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On Creativity

Is your job FUN? What makes you laugh or smile while at work? What do you look forward to doing? Chances are it includes other people and possibly eating and drinking since socializing is a big part of having fun.

According to Mike Vance and Diane Deacon in Think Out of the Box, high-level creativity occurs when people feel free to have fun. What does it mean to "feel free?" It is freedom to to be ourselves, to be respected, to be able to express our emotions, to know that our ideas and opinions will be considered. Freedom allows us to be less inhibited and to let our guards down, so that creativity can bubble to the surface. Our environment has to permit us to have fun, also. It has to be acceptable for us to laugh at ourselves and each other, to tell stories and jokes. We need to be able to take time out from the seriousness of our jobs to enjoy one another, to celebrate special occasions, and to show that we care. Our environment sets the stage for creativity.

Creativity is action-oriented; it means doing something. It is an essential part of our job -- or it is if we are having fun. Fun is not only important to our own sense of satisfaction, it is important to our success in raising funds: identifying resources; involving people; and securing commitment.

In their book they quote the advice of Roy Disney, "If you want someone to care, capture their minds and their hearts." As development professionals, we instinctively know that is true. However, our donors and prospective donors are inundated with information from countless sources every day. They are grappling with a whirlwind of change in their environments. They are beseeched by a growing number of worthwhile causes. Amid this tumult, how do we engage their interest and pull their heartstrings?

Creativity is key to inspiring people to join with us in pursuing our missions. We need to open ourselves to creative possibilities in expanding our relationships with them and their relationships with those we serve. Buckminster Fuller believed that we are not creative persons per se; we are simply discoverers of the creative energy and resources that abound in the world around us. What motivates us to make use of these elements is passion.

If passion is the creative fuel, then we are full of it. If we are not passionate about our institutions and their goals, we better find a mission we are passionate about or find a different line of work. It is passion that drives us to figure out what makes people tick and to formulate creative strategies to engage their minds and capture hearts -- to create the opportunity for them to feel as passionate as we do about our missions and the people we serve.

One of my clients is a public high school planning a $5 million campaign to upgrade its electrical infrastructure and integrate technology into the curriculum. The campaign study indicated one of our greatest challenges: helping alumni, parents and other prospective donors understand the potential of technology applications in the classroom. We determined that a video presentation would be the best medium to convey the message.

Who better to deliver the message than students? Nobody could be more passionate about their educational needs and their futures. And, younger minds certainly are creative. "The Growing Gap" was the theme developed to portray the technologic and economic disparity between the "haves" and "have nots" echoing the discrimination which existed in this district and led to the landmark Brown vs. Board of Education decision by the U.S. Supreme Court.

We established a well-organized environment for the students by offering the opportunity as an independent study class for academic credit with a faculty advisor and an alumna with a background in professional video production. You find that creativity flourishes when goals are well-defined, when motivated people can feed on one another’s ideas in brainstorming sessions, and when their environment is rich in resources.

The principle expounded by Vance and Deacon in their book is that "involved, informed and inspired people, working in a resource-rich place, developing new and improving existing products and services, produce caring, cooperative and creative leadership." That is the formula for effective development work. A practical application was described in my article, "Catapulting Your Development Efforts with an Advisory Council."

Creativity is about inventing new ways of doing something or reengineering our current practices. Vance and Deacon pose nine questions to help you (and your board) be creative -- to get you to "think out of the box." The exploration of these questions in brainstorming sessions using the displayed thinking method (ideas posted for all to see) will generate myriad ideas. These questions can be used to guide your board or your staff in a strategic planning process (a facilitator can be helpful). Frame them in a development context as suggested below in parentheses.

1. What are things really like? (Think like the people your organization serves. What are their needs, concerns and desires? Talk about these in concrete, descriptive ways in words and phrases they use.)

2. Why are they the way they are? (Explore the root causes of these problems which will set the stage for solutions to emerge that your organization may offer.)

3. How are we going to change? (Develop ideas for solutions without evaluating or judging them at this point. Allow ideas to expand into models and specific actions.)

4. Is our plan realistic and deliverable? (This is the time for evaluation. Document how ideas can be put into action, what resources will be required, and what outcomes will be expected.)

5. Are we really change-oriented? (It is important to bring the group to consensus, to approve plans and to commit the required resources to move forward and to change the status quo.)

6. Do we sanction incompetence? (To be successful in this endeavor determine whether ineffective programs, practices or people should be cut back or eliminated. Establish clear goals and time lines that can be measured.)

7. Have our ideas been formed into a vision? (Check to be sure that these proposals conform to and advance your mission. Articulate the vision in a clear, compelling case for support.)

8. Do we have people on the team with ability? (Seek people who will work to achieve this vision and who have wisdom and wealth or access to wealth.)

9. Are we prepared to see this thing through to the end? (Develop a detailed operational plan with checkpoints for evaluation and proceed to securing the necessary resources.)

What happened to our video project? An early test of the project’s ability to capture both the minds and hearts of our audience came as the students cast about for technical support. Describing it to a group of alumni planning their 30th reunion aroused excitement and someone remembered a classmate who is now a high-level executive with a national technology corporation. In a subsequent long-distance telephone conversation with him, he immediately connected with the importance of the project. It captured his mind as an area of focus for his company; and it touched his heart as an African-American alumnus. Not only may the immediate need for technical support be met, he suggested that a much larger opportunity for significant in-kind and grant support may exist.

As development professionals, we are the link among our institutions, its donors, and those it serves. We provide the essential dynamic to engage the minds and hearts of our donors. You will experience much more fun and satisfaction by introducing or formalizing a structure for creativity into your work. You will get people involved and excited. In so doing, you will reach your goals.

Suggested readings:

Ayan, J., Aha! 10 Ways to Free Your Creative Spirit and Find Your Great Ideas, Crown Trade Paperbacks, New York, 1997.

Koestler, A., The Act of Creation, Penguin Books, New York, 1964.

Mattimore, B., 99% Inspiration: Tips, Tales & Techniques for Liberating Your Business Creativity, AMACOM, New York, 1993.

Shekerjian, D., Uncommon Genius: How Great Ideas Are Born, Viking Penguin, New York, 1990.

Vance, M. and Deacon, D., Think Out of the Box, Career Press, New Jersey, 1995.

von Oech, R., A Whack on the Side of the Head: How You Can Be More Creative, Warner Books, New York, 1990.

Michael R. Maude, ACFRE, FAHP
Partners In Philanthropy

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