Sunday, October 04, 2015

25 Ideas for When Your Professional Writing Needs a Creative Jolt

You know that thing when you’ve been writing the same blah, blah, blah for so long that your fingers almost work on autopilot – it’s as if the (same, boring) words just appear there, of their own volition? Or when you find your own writing so mundane that you can’t stand to even proofread it? Or when your own work is entirely indecipherable from that of your colleagues or clients?

It’s time for a creative jolt! I’ve written here before about Writing Prompts for creativity, but now I am proposing another alternative:

Don’t write.

When you need a burst of inspiration or creativity for your writing, sometimes the best thing you can do is to not write at all. When you walk away from your writing, even for a few minutes, you can return to it with deeper insight and fresh energy. Here are a few ideas for ways to hit the restart button on your creativity:

1.            Walk around the block. Instead of spending that walk thinking about everything you have to do, want to do, or wish you had done... find 10 beautiful things. Colors, scenery, textures, sounds. 10 things.

2.            Leaf through a travel magazine. Rip out a page or two, and post them next to your writing space.

3.            Smell something. Anything.

4.            Eat one square of a chocolate bar, or one m&m. Let it melt slowly in your mouth. Notice how it tastes, smells, and feels.

5.            Stretch left. Then right.

6.            Sing your favorite song from elementary school.

7.            Notice your breath. Don’t alter it, by breathing more slowly or more quickly. Just notice it.

8.            Give yourself a scalp massage.

9.            Make a paper airplane. Fly it.

10.            Notice how many things you can hear right now. How long of a list can you make?

11.            Eat a peanut butter and jelly sandwich. Does it remind you of anything?

12.            Come up with a name for a new Ben & Jerry’s flavor.

13.            Do a headstand. Or a cartwheel. Or a sommersault.

14.            Make a “painting” out of the next five things you can get your hands on: White out? Nutella? Shampoo? Orange juice? Lipstick?

15.            Draw a maze.

16.            Make up your own palm reading, for your own palms.

17.            Check out the clouds. What do they look like?

18.            If you had to name the color of the sky right now, what would you name it?

19.            Find something hot. Find something cold.

20.            If you made an autobiographical album, what would it be called? What would be the names of the songs on it?

21.            Tap dance. Tap shoes not required.

22.            Pick a song, and play air guitar.

23.            Try to name all of the characters in your favorite movie.

24.            Feel something soft.

25.            Come up with five other items for this list.

Of course, the Writing Prompts I’ve described also can do the trick! But sometimes the best thing you can do is to get out of that part of your brain. When you activate other parts of your mind, everything can come alive again.

Lauren Brownstein has worked in the non-profit community for more than 20 years as a fundraiser, educator, and program manager. She specializes in: helping grant seekers develop meaningful partnerships with funders, crafting outstanding grant proposals, and working with individual donors to help them make philanthropic contributions that reflect their interests and passions.

Learn more about Lauren’s fundraising and philanthropy work at Purchase her e-book, Grant Writing Quick Tips, and her audio file, Grant Writing for Creative Souls, HERE.

Wednesday, September 02, 2015

Writing Prompts for Great Grant Writing (or any nonprofit writing)

It’s a crowded marketplace for grant proposals. Many foundation program officers have dozens (if not more) proposals to consider, and they have to make tough choices about which ones to pass along to their trustees. How can you make your grant proposal “stick”? How can you make it more memorable, so that it will stand out from the pack?
Based on my more than two decades experience working in philanthropy, I firmly believe that part of the answer is in an unexpected source: CREATIVITY. Telling stories, using unexpected language, and crafting a fresh approach engages the reader (a foundation officer or trustee) and can help your proposal float to the top of the pile.
I also know, from years of experience, that my own writing can sometimes get stale. I may find myself writing the same sentences, using the same phrases, and constructing proposals in the same ways, over and over. Even I can get bored with my own writing! That’s when I turn to creative writing prompts to shake things up. Here are a few prompts – focused on nonprofits and grant writing – that will enliven your writing and your creative spirit.
Grant writing creative prompts:
  1. What if the need for your program didn’t exist?
  2. Set a timer for 60 seconds. Write as many words as you can think of that describe your organization. No phrases, just words.
  3. What would one of your organization's clients write in this proposal?
  4. Someone says “I didn’t know your organization did that!” Why did they say it?
  5. Write a testimonial quote from a disgruntled client or supporter.
  6. Your organization is releasing an album. What’s the album title, and what are the titles of five of the songs on the album?
  7. Five words that best describe how your organization’s beneficiaries feel.
  8. Start/Stop list: Five things your organization should start doing, and five things it should stop doing.
  9. Tweet your proposal: sell the idea in 140 characters.
  10. Find a magazine. Open it to a random page, which has a photo or other image. How does that image relate to your cause or organization?
  11. Write five one-syllable words that describe the cause/need your organization addresses.
  12. What’s the first thing your organization should spend $100 on?
  13. What does your organization have in common with winter? With summer?
  14. Write an online dating profile for your organization.
  15. Write an obituary for your organization.
  16. Fast 15: Five sounds, tastes, and smells that describe what your organization does.
  17. What should be the last sentence of this proposal?
  18. Finish this sentence from a donor/supporter: I support this organization because...
  19. Nonprofit haiku: Write a 5 syllable/7 syllable/5 syllable poem that describes your organization or cause.
  20. Talk to me like I’m 5: Explain your organization’s work to a five year old child.
These prompts can help anyone in your organization (marketing team, Executive Director, board members, and more) think creatively about how they describe your organization and its work. Take a few of them for a spin, and see if they set off some creative sparks!

Friday, July 24, 2015

Be Better than the Gap - Choosing Words that Say What You Mean


Let me start by saying: I have nothing against the Gap. I have lots of clothes from the Gap. As far as I can tell, Gap, Inc. is a solid company that sells things that almost everyone I know has, or had, or will have.

But this post isn’t really about the Gap.

I recently was editing some web site and other collateral content for a client, a personal and professional coach who is rebranding her business. She is deeply talented, highly trained, and a superb motivator. I would hire her in a heartbeat. However, some of the language for her web content was just too blah, too bland, too pedestrian to reflect the inspiring, transformative work she does with her clients.

For example, the word “awesome.” It’s one of those words that is so overused that it has lost all of its meaning. It no longer has any punch. Do people typically use the word “awesome” to describe a state of being filled with awe? No. My eleven year old daughter typically uses this word to describe a plate of mac n’ cheese.

My feedback for the client was: “ Don’t say ‘awesome.’ You’re better than that. Be better than that. (cut to Ryan Gosling telling Steve Carell in ‘Crazy, Stupid, Love.’ to ‘Be Better than the Gap.’)”

In “Crazy, Stupid, Love.” Ryan Gosling’s character helps Steve Carell’s character bounce back after an unexpected divorce. He takes Steve Carell’s character shopping, encouraging him to shift from white sneakers and “mom jeans” to stylish man-about-town. When Steve Carell’s character, after a long and expensive day of shopping, balks at the price and style of new designer jeans and says “Can’t we just go to the Gap?” Ryan Gosling’s character holds Carell’s face in his hands, looks deeply in his eyes, and says “Be better than the Gap. Be. Better. Than. The. Gap.”

Sometimes, you shouldn’t just use your default choice or take the easy way out. Sometimes, you have to dig deeper.

  • Do you really want to say “awesome”? Or do you want to say “inspiring” or “revelatory”?
  • Do you really want to say “improve”? Or do you want to say “elevate”?
  • Do you really want to say “unique”? Or do you want to say “singular” or “unparalleled”?

Notice which words you use over and over, and ask yourself if you can dig deeper. As yourself if the words you are using are really revealing the deepest truths about what you want to describe.

Be better than “awesome.”

Lauren Brownstein has worked in the non-profit community for more than 20 years as a fundraiser, educator, and program manager. She specializes in: helping grant seekers develop meaningful partnerships with funders, crafting outstanding grant proposals, and working with individual donors to help them make philanthropic contributions that reflect their interests and passions.

Learn more about Lauren’s fundraising and philanthropy work at Purchase her e-book, Grant Writing Quick Tips, and her audio file, Grant Writing for Creative Souls, HERE.

Wednesday, May 13, 2015

Riding the Rails: Reflections from a Lifetime Amtrak Passenger

Amtrak has been a part of my life since I was 4 years old. My family moved from Baltimore, MD to Richmond, VA when I was that age, and my mother, brother and I used to take the train from Richmond to Baltimore to visit family. We would wave at the old man on his porch in Ashland, VA, who would spend his day sitting in a rocking chair, waving at the trains going by his front door. We would get snacks in the snack car, weaving our way back and forth to the rocking of the cars. Once, a sailor who worked with Jacques Cousteau tried to pick up my (married) mom on the train, with her two children sitting right next to her! The three of us watched the world go by on those trains, and my brother and I saw what different communities looked like, heard what passengers had to say, and built memories when we didn’t even realize we were building memories (the best way to build them, in my humble opinion).

In college, I took the train to from Charlottesville, VA to New York for a life-changing trip that showed me the glories of city living. My brother then moved to New York, and I took the train to visit him. This country and suburban mouse was becoming more of a city mouse with each trip.

Fast forward to my 20s. When I first moved to Washington, DC, I would take the train to visit family in Richmond and Baltimore. Then, when my mother fell critically ill, I would take the train home on weekends. Did you know that there was a time when they showed movies on some trains? When I was Amtraking home to visit my mom in the hospital, I made sure to bring headphones so I could watch the movies. I once called Amtrak to book a ticket and requested a train with a movie. The Amtrak agent didn’t believe they existed, until he consulted his supervisor.

My toughest ever Amtrak ride was when I took the train home for what I knew would be my final moments with my mom. My dad and my brother were both waiting for me on the tracks when I arrived in Richmond – I knew that if they had left my mom in the hospital, it was bad. They didn’t want me to be alone when I arrived, and they didn’t want to be the only one with mom when she departed.

After that, my Amtrak habits shifted. No longer using the train to visit family (I had my mother’s car in DC), Amtrak became my work trip and friend trip mode of transportation, with regular – sometimes constant – trips to New York. Oh, Pennsylvania Station. The times we have had together. I remember the good old days, when you could purchase an unreserved Northeast Corridor trip and hop on any train of the day. Meeting ran long, and you can’t make the 3 p.m. train? No problem! Hop on the 4 p.m.! I made day trips for work and weekend trips to be with my many New York friends. Sometimes I worked on the train. Sometimes I slept on the train. Sometimes I listened to music or watched movies. Always, I reflected on the meetings, outings, and shenanigans of my time in New York, watching the Northeast Corridor roll by outside the window. I’ve seen some of my favorite sunsets on the Amtrak, golden and colored light streaking the water as we rode over so many rivers.

We’ve been hearing for years that Amtrak is underfunded. That major investments are needed in its infrastructure. That, other than the Northeast Corridor, the system is hemorrhaging money. Just the other week, I read this article about the future of Amtrak, “How Washington Derailed Amtrak.”
What a terrible shame that so many Americans can no longer access Amtrak, or never will.

With last night’s tragic Amtrak derailment, I have been thinking a lot today about the role that the train has played in my life. I’m grateful for this wonderful, deeply flawed piece of our national infrastructure. I hope that Congress will invest desperately needed funds in Amtrak. I hope that yesterday’s survivors fully heal, and that the friends and family of those who were lost find comfort. I hope that everyone gets to have a great Amtrak experience, riding the rails and seeing American roll by outside their windows.

Thursday, April 30, 2015

How to be a Generous Professional

As someone who has worked in fundraising and philanthropy for more than 20 years, “giving” has always been at the forefront of my profession. Whether inspiring generosity in donors, or helping individuals and groups to determine how, what, and how much to give to great causes, generosity has been a constant theme.

Lately, I’ve been thinking about what it means to live a generous life. Of course, giving to charity and volunteering time are major parts of the equation. I’ve always believed that it’s not about how much you give (time and/or money) – it’s about giving in a way that is meaningful to you. Five hours or $50 to one person is as meaningful as 50 hours or $5,000 to someone else.

Beyond time and money, what does it mean to live generously? To have a generosity of spirit? To do things big or small that ease the burdens of others? To be generous with your words?

What does it mean to be a generous professional?

Be generous with your ideas: Sometimes, we don’t share our ideas because we don’t want anyone else to take them. Or, we may not share new ideas because we’re just not sure if they are good enough (or if we are good enough). Be generous with your ideas. If it’s a great idea, or even a good one, it will move your organization forward. If not, it may spur another great idea in someone else, to the benefit of everyone.

Be generous with your acknowledgments: Give credit where credit is due. Say “thank you” or “great job.” Notice when someone is working hard, shifting habits, or growing as a professional.

Be generous with your time: You’re busy. I’m busy. Everyone’s busy. OK, are we done with that excuse now? Being generous with your time could mean taking 10 minutes to listen to a colleague’s question or problem, helping a client even if it’s “off the clock,” or pitching in on a project that’s not necessarily your direct responsibility.

Be generous with yourself: Have you met Burnout? Exhaustion? Lack of Inspiration? They are often at the party, but they are not your friends. Cut yourself some slack. Walk away from your desk and take a walk. Get an extra half hour of sleep. Take an extra few minutes for lunch. Stop beating yourself up because you messed up that project or said the wrong thing to a client or hit “send” on that email before you should have.

Generosity leads to better professionals and stronger organizations. If it becomes a regular professional practice, it might even spill over into your personal life. So open up. Consider generosity as an aspect of your professional life, and see what blossoms.

Monday, April 27, 2015

Living Generously

I've recently been reflecting on what it means to live generously. What could it mean to live a generous life?
  • Donating money - enough so that it hurts, a little? enough so that you notice you are donating?
  • Donating time - volunteering?
  • Being generous with your words - how you speak with others?
  • Being generous with your heart - opening your heart to others, especially when it's hard, especially when you feel challenged by others? 
  • Giving someone else... A helping hand? Credit where credit is due? A few extra minutes of your time (even when you feel you have little time to spare)? Your undivided attention?
So much of my own life is bound up in the concept of generosity. My profession (a fundraising consultant for nonprofits). My faith (Judaism, which emphasizes giving to others in many different ways). My yoga (yoga includes principles that could be interpreted to include generosity). My home life (I've recently adopted a child, which means giving, and giving, and giving! Though I certainly don't see parenthood as an act of generosity, it definitely requires a generosity of spirit). My communal life (which, until I became a solo parent, included many hours per week of volunteerism).

I've also been reflecting recently on the notion of abundance. In order to be generous, you have to feel that you have enough. More than enough, in fact. It can be hard to look at your bank balances and feel like it's more than enough. It can also be really hard to look at the amount of time in your "time bank" or the amount of energy in your "energy bank" (hello, solo motherhood!) and feel like it's enough.

Over the past couple of years, I've identified my core desired feelings, and one of them is "abundance." I've come to believe that if I cultivate a sense of abundance (yes, cultivate. It's not dependent on external factors, like what's in my checking account), I can feel more "ease" (another core desired feeling, and I can feel I have more to give. I can life more generously.

What does it mean to you to live generously?