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The Nonprofit Strategist

Four Tips for Putting Your Creativity to Work

We hear a lot about innovation these days. Tech is obsessed with disruption, sometimes to the great benefit of the masses, and sometimes without enough thought to “to what end” and “for whom--and who gets left behind?”. Many foundations want to fund innovative ideas (but generally not without proof of concept, and not with too much risk). Nonprofits that want to stand out and be able to compete for funding may be eager to position their programs as innovative. And some of us are left scratching our heads, wondering what all the fuss is about--our work is already great, after all--and how does one innovate, anyway?

Innovation is indeed a good thing, and as we’ve written before, it does not have to mean completely re-inventing how the whole sector thinks about addressing a problem or serving people (though that can come of it too). Innovation is creativity in action. It’s how we assess and respond to the world around us -- especially shifting contexts, challenges, and opportunities -- through improvements, small and large, in how we operate.

If you’re like me, you might not be inclined to see yourself as innovative, or even creative. I couldn’t draw a paper bag, much less draw my way out of one. You’d rather not hear me sing. I had to sit with my flute on my lap at a concert in the 7th grade because I never figured out how to keep rhythm. I don’t know how to code. My attempts at graphic design are clumsy at best.

But guess what: We work in a problem-solving sector bursting with creative energy working for good. I’m still creative and I can put that creativity to work, and so can you. Here are some tips and strategies to get you started:

1. Get Quiet

This is a little different from the others but I think it’s important -- especially for leaders.  You need to find time to get quiet with yourself. Close your door and shut down your screens for 20 minutes. Meditate. Take a walk. Do whatever works best for you to temporarily shut out all of the distractions and the urgency of the work. Practice asking a question and getting quiet to see what comes up. These won’t always be your best, or even great ideas. They will rarely be ready-to-implement, but it can be a good starting point for examining a problem with new perspective and clarity.

2. Practice Empathy

The biggest influence in changing my thinking about my own creative power has been IDEO, and their model of “design thinking” or “human-centered design”. Design thinking means centering the person you’re trying to serve, or design for. It is founded in empathy. What does this person think, feel, need, desire? What is holding them back? What could they do or become? These are great questions to ask ourselves about our own programs -- even if you’ve been running a successful program for a long time. Context shifts, needs change, our own organizations’ capacity and strengths change, and if we aren’t checking in from time-to-time, we may wake up one day and realize we’re miles away from where we want to be, not serving who we should be serving, obsolete or just completely ineffective. (The photographs showing stacks of paper waiting to be processed overtaking Veteran Affairs’ offices, when the rest of the world had digitized and veterans were waiting years for their paperwork to be processed, comes to mind.)

Examine your programs from the perspective of your clients. Talk to them. Practice going through the process yourself. Look at your data. Take note of what’s working well and what’s not, who you’re serving and who you’re not, and when you find opportunities to make improvements, explore them.

3. Brainstorm -- but do so effectively

Everyone knows about the brainstorm. But not everyone knows how to brainstorm effectively. Step one: get the right people in the room. This means a diverse group that can look at a problem and opportunities from many different angles. If you’re brainstorming around a program need, you might want to have program managers and junior or frontline program staff in the room, along with someone from your development, communications, and tech teams. Consider bringing in a trusted program participant or few, or and/or program volunteers.

Once you’re in the room, I like following the Stanford School of Design’s rules of brainstorming. The biggest takeaways from this model are to choose the right question and come up with as many answers as possible by asking “How many ways might we…” and then temporarily suspending judgement. This means there are no wrong or bad answers at first. You’ll want to set some ground rules about how to respectfully engage with other people’s (sometimes truly crazy) ideas, and you’ll also want to take note of how power dynamics might play out in the room and take some steps to ensure that groups that might be afraid to speak up or often get talked over -- junior staff, women, and people of color -- can speak freely and be heard. Last, have a plan for what happens next. Maybe a small working group is formed. Maybe the team agrees to implement one small change or test an idea.

4. Take small steps

Back to our friends at IDEO: they love a prototype and you should too. All prototyping really means is conducting a small-scale, low-risk test to see how an idea stands up in the real world. For example, say you run a career support program for low-income women in your community. You may learn, from going through step one above, that you’re missing a lot of who you intend to serve because it’s hard for many of your target clients to come into your office from 9-5 on a weekday. Transportation is an issue for some. Childcare for others. Still others are already working during the day. You’ve assembled a group and come up with some great ideas through a brainstorming session: virtual coaching, weekend hours, home visits, ride shares, on-site childcare. But which should you do, and what to prioritize?

This is where your prototype comes in. You could start offering virtual coaching for some clients on a trial basis or test out weekend hours or onsite childcare for a few weeks. Or you could go even smaller and make some flyers with the various options, and then take them to your client base for feedback on what would make their participation easiest.  The point is to quickly test an idea or an assumption, gather as much evidence as you can about whether or how well it’s working, then refine as needed, BEFORE committing a bunch of organizational resources to launching or upending a program model.

Happy creating!