be accessed through four principles. While listed separately, the principles, when applied in concert with one another, help us break out of old patterns that tend toward the transactional (i.e., giver as banker or accountability partner) as opposed to relational.

1. Curiosity Over Knowing

When we arrive as curious learners — not experts with an agenda to advance — we recognize that our work is strongest when we are active scouts, seeking to learn alongside those who have views and experiences we don’t yet understand. We are better learners when we become curious because embedded in the act of being curious is humility.

2. Interdependence Over Individuality

We can help ourselves steer clear of “giver as savior” attitudes when we step back to ask what our role might be and what roles others can play better or differently than we can. This is where familiarizing ourselves with the dynamics of power is also important. Power often comes with its own language and a set of behaviors. The balance of power between a “giver” and a recipient is difficult to maintain, but even more so when the “giver” isn’t aware or refuses to acknowledge that the dynamic exists.

3. Nonattachment Over Fixed Outcomes

When we occupy the seat of giver, we often step into additional roles — conductor and director — aiming for specific outcomes and paths to our outcomes. The “giver” is at risk of seeing themselves in the gift and the outcomes thereof a mere reflection of the self, making it harder to see alternative paths. In a co-creator mindset, we create the space to ask questions, without attachment to a preconceived solution or strategy. We acknowledge that the gift is not us and we are not the gift so we can commit to intentions and progress as opposed to holding tight to a specific course of action.

4. Connection Over Control

The co-creator mindset recognizes that we work within a human context. Human relationships are unpredictable, disappointing, and generally messy. Full stop. Philanthropy has sometimes failed to fully acknowledge this, overusing checklists, accountability measures, and due diligence to enforce an appearance of order and control. The co-creator shows up ready to connect, not to be congratulated. Ready to listen, not to defend against. Ready to iterate, not orchestrate. Ready to repair if necessary. Ready to stay in the room even when it is uncomfortable to do so.

Moving to Action: The Co-Creator Mindset in Practice

Thought follows action. We can’t think our way into new behaviors, but we can behave our way into new mindsets. The practices below are designed to spur and sustain a co-creator mindset. These practices can catalyze new ways of thinking about your role, and they can serve as the habits and routines that integrate new approaches to work.

Get comfortable in explorer mode. The co-creator mindset leans into questions as an antidote to knowing. Transformation lives in our ability to hold space for the questions, “What might I have wrong?” and “Who can introduce me to a different way of seeing this?” The co-creator mindset is about the consistent commitment to wonder, to being open to discarding old approaches and beliefs and creating something new in their place.

One note of caution here: explorer mode is not about interrogating the receiver. Rather, it should prompt the giver to reflect deeply and add to the discussion of how to approach an issue, not extract information or slip into inquisition and judgment.

Build diverse, robust networks with the exclusive purpose of shared learning. To deepen our appreciation for a broader set of gifts, we need spaces designed for shared learning. Spaces built around asking questions and seeking wide discourse. By being active in these networks, we strengthen our ability to recognize and appreciate gifts that don’t look like our own. We develop experience recognizing that when solving problems, “there is no giver or gift, only the universe rearranging itself.”

Widen celebration to equitable acknowledgment and valuing of the diversity of gifts that made an innovation or breakthrough possible. This is a reboot of what gratitude currently looks like in philanthropy. Gratitude in philanthropy is often either an event honoring the donor or an event profiling people doing the work on the ground. Let’s shift out of the binary view of celebration and instead co-host celebrations that recount, name, and make vivid the many kinds of giving, and shared learning, that made progress possible.

Challenges Within the Co-Creator Mindset

The primary challenge associated with the co-creator mindset is mission creep. It’s not a far step from co-creation to, “what if you could also serve x?” or “how might we expand your offerings to include y?” Ironically, these types of questions amplify power imbalances. It is an undue burden and fraught expectation to ask the grantee to flag each time your “co-creation” veers into creep. It is the responsibility of the grantmaker to actively guard against creep. We propose the grantmaker articulate their aspirations with co-creator mindset, name the risk of mission creep and engage in a practice of consistently asking, “where are we potentially going down a road of mission creep that would draw your resources, energy, and expertise off into another area or spread you thin?”

An additional challenge associated with this work is adding yet another set of conversations and meetings to the plate of the grantee when they are seeking funding, not co-creation. A grantee may prefer not to be burdened with the task of co-creation. This is where a direct conversation about what the grantee would find most supportive to their work is helpful. A program officer might share the guiding principles of co-creator mindset and invite the grantee to name the parameters of the relationship that would be most helpful, “Is there a way we can step into co-creator mindset — together — that serves and supports your work?”

Finally, while this approach places emphasis on process, it does not eschew results and impact. This mindset — and set of practices — can bring more resources to the table in service of shared outcomes.

We encourage candid dialogue about this mindset and set of practices with both colleagues and grantees. Making this shift is a powerful opportunity to name your own learning and growth and to describe the approach you are aiming to take to your work. Embracing this mindset sets the table for an explicit invitation to grantees and community partners to join you — and even provide you with feedback — as you integrate a co-creator mindset across your relationships and way of working. This mindset shifts us out of transaction mode and invites us to more closely align the questions we ask, and conversations we have, with the aspirational vision we have for ourselves as grantmakers.

Tracy L. McFerrin is founder and principal of Credo Advisors. Kathleen Boyle Dalen is founder and principal of KBD Consulting.

Editor’s Note: CEP publishes a range of perspectives. The views expressed here are those of the authors, not necessarily those of CEP.

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