Get Creative -- Now!

Two winters ago, Wilfredo Rosario and his wife Jazmin were watching the Weather Channel as an ice storm barreled down on their Clayton, North Carolina home. One of the TV tips was to pull plastic bags over your vehicle's side-view mirrors so that when the storm passed, you could de-ice by simply removing the bags. When Wilfredo refused to try it, Jazmin threw on her jacket, grabbed some bags, and headed for the driveway. Minutes later, climbing the icy brick stairs, she slipped, deeply gashing her forehead. After getting his wife emergency treatment, the guilty husband's mind went into overdrive.

    Wilfredo Rosario holding his Dibs product.

   Wilfredo Rosario holding his Dibs product.

Since Jazmin lacked the proper footwear for the pop-up storm, Wilfredo reasoned that many others were doubtless in the same boat. The serial inventor turned over idea after idea in his mind for two weeks before hitting on a solution -- disposable ice booties (DIBs) with grips on the bottom that you pull on like hospital shoe covers. From his backyard garage, he created the product that he now sells ($9.99/for two pairs http://www.yougotdibs.com/). Though sales to date have been negligible (he still supports the family with his day job), Wilfredo's invention has more than atoned for his guilt. And it brought him something else: the feeling of being alive, awake and having agency in his own life. "The act of creation," he says, "makes me more positive, more responsive... a better husband and father."

While not all of us aspire to invent new products, everyone has creative potential and can tap the wisdom within to overcome personal and professional challenges. For development professionals, finding your wellspring of creativity can help you in myriad ways -- from dreaming up new methods of expanding your donor base, to coming up with an original idea for a blog post, to identifying thank you gifts that donors actually care to own. The experts agree that the creativity muscle can be built like any other: with steady practice, commitment, and the willingness to step outside your comfort zone into uncharted terrain.

Following are six ways for nonprofit professionals to cultivate the tools of creativity:

1. Take a walk. Get off your sedentary bum and take a walk around the block. Since most of us spend over nine hours a day sitting, watching a bee diving for nectar while moving through space can get your creative juices going. On your walk, observe a roofer tearing off old shingles and putting up new. And you don't have to go solo. Take a page out of Aristotle's play book and organize a walking meeting with one or more colleagues. While taking in fresh air and sunlight, you might just hatch -- or stumble on -- creative inspiration.

2. Crowd-source your ideas. I've crowd-sourced personal therapy for many years. When faced with a personal or professional crisis --  to save time and money and get disparate views-- I poll my friends for feedback. You can use the same approach to brainstorm new work solutions. If you're tasked with developing a new theme for your nonprofit's annual gala, for instance, pull together a disparate group -- colleagues, friends, even the data-entry clerk and your favorite barista -- and solicit ideas and outside-the-box thinking.

3. Seek inspiration from other professions. My colleague Bill Crouch frequently draws inspiration from other professions, applying gleaned insights to the fundraising area. One of his favorite lessons comes from the Blue Angels. After those famous Navy and Marine Corps pilots who fly in formation at military and civilian air shows return to ground -- before even removing their uniforms -- they routinely debrief, discussing what went well and what could have gone better. Bill notes that the code is never to criticize a team member but only to offer self critiques. To that end, at Crouch & Associates, we now recommend that nonprofit professionals debrief after every major event -- and if possible -- even after important meetings or calls to discuss the "flips" and "flops" of what just transpired.

4. Tap other generations. If you're a millennial, ask a Baby Boomer for her most trying moment in development; if you're a GenXer, interview a member of the Greatest Generation about his best professional triumph or most scary moment in his professional life. Listening deeply to their stories and applying them to your own situation will offer you perspective and wisdom.

5. Hire a novelist. Former North Carolina Governor Terry Sanford has been ranked one of America's greatest governors of the 20th century in part due to a string of creative innovations. It turns out, a lot of credit goes to an unorthodox hire he made in recruiting a young novelist named John Ehle to be his "idea man." The North Carolina School of the Arts, the Governors School for brilliant high school students, and the state's first film board were among Ehle's ideas that the risk-taking governor embraced and launched.

6. Apply elbow grease. Understand that creativity isn't a gift that descends from on high. It takes effort to read widely, listen deeply, solicit criticism and try new approaches. According to Tchaikovsky, “Inspiration is a guest that does not willingly visit the lazy.” It comes down to elbow grease. If at first you don't succeed, try, try again.

7. Finallytalk to strangers. Children are warned against talking to strangers, but we adults are foolish to overlook this enormous pool of inspiration. Gaining fresh perspectives from a stranger can open your mind to an array of creative ideas. Try it out at the gym or in the supermarket. Or strike up a conversation with a fellow passenger in the ticket line. That's where I met Wilfredo Rosario. While waiting to check our bags one icy day this winter, Wilfredo told me about his disposable ice booties. His enthusiasm was infectious, and we exchanged business cards. And -- this is where enterprise enters in -- he sent a follow-up email. While no doubt he wants to hit the jackpot with his invention, what struck me most was how creativity endows a person with passion and charisma.

If you'd like some of that, I leave you with this challenge: In the next 24 hours, do something to cultivate your own creativity. It may lead you somewhere or it may fall flat, no matter. But believe me, being creative always brings new energy to your work and a spring to your professional step.

Wanda Urbanska is Crouch & Associate's Director of Content.