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October 5, 2018

Fundraising Experts Share 5 Tips to Stay Creative

It’s a myth to think that creativity is reserved only for the turtleneck-wearing, palette-wielding, artsy intellectuals. Creativity is pervasive and practical. And it’s used by fundraisers of every stripe, every day. Including you.

Let’s start with our intuition. We know what feels creative: Perhaps it’s something that strikes us as original in some way, or something that stirs a feeling in us that isn’t familiar. But creativity is more productive than that.

The root of creativity is about finding new (or newer) ways of solving problems.

To be fair, it’s absolutely sound fundraising strategy to think linearly and look to what’s worked in the past in order to raise more funds or engage more donors. After all, past successes are good predictors of future ones.

But not at the expense of creativity. If you’re solving problems in order to achieve goals, guess what? You. Are. Creative. Even if you’re not a Creative Director. (Full disclosure: Your friendly blog writer is a Creative Director.)

So how do you keep creativity coursing through the problem-solving process? I posed this very question to two dozen experts in the fundraising field who are also prodigious creative practitioners. Here are their top 5 tips:


1. Take a break.

“Schedule your ideation process with enough time to set it aside. It’s amazing how ideas redirect and flourish when allowed to marinate in the back of your mind. You need to be intentional and trusting about allowing your brain the time it takes to do its thing.”
— John Thompson, Chief Creative Officer

Writer’s block is said to have originated in the 19th Century when English poet Samuel Taylor Coleridge couldn’t produce work that rose to his talent level. He called that episode “indefinite indescribable terror.” A creative block is a very real thing, even in this century!

So whether you’re staring at a blank page and don’t know what words to use … or you’re not happy with how your donation page looks … or you’re wondering what clever name you can call your next event … my fellow creatives say this: Walk away!

However, I also got this:

“Don’t walk away when you’re on a roll.”
— Alan Hyams, Senior Copywriter

I can personally vouch for both. Whenever I put some space between the problem and solution, it allows time for ideas to ferment. And whenever I’m on a roll, everything else around me is a blur until I finish the task. But if that doesn’t work for you …


2. Do something else.

“Take time to allow your brain to wander. My best ideas always come from unplugging and letting my thoughts flow.”
— Amanda Swadlo, Graphic Designer

Surprised? Then let me ask you this. When was the last time you had a brilliant idea while sitting in your office or cubicle, staring at your screen? Inspiration often strikes when you least expect it. Look online and you’ll find all kinds of advice about monotonous tasks that can enhance creativity: doodle, read, walk, clean out the litter box, mow the lawn, etc. But doing something else doesn’t mean it has to be boring.

Two of our Creative Directors cited fun distractions. Angie MacAlpine suggests relaxing about brainstorming by starting with an idea that you know is terrible, just so you can laugh and take the pressure off. David Torres plays the bongos or sings (not in meetings, generally). Psychologists back up what they’re suggesting.

The science of creativity shows that our great ideas surface when we’re doing something that doesn’t tax our brains, because our conscious cognition doesn’t have to work as hard. That more relaxed state allows the ideas to bubble up. This is also why brainstorming is great for planting seeds of ideas but not for coming up with the final product. True creativity-on-demand is rare! (Bonus tip: Plan your brainstorming exercises well before a specific project is due to allow time for the best ideas to ripen.)


3. Build your knowledge.

“I look for the creativity and innovation that exists in everyday things, the works of other artists and craftspeople, or even in books, theater, TV, and cinema. These inspirational side trips can jump-start my own creative thinking.”
— Maria Harmer, VP, Creative

Some of the most creative people are also incredibly knowledgeable about a variety of topics. What better fertile ground is there for creativity than a boatload of knowledge? When you continually learn about new things, you help prime your brain to be open to new solutions rather than rely on the familiar. That’s an important skill when you’re out in the world talking to people. If you have a lot of knowledge, you’re bound to find common ground and conversation starters with just about anyone.

And read! The smartest creatives I know are voracious readers.


4. Witness the work.

“The most inspiring thing I can do for my work is get close to the causes I write about. That means visiting them, talking to their staff and volunteers, and interviewing the people (or meeting the animals!) that they serve.”
— Jolene Miklas, Senior Copywriter

“Have fun and observe life!”
— Matt Lorenz, Art Director


Inspiration can come from a lot of places – perhaps the most literal of all is the actual subject matter involved with your creative task. Why imagine it when you can witness it? If your nonprofit serves hungry people, spend time serving food to them. If you shelter animals, spend time getting to know them. If you help homeless people, spend time talking to them.

As fundraisers, we don’t work in a passionless world. We put our hearts into everything we do. So get out there and observe, listen, and engage at the kind of Technicolor-detail level that allows you to drum up the sights and sounds of your work when you really need them.


5. Ask Questions

“Break things apart. Look closely at why something resonates with its audience. Try to discern the substance from the gloss.”
— Steve Farrar, Digital Creative Director


Enjoying something creative? Great. Then analyze it. Look beyond the surface and past the literal. Why does it resonate? You can help this skill along by being “a questioner.” Ask lots of questions. Being curious about the world is a pillar of being creative.

Here’s one example from my personal files:

Many years ago, during a family trip to LEGOLAND® in Florida, we made a beeline to the air conditioning and stumbled into an indoor area where a contest was in progress. The task was to build a structure out of LEGO® bricks under the theme of police, ambulance, or firefighters. The room was filled with families from all over the world, diligently building these elaborate and incredibly realistic structures. Helipads on hospitals. Firehouses with ladders and working doors. Us? We just wanted to get out of the heat.

However, my son, who was around 8 at the time, took up the challenge and 30 minutes later, he submitted his entry. It was a pair of very simple life-sized walkie talkies, perched upright on a stand. A few weeks later, I got an email saying that he had won. While most of the entries took the assignment literally in terms of building complex structures, he solved the same problem in a new — and simple — way.

So here’s my advice: Creativity doesn’t have to be complex or daunting. Sometimes the simplest solution is also the most creative.

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