Co-producing between domestic abuse services

Dan Lowthorpe - 22 September 2021

Reading Time: 9 minutes

People who have experienced domestic abuse and sexual violence have found it difficult to access support during the pandemic. We ran a 12-week programme to help charities working in this sector discover the value in ‘creating meaningful connections’. Participants also worked with service users to co-design a wellbeing app.



Background to the project

The relationships between support organisations and their service users have come under significant stress due to the effects of Covid-19 and lockdowns. Six charities working in the field of domestic abuse and sexual violence had come together seeking innovative ways to address these challenges.

The project – Creating Meaningful Connections – Catalyst Sector Challenge – was funded by the National Lottery Community Fund. Our pitch was based on seeing the potential of co-production to open up links, not just between charities and service users, but between different charities.

ManKind Initiative
Youth Realities
Daisy Programme
First Light

The challenge was to work with the charities to explore the ingredients of meaningful connections, looking at how these can be created and maintained, both online and offline.

Our ultimate intention was to co-produce solutions that would enable both staff and service users to feel more connected.

The nature of the tendering process meant that the six charities had each written an individual tender and therefore already decided on their desired outcome from the process. Our challenge was to draw people back to the issues, rather than focusing on their preferred solutions. This would create the space for the group to build consensus on how to address the challenge.

What we did

We brought the six charities together and designed a process to move them towards collaborative working and co-design of solutions to the challenge of ‘creating meaningful connections’.

Across the 12-week project, we held weekly online workshops of 2–3 hours each. The group co-designed two user surveys, processing and analysing the results together. (Participants commented on how useful it was to pick up techniques for completing emergent analysis on qualitative data.)



Halfway through the project, we brought five service users into our workshops as ‘peer designers’. They became deeply involved in the process – as equal decision-makers, not just in a consultation role.

Digital agency If Collective joined in week 5, to advise on and produce the digital solution in the form of our wellbeing app. The prototype app was designed to help service users with their support needs, providing a way to self-diagnose their requirements, track their wellbeing, browse sources of support, and check in with support staff.

“The process has been broadening our horizons, stretching what could be done instead of what can’t be done”

Charity participant


After an initial sense of uncertainty – charities in this sector are not used to working together! – participants embraced the opportunity to collaborate in building consensus and exploring solutions.

As well as co-producing the digital prototype – which earned positive feedback from a broad selection of service users – participants reported that they had gained insights into:

  • bringing in voices of lived experience
  • online tools and techniques for collaboration
  • analysing survey data
  • working through a service design process
  • making and sustaining meaningful connections


Above all, discovering the power of collaborative working was a lightbulb moment for many of the charities, with participants describing the process as ‘transformative’ and telling us how it inspired them to change the way they work.

“Sometimes we are so focused on the destination that we forget to enjoy the journey. Exploring ideas, experiencing being together and sharing things with each is so valuable”

Charity participant

A by-product of the process was our Meaningful Connections Model, a practical toolkit to help teams identify and reflect on service relationships. We have now completed stretch-testing on this model and found it to be an invaluable self/group assessment tool (the version provided here includes testing results, user profiles and instructions).


We also produced ‘Diary of a Collaborator’, a co-designed document with contributions from the eight charity representatives and five peer designers. (The videos on this page are highlights from the video version of the diary.)



Building on the success of the project, we have been able to develop and stretch-test the Meaningful Connections model with an additional 10% uplift funding. One of the charities is developing the prototype app into a fully fledged product. And all of the charities involved have developed new ways of working as a direct result of the process.


“Co-create used their co-design approach to great effect, as part of the Catalyst and National Lottery Community Fund Covid-19 Digital Response Fund, on the Sector Challenge Programme. Working with six sexual abuse and domestic violence charities – who had never worked together before – they explored the question of how to create meaningful online connections between support organisations and service users, starting by asking what ‘connection’ meant for people in the middle of a pandemic.

I really appreciated the way Lucy and Jane worked so openly and collaboratively with their charity team, creating artefacts like the Diary of a Collaborator to track shared learnings and feelings throughout the project, and an open feedback log to show how they as designers were responding to reflections from the charities. This certainly helped build trust and alignment.

Together they reached and engaged a huge number of staff and service users in the project, and I loved the way they brought in people with lived experience as peer designers to create things like the final wrap-up video and social media campaign – a brilliant example for future Catalyst projects of the power of co-design.”

Ellie Hale
Catalyst at CAST Centre for the Acceleration of Social Technology

From our final evaluation…

To what extent do you agree with this statement:
“I now have the core insights/ingredients of what a meaningful connection can mean to both staff and service users”?

“Lots of people from a diverse range of organisations, still managing to work together with respect and honour – I will take that away with me”

Charity participant

“I felt I’d achieved something, I thought ‘wow, my voice is being heard’ – I felt like a part of something”

Peer designer

“What really shines out for me is the power of collaboration”

Charity participant

Share this article