Create a Culture of Nonprofit Creativity

Wed, Jul 30, 2014 at 10:55AM

Hardy Smith, Nonprofit Speaker & Consultant

There doesn’t seem to be a shortage of tough issues facing associations and nonprofits.

Negative trends such as those affecting recruitment and retention of members, donors, and volunteers are the cause of much concern.

The generational shift now underway demands new approaches to longtime activities and services.

Once the domain of associations, competition now exists for professional certification and continuing education.

Conferences, conventions, meetings, and workshops must undergo restructuring if they hope to continue to attract participants and sponsors.

Leaders are looking for new ideas and solutions to these and other difficult challenges. However, identifying innovative answers can be challenging.

Just telling an organization to solve its problems by thinking outside the box isn’t especially helpful. What does that really mean?

While preparing to speak at the annual training conference of Florida Alliance of Information and Referral Services (FLAIRS), I asked several of their members what benefit they would like to receive from my presentation.

Jan Zak, 2-1-1 Program Director for United Way of North Central Florida, had an emphatic response.

"I would love to learn something new that would help us. But don't tell me to think outside the box," she said. "Everyone talks about thinking outside the box as if it were the simplest thing in the world, when in fact it is quite a challenge. Especially when the lid is shut!"

Jan is right. We all hear that "think outside the box" phrase as the solution for problem solving. The trouble is that advice doesn't come with instructions, so just how are we supposed to get those creative ideas?

Capturing that much sought after but elusive inspiration doesn’t just happen even for the company recognized for its imagination.

Lenn Millbower, a National Speakers Association colleague of mine, worked for many of years at Disney. He shared with me that there’s no magic dust that creates all of the Magic Kingdom’s wonderful creations.

In reality, he said, hard work, time, and money are the essential ingredients that produce the results that continue to amaze us all.

What if you don’t have the professional imagineers and resources of a Disney at your disposal to help with your creative needs?

By developing a culture of creativity in your organization you can benefit from your own sources of innovation.

Jump start your creativeness with this two step process that provides suggestions for specific actions to take.

Step one in developing a culture of creativity is to focus on your individual approach to imaginative thinking.

First, consider what you want an out-of-the-box idea to produce. Goals can be general or specific.

To trigger different ideas from your thought process, prepare yourself to think and act differently. Decide you will not only be receptive to new ideas, you will actively seek them out.

For example, have your antenna up with the awareness of being ready to recognize new ideas as you go about your daily routine.

An important behavior change for facilitating creativity is to realize working harder to solve a problem can have the opposite effect. This may be counter intuitive to some but working too hard can actually hinder finding the solutions you are looking for.

On the other hand, being “present” within a culture of creativity helps you to work smarter and with much more productive results.

It is also difficult to be creative when stressed, tired, and overworked. Time away really does help!

For the hard charging get-it-done personality type, this may be a challenging concept to accept, but consider personal creative time as an important part of your productivity. If it makes you feel better, include creative-related activity on your daily to-do list!

When arranging your schedule, designating your most productive time of the day to do creative thinking is a proven strategy for achieving maximum productivity.

Spending time in your idea garden or the places and activities that seem to be where your best ideas pop up is always beneficial.

For example, go for a run, walk on the beach, work in the yard, meditate, bounce ideas off a creative friend, or simply spend time at the coffee shop; all of these are proven ways individuals find helpful for finding clarity and inspiration.

Sometimes your thoughts may appear to be random with no immediate application but I have found that once positioned for creative thinking, the subconscious is working to identify ideas for both present and future use.

That’s why capturing your ideas by journaling or maintaining an idea file is important.

Consider comedian Jerry Seinfeld as an example of how a foundation of single thoughts can build into a cohesive collection of creativity. The development of his jokes and standup routines, which that appear so effortless and spontaneous, is detailed in his documentary Jerry Seinfeld Comedian.

Seinfeld collects words that turn into phrases which grow into sentences. As the process unfolds a single joke or story is developed.

Each step along the way is repeated and tested before live audiences to determine what gets the response Seinfeld wants. Eventually he has enough material ready for a full new show.

Getting out of the office to see what others are doing will enhance your personal ability for generating new ideas. Retail competitors such as Walmart and Target are constantly in each other’s stores for comparison shopping.

International Speedway Corporation owns and operates some of the largest sports and entertainment facilities in the country. Visiting other activities that generate large spectator attendance such as concerts, major sports events, and festivals is done with regularity to find fresh ideas for improving event operations and customer service.

Taking time to attend educational opportunities can be extremely beneficial. Annual conferences with networking, speakers, and a schedule of workshops are always excellent sources for stimulating thought and being introduced to new ideas.

Supplement your creative development with reading and actively writing because both are good creative stimulants.

You can get an inspirational boost by eliminating obstacles that shut down creativity. Clutter and disorganization are distractions that can create a false sense of priority. These two idea busters are sources of stress and pressure that can cause a mental argument against taking time for creative activity.

Another door that closes creativity is accepting "that's the way we've always done it" as reasoning for continuing practices that no longer produce needed results. Keep the door for improvement open by asking, “what can we do differently”

Ensuring adequate attention is given to planning will help reduce unproductive activity that blocks creative thought flow. Time devoted to planning, especially in a group setting, creates individual and organizational structure.

Planning also provides opportunities to identify needed improvement and fresh approaches. An immediate post-event debriefing evaluation is always good for analyzing results and capturing ideas.

The need for planning may sound like a no-brainer; however, organizations repeatedly tell me that they don’t plan because they don’t have time or the resources to devote to it. With the many benefits that come from planning, does that really make sense?

Waiting until a deadline is imminent is another barrier to creative thinking that can and should be avoided. Work in advance and then use your time as a deadline approaches for polishing and strengthening the final product.

Focus on identifying the how for achieving the desired result. Working backwards is an alternative route to that needed solution.

When searching for a new approach, re-inventing what has been done previously isn’t always necessary. Sometimes just a small adjustment is needed. Revisit old ideas with new information or fresh insight from new people.

Any change being considered should have purpose.

Here are ten questions that can assist your thinking process and with structuring a creative discussion.

  1. What are desired outcomes?
  2. What organizational models should be studied?
  3. What educational conferences/workshops should be attended?
  4. What other events should be visited?
  5. What are activities that need benefit of creative thinking?
  6. What can be done to stimulate and encourage creative thinking?
  7. What behavior changes needed?
  8. What get-out-the-rut activity can our team do?
  9. What outside resource should be utilized to help facilitate creativity?
  10. What creative thinking obstacles need to be removed?

Step two in developing a culture of creativity is to involve other people.

Your staff represents a pool of resourcefulness. An environment that encourages and recognizes innovative ideas can produce an unlimited amount of creativity.

Often imagination is stifled with less than positive reaction to new or different thoughts. Is questioning of the status quo accepted?

Give encouragement to the newer people who offer up solutions that have already been tried so that they'll continue to share their thoughts. If they get the "we've already tried that" response, their willingness to think out loud can be quickly shut down.

It is quite possible more experienced employees may have never been asked for suggestions or felt their ideas would be welcomed. With encouragement, a whole new source of originality may be ready to be uncorked.

Every action suggested for you to take should be encouraged for others to take as well. Your own example of embracing a culture of creativity will provide leadership reinforcement.

Another method of generating creative thought is to ask your team critical thinking questions about priority issues. Asking “how can we improve?” or “how can we be better?” can initiate conversation that will produce beneficial results.

Remember creative risk is a critical part of innovation and not every idea will work. Communicate to your staff that it is not only acceptable, it is encouraged and welcomed.

Think about all the other key parties you can change from merely interested to actively engaged.

For example, your members, volunteers, and clients can contribute to idea creation. By including them in your creative process you’ll strengthen their connection to the organization and develop buy-in for change being considered.

Ask your vendors and sponsors for their suggestions. They have the benefit of working with other organizations and participating in events similar to yours. Being solicited for ideas will be a welcome change from the normal request for money!

Many associations and nonprofits miss out on the very valuable insight that could be gained by engaging their board members in creative thinking activity.

According my survey asking nonprofit board members the specific question “Why don’t board members do what they’re supposed to do? board members feel they aren’t being utilized in a manner that fully takes advantage of their expertise and experience. Board members can play an important role in your creative culture’s success.

Diversity, too, represents unlimited potential for creativity.

New and fresh ideas, chief byproducts of diversity, can come in many different forms. A purposeful combination of diverse generations, different cultural influences, along with varied educational and professional backgrounds can enhance an organization’s ability for achieving alternative thinking.

Being creative doesn’t have to be difficult. Positioning yourself in an environment built around a culture of creativity will build a platform for creative success. Employing these strategies will help you pop the lid of that closed idea box!


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