Discovering Great Ideas in New Places

by Gayle L. Gifford, ACFRE

You never can tell where you might discover a really good idea…

A few weeks ago while taking the commuter train from Boston to Providence and back, I picked up a copy of The Improper Bostonian, which someone had left on the train. The magazine, described as “Metro Boston’s sweet voiced guide to entertainment, culture … and stolen kisses,” included the “big fall arts preview.”

Tucked in my handbag was business reading I needed to do… but I just couldn’t resist the glossy color pages.

Among the anticipated gossip, the reviews of restaurants, music, clubs, and fashion and the fall event listings, I discovered an unexpected gem of an article titled, “Young and Cultured: Boston’s arts organizations are courting the under-40 set in a big way.”

The article profiled over a dozen programs designed to attract twenty to fortysomethings to local cultural institutions. For example, the American Repertory Theatre has a program called “Breakfast at the ART” targeted at young parents. The morning starts with coffee, pastries and a talk by the artistic director and then a play that starts at 10 am! It’s all timed to let parents get to the theatre while the kids are at school. How smart of them!

Or how about The Boston Chapter of Save Venice Inc. According to its web site, each year the chapter raises sufficient funds to sponsor the restoration of several major works of art in Venice, Italy. The magazine article highlighted the Young Friends of Save Venice, the newest members of the chapter, who choose their own restoration projects from an approved list and then go out and raise the funds needed for the project. According to the article, “the restoration of a 16th century canvas… was funded exclusively by the Young Friends.”

Because I often hear from development directors and program directors what a difficult time they are having reaching younger donors, I was so excited to find these interesting ideas to pass along.

Read outside the box

I know that you are already looking for new ideas because you read quality trade publications like Contributions Magazine. Keep doing that.

But I suggest that you might also pick up a book or magazine now and then that you can’t imagine you’d find interesting … you might be really surprised and delighted by a new discovery.

A number of my high brow friends wouldn’t be caught dead reading something as low brow as People Magazine. [Only The New Yorker for them] Yet when I worked at Save The Bay, our major gifts director couldn’t wait to get the next issue. Always on the lookout for the next annual meeting speaker or gala guest, she trolled the pages looking for individuals with interests that matched ours.

And that wasn’t always a big celebrity. Someone who might not be quite as well known, but was doing something really exciting, might be a good idea for a conference speaker or with the right publicity, attract a crowd to the annual meeting.

One of our recent clients, Joanne Goldblum of The Diaper Bank was a featured local hero in People in May of 2008.

A magazine that recently appeared on my doorstep and is becoming a favorite of mine is Wired. While I don’t pretend to be anything close to a geek, I live vicariously through the pages of Wired.

I’m very interested in how newer technologies can aid programming, streamline operations, attract donors or supporters, and help our organizations become more effective advocates. I’m also worried that our nonprofit organizations are lagging so far behind in this area that we run the risk of extinction because the next generation has migrated to new forms of communication and organizational structures that we haven’t been bothered to try to understand.

So when the next issue of Wired arrives (my husband subscribed to it), I flip the pages, drooling over products and jargon I can barely understand, but imagining how they might help or be adapted for the nonprofits I work with. Vlogs? Pecha-kucha?

But I also can find a directly applicable story that requires no imagination. For example, the September 2007 issue ran a story about Paul Slovic of Decision Research called “Count on Geeks to Rescue the Earth.” Slovic is the psychologist who conducted the study that showed that people donate more money when they are shown the picture of just one “starving” child. When a second child was added to the mix, donations dropped 15%. The theory is that the average human brain has difficulty comprehending large numbers, validating what great direct mail copywriters already figured out through trial and error.

Of course, you can’t possibly keep up with everything in print… this is the Knowledge Age after all (which suggests another good read, Daniel Pink’s A Whole New Mind).

What you can do is to diversify your reading list. It doesn’t have to be expensive either –the public library is still a wonderful place to pick up a magazine for free. Or, ask friends what they subscribe to and share interesting magazines or stories.

And please do take advantage of those chance encounters, whether you’re at the hairdresser, the train station, or sitting in your board chairs’ waiting room. You never know where the breakthrough you’ve been looking for is hiding.

A version of this article first appeared in Contributions Magazine, Vol 21; No. 4 2007

Gayle L. Gifford, ACFRE and her colleague Jonathan W. Howard at Cause & Effect Inc. help nonprofits from the grassroots to international create strategic change for a more just and peaceful world. With over 30 years of nonprofit experience, Cause & Effect helps nonprofit organizations with strategic planning, board development, fundraising and communications needs.