This article is about the need to build more time into one’s work plan to make space for the creative muses to visit. Why?  Because creative processes are both an antidote to the to the world’s problems and a fresh, meaningful way to engage our donors.

But I’ve had the hardest time writing it. You see, I waited too long to start writing and didn’t give myself enough space to let my own creative juices flow. That is, unless you count the cold-medicine induced dream where I had developed an emoji-based donor management system to save fundraisers from having to type up all those pesky visit notes…

While my procrastination this past month may seem to belie my commitment to creativity, I really do value it (and the time it takes!).  I believe that we should regularly engage in creative processes in order to develop inspired solutions to the problems we’re trying to solve.   In particular, I want those of us who work in the nonprofit sector to be encouraged and rewarded for building more creativity into our work and inviting our donors into that process, even if that means things might take more time.

Here’s why taking the time to build in creativity can really pay off:

  • Creativity keeps things fresh and effective. Recently, one of my clients experienced the power of getting creative.  They had used the same costly format for their fall direct mail appeal for many years, even though the expense of producing it meant that they had to reduce the number of people receiving it.   They changed the format, making it eye-catching and a more affordable option, which also meant they could mail it to a bigger audience.  As a result, they generated more money and reached their budgeted fundraising goal for the first time in several years.
  • Creativity is energizing, engaging and deepens emotional investment.  In David Sibbet’s excellent book, Visual Meetings; How Graphics, Sticky Notes, and Idea Mapping Can Transform Group Productivity, he differentiates between “Push” activities which assert themselves and change things by adding content, rules, structure or requiring decisions; and “pull” activities which support people moving in the direction they want to go naturally or how they want to participate. With push activities, eventually, people feel the need to resist, or “push back.”  But with pull activities, people are pulled into deeper attention and participation.  The creative process is a “pull” activity. When used well, it deepens the engagement of the people participating in it, something you need and want when you are developing relationships with donors.
  • Creativity is actually vital to productivityWhy? Because creative processes can open you up to tackling bigger problems, and can also remove the fear of failure, which all too often leads to doing things “the way we’ve always done it” because doing so feels so safe. If you want to accomplish more in your program, you should foster and encourage creativity. (This is another great article to share with your employer on the value of promoting creativity in the workplace in order to increase productivity.)

So why don’t we try getting creative more often? 

Because, like any muscle that’s been underutilized, it takes training and practice to develop your creative skills.  And in order to make that training and practice possible, your workplace needs to provide encouragement, motivation and opportunity to develop your creative muscles. Not many offices I’ve worked with have managed to regularly invite and incorporate creative processing into their day-to-day activities.  And even when they do, that practice is often exclusive to the staff or board of an organization in a retreat setting.  Rarely do donors have the opportunity to engage in a creative process with an organization.

Also, as I mentioned above, we think creativity takes too much time or doesn’t count as “real work”.  But in reality, creativity can jump start problem solving and quicken the path to productivity.   Julie and Emily told me a story about experiencing this first hand in one of their fundraising trainings.  They once led a training session where no one was talking or engaging much until they assigned everyone a partner and a creative thought exercise to dive into.  The participants loved it and the conversations became animated with interesting new ideas being generated.   As they wrapped up with the board chair after the training, they commented on how noticeable it was that people were more engaged were when they had something creative to talk about.  They asked the Board Chair, who was struggling with poor board attendance and participation if something similar had ever been tried at a regular board meeting.  His response?  “But we have work to do at our meetings!”  As if everyone sitting there staring at him was the only way of getting work done!

We might all agree that making more time for creative engagement will not only help us find fresh solutions to tough problems, but also deepen connections between donors, staff and the mission of your organization.  We might also all agree that more exercise and better sleep with promote wellness and reduce stress.  It doesn’t mean we easily change old habits or that we’re getting eight hours of sleep every night.   So where do we start?

Start small. Try these easy techniques the next time you’re visiting a donor or holding a meeting:

  • Invite the person with whom you’re speaking to describe your organization using a metaphor, such as a type of vehicle, kind of plant or food.  Then ask, what metaphor would they use to describe the ideal form your organization would take.  You might learn something new about how your organization is perceived.
  • Ask the question of yourself and others, “What is the biggest, boldest, bravest, most off-the-wall and ridiculous step our organization could take to achieve its mission?”  Bonus points if you find a way to incorporate a kernel of the response in how you work!
  • Play games!  I use a variation of this game when I’m facilitating retreats to promote team building and problem-solving skills.  It’s fun and silly and you’ll be surprised at the amount of resourcefulness you’ll discover by playing a quick round.

Let’s get creative about creativity!

I’ve admitted that this past month, I didn’t practice what I’m preaching in this article.  I have, however, committed to making more time to be creative in the coming months.  I’ve already started by setting aside much more time to prep for an upcoming retreat and playing with a few new facilitation ideas.  What ideas do you have for being more creative in your work?  For inviting donors to join in the creative process with you?

Share your ideas on how to really do this sort of thing.  Let’s get creative together!