FYI Blog

How do you define creative thinking?

To approach thinking about creative in a different way, Avalon developed a Thinking Creatively: Streaming Series. This group participates in sessions curated by our former Chief Strategy Officer and frequent collaborator, Jenny Phillips. We meet quarterly and review content ahead of time like short videos, documentaries, brief articles, and thought pieces. The group comes ready to share their thoughts and debate the merits of each piece of content, guided by provocative discussion questions. Previous sessions offered a choice between documentaries about Beyoncé, Maya Lin, Joan Didion, and Steve Jobs. We also explored what it means to be creative – and I was totally validated to learn that even cooking a meal is an act of creation and heartened to realize there are few truly brand new creative ideas.

Our homework from the most recent session was to read a Seth Godin blog post and watch a 1hr 20min movie on for-profit advertising that interviewed the heads of several top agencies and detailed some of their biggest creative successes and the challenges they face bringing creative ideas to life.  We discussed similarities and differences in our industries regarding creative. One key take-away?  We’re not alone in occasionally facing “death by committee” as group review slowly whittles away an initial creative concept until it barely resembles the original idea.  As someone in the movie said, “I’d rather deal with a tyrant than a committee – at least a tyrant knows what they want!”

Even “creative people” struggle with taking risks and some of the most iconic advertising campaigns were nearly shelved. Did you know they almost pulled Wendy’s “Where’s the Beef?” campaign the week before the first TV spot aired because executives were getting cold feet?!  And Apple’s “1984” ad almost didn’t run because the review committee at Apple didn’t think an ad that didn’t show the product would ever work, so Steve Jobs and Steve Wozniak offered to pay for the ad costs themselves.

Taking a new look at storytelling

Creativity also intersects in interesting ways in other areas of our work – our ongoing DEI initiatives and dedication to making remote work meaningful. Avalon’s internal DEI Task Force is actively discussing how our company embraces DEI, ways we can do more to dismantle injustices, and ensuring these ideas are put into practice within our company and on behalf of our clients. And our Virtual Gatherings Committee hosts happy hours and coffee talks, trivia nights, and themed gatherings. Our most recent gathering happened to take place on the same day as the above Thinking Creatively session – and helped bookend our day with lots to think about!

We started the day with the importance of bringing creative ideas to light and ended the day with a powerful reminder about the responsibility of telling full stories. Our DEI Consultant, Jaye Holly, joined us and shared a TED talk by author Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie about “The Danger of a Single Story.” In sharing anecdotes from her own life, Adichie makes it clear that “the single story creates stereotypes, and the problem with stereotypes is not that they are untrue, but that they are incomplete. They make one story become the only story.”

This led to the group discussing the power of stories to define our understanding of others – and the importance of expanding the number of stories you’re exposed to. We talked about how the internet can help with greater exposure, though you also have to be careful of the algorithms at play that work to once again reinforce a single story in what you read online. And finally, we discussed the power of just asking more about someone’s story instead of assuming. You can start with your co-workers – I recently learned that a colleague speaks fluent French when IT alerted me that they couldn’t make updates to the computer because it was all in French! This led to a conversation about my colleague’s previous work with the Peace Corps in a French-speaking country in West Africa, a fascinating new insight!

This discussion also reminded me of the movement around ethical storytelling, especially this compelling piece by Operation Smile managing editor and writer John Streit and his work to upend the way nonprofits tell stories to honor the people they serve. He pushes nonprofits to challenge their assumptions, lead with empathy over pity, and make the people they serve the heroes of their own stories. The phrase that stuck with me most is “the true test of an ethical story is if the people it’s about are proud of it when they read or see it.” These are critical reminders of the power of story – and the need to tell them the right way.

And finally, we talked about how we can strengthen our processes to discover and embrace ever more inclusive campaigns, including, for example, non-paternalistic framing, people-first language, and trauma-informed techniques. Kudos to Avalon client Bread for the City for pioneering the connection between trauma-informed care and trauma-informed fundraising years ago. This is a terrific example of a nonprofit connecting the equity dots across the entire organization.

Embracing creativity is a process

This is an exciting time for creatives, storytellers, and nonprofit fundraisers. With so many creative resources available, it can be overwhelming. But you don’t have to become the best creative thinker overnight.

Define what your creative roadblocks are. And start small (e.g., make dinner!). Make the effort to expose yourself to new and different voices. Center yourself around what it means to be creative in your organization, your company, or your family. Question the stories you read and those you tell. And finally, allow “bad” ideas to bubble up – they may percolate into something great.