How imagination ruled in 2013

You probably know that at Idealist, our big focus is helping you turn your good intentions into action. You may have even heard our sometime-motto, “Imagine, Connect, Act.”

Because we’re so into people taking that first step, we’re always psyched to see imagination and creativity get top billing.

We loved this post on GOOD that offers seven ways innovative thinking influenced 2013—from students rapping about science to astronaut YouTube videos—and wanted to share it with you as the year comes to a close.


Get imagining!
(photo courtesy Shutterstock)

How will you imagine, connect, and act in 2014?

Tags: , ,

Want to make your classroom better? Try design thinking


This week’s spotlight: all things education.

Here’s your homework: identify a problem in your classroom, school, or district and come up with an innovative, collaborative solution in less than an hour. Sound like a tall order? Well, here’s a cheat sheet.

IDEO, an award-winning global design firm that takes a human-centered approach to helping organizations improve, teamed up with educators at Riverdale Country School in New York City to create a free toolkit to help teachers apply design thinking to school-related questions—from how best to incorporate technology into curricula to where to place chairs in the library.

According to the toolkit’s introduction, design thinking is a problem-solving process which is “human-centered, collaborative, optimistic, and experimental.”

It’s the same open-minded and creative problem solving that good teachers already push their students to practice—but here it’s framed for teachers’ conundrums instead.

Curious about using design thinking at your school? Download the complete Design Thinking for Educators toolkit to learn more.

Have you used design thinking in your classroom? Tell us about your experience.


Tags: , , ,

Why so serious? What playful thinking can do for you

This week’s spotlight: all things play.


This silly face courtesy of Flickr user Philip Dean via Creative Commons

If your last brainswarm left you with a yellow notepad full of wild ideas, don’t chuck them in the recycling can quite yet. You might be closer to a great new program idea or creative fundraising solution than you think.

According to the minds behind the leading design innovation firm IDEO, the ridiculous ideas we get from uninhibited playful thinking come hand in hand with brilliant ones.

Brendan Boyle is a partner and toy lab leader at IDEO and promotes creative entrepreneurialism around the world. Joe Wilcox, a former circus performer and kinetic sculptor, is one of IDEO’s top toy inventors.

In a recent 99U article, they talked about the importance of play for generating fresh ideas:

Brendan: This is a quote from Stewart Brown, who is founder of the National Institute for Play, “Most people think that the opposite of play is work (especially in the corporate world) but the opposite is boredom or even depression.” To me, play is what you’re passionate about doing. You want to do it because it’s enjoyable and you want to keep doing it because it brings you joy. But play is a ton of effort.

Big innovation is right on the edge of ridiculous ideas. You need an environment that isn’t quite so judgmental about a ridiculous idea. Sometimes those are the ones that are so close to being the brilliant ones. If a space that allows for play can help encourage those types of ideas than you’ll come up with some possibly ridiculous but potentially groundbreaking ideas.

Joe: Those skeptics are in every walk of life. You can certainly combat it [by trying out] the experimenter role. Show people it’s possible, don’t just tell them. It’s always been the seemingly improbable, boundary-pushing ideas that have created this world around us and none of that would have been possible if they’d listened to all the people who said it never would have worked. We’d still be living in caves if we relied on the skeptics.

So hang on tight, buckle your safety belt, and don’t be afraid to get a little silly with your ideas. You never know what you’ll come up with.


What’s your favorite ridiculous idea that ended up being great?


Tags: , , , , ,

Lessons on being creative from highly creative people


Photo credit: Leszek Glasner, Shutterstock

Fast Company recently highlighted its top 100 Creative People in Business, including Nate Silver, Scott Harrison, and actors Bryan Cranston and Connie Britton. (Also Michelle Rowley, who we recently featured on our blog.)

The site went one step further, teasing out five habits that several of these creative people discussed—and what we can learn from them. Here are a few that stood out to us:

Max Levchin: Always be asking questions

We talked to PayPal founder Max Levchin about how he keeps snagging startup ideas. Turns out it’s a lot about controlling chaos in ways we’ve discussed about why ideas come at random and why you need to document everything.

Levchin’s method is like this: He talks to tons of random creative people, asks them questions about their craft, takes extensive notes of their quandaries, and then compiles–and reviews–all of his research. What comes out of it? Companies–like his new mobile payment solution Affirm–and loads of paper. Dude has a crate of 200 legal pads sitting in his garage.

Kendrick Lamar: Be an example

What’s it take to make what many consider the best rap album of the decade? Kendrick Lamar unpacked a bit of the origin of his miraculous good kid, m.A.A.d City: he grew up in Compton, the California city that cradled gangster rap and serves as his inspiration.

“There are so many thoughts of being scared of failure when you’re trying something there,” he said. “And that’s what holds a lot of people back–when you’re stuck in this position, when you’re constantly seeing negative things and you want to do something positive but you’re scared that it might not work. I believed I could make an example for those around me–once I did and I started seeing some type of results, it made me believe I could represent the whole city.”

Creativity plays an important role in changing the world, as nonprofits and social entrepreneurs must be creative in their funding and outreach, collaborate with others working toward the same goal, and work toward constant innovation when it comes to solving the world’s problems.

How do you harness your creativity when you’re bringing your ideas to life?

Tags: , , , , ,

Want to be more innovative? Go play

Photo credit: Zurijeta, Shutterstock

Photo credit: Zurijeta, Shutterstock

There are many different strategies to brainstorming, developing creative ideas, and getting the juices flowing. Author Bruce Nussbaum talks about using play to get innovative in his recently-released book, Creative Intelligence: Harnessing the Power to Create, Connect, and Inspire. In an excerpt from the book on Co.Design, Nussbaum shares examples of how letting people who trust each other have some fun in a safe space has led to innovation and development.

For some time, American society has viewed play as kid stuff; it’s been dismissed as trivial or marginalized as the territory of those lucky enough to work in creative fields or the arts. And there’s some truth to the misconception. For centuries, musicians, painters, and dancers have utilized the strategies of play to create masterpieces. In a recent Harvard Business Review article, the sculptor Richard Serra, known for his huge installations of sheet metal bent into spirals, ellipses, and arcs, explained his process: “In play you don’t foresee an end product. It allows you to suspend judgment. Often the solution to one problem sparks a possibility for another set of problems. . . . In the actual building of something you see connections you could not possibly have foreseen on that scale unless you were physically there.” Though there are countless ways of playing, play can be defined as tossing aside the rules of “regular life” for a period of time in order to follow new rules or try new possibilities. Play can exist within the structure of a formal game, but it doesn’t have to. (In fact, the words “play” and “game” are interchangeable in a number of languages, including German, though we separate the two in English.)

We often aim to achieve a goal, but sometimes we play simply for the joy of it. Playing can involve strategies–some simple, some very complex. Some games teach you everything you need to know before you begin; in others, you learn to play as you play to win.

When we play, we try things on and try things out. We improvise, taking on new roles, imagining what would happen if we possessed new capabilities or behaved differently. We throw away what doesn’t work and build on what does. We can play alone or compete against someone else; we can collaborate with another person or a team against a larger enemy. We may lose a game or a battle, but there is always the chance to start again.

Nussbaum emphasized that there do need to be rules and boundaries—including knowing that there are no right or wrong answers and making sure it is the right group of people who trust each other—and that play doesn’t always lead to a breakthrough. When using play as a brainstorming tactic, Nussbaum encourages people and businesses to look at problems as challenges to be overcome and to be a bit silly in their actions.

Do you use play in your creative life? What rules do you put in place for your brainstorming? What ideas has playtime given you?

Tags: , ,

How one Idealist is bringing affordable e-learning to Malawi

Gail and teacher Boyce Mhone at the Ching'oma school

Gail and teacher Boyce Mhone at the Ching’oma school

When Gail Swithenbank made a trip to Malawi this January, e-learning wasn’t on her mind. She was visiting the Ching’oma school to check in on a scholarship program she’d helped create for children to attend secondary school and study permaculture—low-tech, sustainable agriculture methods.

But when she visited one of the high schools the scholarship recipients would attend, she saw that they needed more support than just tuition.

“It was two rooms, no windows or doors, few desks. No books or paper. Just two blackboards. The teacher had one book that they all copied from. Kids are walking seven kilometers each way to get there,” she says.

Gail realized that for the scholarship to make much of a difference, the students would need textbooks and materials. A library full of books could really help, but it would be better if they could ‘leapfrog’ directly to e-learning using low-cost laptops.

Bridging the digital divide

But an e-learning program would be challenging to implement; only about 5% of Malawians have internet access, according the World Fact Book. Even if provided with low-cost computers, the students wouldn’t be able to reliably access the trove of knowledge and learning platforms online.

Some new technology offers a way around this problem. Developer Jamie Alexandre and a team of volunteers recently released a free, portable version of the content and software produced by Khan Academy, a free online educational platform. This new version, called KA-Lite, is designed to work offline. In addition to video lessons and interactive exercises, it allows teachers to track the progress of each student while they learn at their own pace.

When Gail heard about this, she saw the potential. She found more educational content provided by the RACHEL Initiative—free courseware, libraries, and an offline version of Wikipedia. By putting all of this on a Raspberry Pi, a $35 computer the size of a Smartphone that plugs into a T.V., she could provide a complete platform that’s nearly free and requires very little infrastructure. She’s spent the last few months learning about the technology and reaching out to her contacts in Malawi, who are excited about the idea.

The tools are new. The lessons are timeless.

As amazing as these new tools are, some of the most important takeaways from Gail’s story have very little to do with technology, and could apply to almost any project. Here are a few:

1. Expertise not required.
Gail admits she didn’t know much about e-learning or computer science before she started working on this project. So she reached out to people with related experience, like Janice Lathen of Powering Potential, who has been setting up computer labs in Tanzania since 2007. Gail has also spent hours on Skype with a nephew who studied computer science to get help with the technology. Sometimes, tenacity trumps knowledge.

2. Build on existing relationships and create new ones.
Great ideas can sometimes die on the vine without the right support. After working with school headmaster Gilbert Kaunda on the permaculture scholarship, Gail now has a local partner. He’s in a good position to make changes at the school and work with the local government.

She’s likewise reached out to potential partners, like Nathaniel Thayer Wight, who teaches science and sustainability at Bronx Design and Construction Academy in New York, about a possible collaboration between the two schools. Ultimately, Gail hopes to work with them and others to build a new e-learning facility.

3. Use what’s already out there.
Gail could have started a new nonprofit to support this project, done lots of fundraising, hired a staff to curate the e-learning materials and build the building. Instead, she’s leveraging existing institutions and tools: the school in Malawi, content from Khan Academy, and the community that’s sprouting up around Raspberry Pi.

By focusing first on the problem in front of her and connecting the dots, she avoided getting bogged down in details and spending extra cash. Sometimes being innovative just means assembling the pieces in front of you.

Gail’s story is just one example of people using new tech to solve stubborn problems. Do you know of another? Share it in the comments below.


Tags: , , , , , , , ,

So you think you can be an intrapreneur

Everywhere you look you see entrepreneurs: your neighbor who’s the CEO of a tech start-up, the woman who owns the small store down the street, etc. But what about the intrapreneur, an entrepreneur’s oft-overlooked cousin?  Guest blogger Katharine Bierce tells us what they’re all about- and lets us in on the secret of becoming one.


Photo via [ rachael ] on Flickr’s Creative Commons.

Sometimes, the hardest part about becoming an intrapreneur is just getting started.

Intrapreneurs improve existing systems by advocating for CSR, sustainability, shared value, or engaging with the community. They are internal innovators who innovate within a larger company or organization, as opposed to within startups – which are generally expected to be more innovative.

I’m one. I’m a full-time Operations Associate for a 700-person data analytics firm. On evenings and weekends, I coordinate volunteering events where employees participate in fundraiser walks and park cleanups, as well as advise low-income and student entrepreneurs on their business strategy.

From my experience, the main characteristics of intrapreneurs are passion, persistence, patience, and resilience. You have to care about making a difference to be an intrapreneur. You have to be persistent in following up with busy executives who could be sponsors of innovative projects. You must be patient with the pace of progress in a larger organization, and remain resilient in the face of setbacks.

It can be challenging.  There are not many places where it’s your full-time job to come up with innovative ideas for multi-stakeholder issues. So a large part of intrapreneurship is understanding your organization, its values, and the people, as well as the larger intrapreneurial landscape.

Do you want to become an intrapreneur?

Here are my tips:

  • Set your intention. Start by identifying your values. What principles do you want to live your life by? Then, define your skills, and brainstorm ideas about the kinds of challenges you might want to work on that align to your combination of strengths. Where do your values, skills, and market needs intersect?
  • Build your network at your organization. Learn as many of your colleagues’ names as you can and build your personal brand. The more people with whom you discuss your idea, the larger your support base will be. When the conversation over lunch,  conference call, or email turns to “What do you do outside of work?” discuss your intrapreneurial ideas. In this way, I eventually found several dozen like-minded people who also lead volunteering projects in offices around the world.
  • Expand your network outside your organization. A few months into my first full-time job, I attended the StartingBloc Institute for Social Innovation. StartingBloc provided inspiration that I could make a difference in the world (no matter my job title), and connected me to a network of like-minded changemakers.
  • Iterate. If one particular approach doesn’t work for you, try another. Maybe you don’t actually need a budget to get an intrapreneurial project started. Maybe you can use a budget from an existing project or business line to start a pilot project. Be open to experimenting with different ways of meeting or engaging supporters. If you get told “No,” re-phrase that in your mind as “Not yet.”

Next steps


KatharineBierce_11-2012Katharine graduated Phi Beta Kappa from the University of Chicago with a degree in Psychology. Over the last few years, she’s been thinking about what makes organizations tick and how to connect people to career development opportunities.  In 2012, she was a finalist for the Net Impact “Impact at Work” award for intrapreneurship. In her free time, she enjoys yoga, reading, cooking, and meditation. Follow Katharine on Twitter @kbierce or send her a message through Idealist.

Tags: , , ,

Idea File: Pitch your idea at a "Sunday Soup" potluck

Today’s idea funding model

The idea

Food + creativity = community. That’s the concept behind Sunday Soup, a micro-granting model that brings together those with a taste for innovative ideas and the people who want to help fund them.

Here’s how it works: a local group organizes an affordable meal. People pitch their ideas for a creative project during the course of the gathering, with attendees voting on who to give the proceeds of the meal to. Think Kickstarter, but offline and with good grub.

So far, the network has collectively granted almost $60,000 to initiatives around the world such as an art project that transforms abandoned signs in Albuquerque, NM; a documentary featuring children’s thoughts on the political situation in Egypt; bike taxis in Toledo, OH; and more.


Photo of Detroit SOUP event by Vanessa Miller.

Why we’re adding it to the Idea File

  • Cheap and easy. While it’s the meal that brings people together, the idea is that it should be low-cost, like soup.
  • Circumvents bureaucracy. The people who decide which idea will benefit your community are the ones you pass in the street everyday – not foundation officers whom you might never meet.
  • Increases supporters. Don’t lose, schmooze. Even if your project doesn’t win the cash, it’s a great opportunity to make contacts – maybe even an employer or new flame. And, Amy adds, getting your project funded from a Soup event also gives you a leg up when applying for funding elsewhere.
  • Awesomeness awareness. There are probably a gazillion good ideas waiting to be discovered where you live; why not get them all out in the open?
  • Adaptable in many contexts. The model is flexible and Sunday Soup encourages you to adapt it, taking regional and cultural quirks into account.

How you can replicate it

First, see if one already exists where you live. If not, and the 63 groups from the U.S. to South Korea to Ukraine have whet your appetite, check out Sunday Soup’s tips for getting started.

We also reached out to the folks at Detroit SOUP, who’ve helped other SOUPS in Michigan and across the U.S. get up and running, to hear their tips on how to make your group a success.

Here’s what Lead Coordinator Amy Kaherl had to say:

  1. Don’t restrict the types of projects. Allow everyone from business entrepreneurs to artists to activists to pitch their ideas to keep the discussions and voting process interesting. Here are the Detroit project proposal guidelines.
  2. Know what’s affordable and what’s not. Detroit SOUP, for example, charges $5 per plate so as to include as many community members as possible.
  3. Ask for help. Local restaurants, gardens, farms, and friends might be happy to donate food.
  4. Proposals first, dinner second. People are more likely to converse and exchange ideas when there is a point of connection.
  5. Stay informed and curious. Listen to the community’s needs, and cultivate an environment where people are encouraged to ask questions.

“Don’t be afraid to fail either with the dinner or with the projects,” Amy finally says. “When things break down, we all learn from one another about what to do and not to do.”


If you’re inspired to bring Sunday Soup to your community, feel free to email Amy for more advice:

Do you know of other projects that are fun and potentially replicable? If you’d like us to consider posting it as part of this series, leave a comment below or email celeste [at] idealist [dot] org.

Tags: , , , , ,

Contests and fellowships, from entrepreneurship to design


Image by GlobalX, who helped review Echoing Green applications in 2007 (Flickr/Creative Commons)

Need funding and mentors to get your social change project off the ground? Here’s a handful of contests and fellowships we’ve spotted recently. If you know of others we should promote, leave a comment below.

Global Social Entrepreneurship Competition

  • WHO: University students
  • WHEN: Deadline is November 9
  • WHAT: The University of Washington invites student teams from around the world to propose businesses to reduce poverty in developing world. Semi-finalists are invited to Seattle to visit regional companies, receive expert coaching, present their business ideas to hundreds of professionals, and compete for up to $30,000 in prizes. Details here.

desigNYC Collaborators

  • WHO: New York City nonprofits, city agencies, and pro bono designers
  • WHEN: Deadline is November 10
  • WHAT: This competition pairs NYC organizations with all types of pro bono designers (landscape, interior, communications, architectural, you name it). The designers create solutions to make the organizations’ projects more beautiful and functional – and thus, their neighborhoods more livable, workable, and fun. Nonprofits and designers can find entry info here.

Women for Social Innovation’s Turning Point Prize

  • WHO: Philadelphia-based emerging social entrepreneurs
  • WHEN: Deadline is December 28
  • WHAT: Ladies, got an idea to make Philly the city of sisterly love? Apply for this grant and you could win a $15,000 grant to improve the lives of women, girls and families in the area. Residents and local college students are eligible. Learn more.

Echoing Green Fellowship

  • WHO: English speakers age 18+ whose organizations are in the start-up phase.
  • WHEN: Applications accepted December 5-January 9.
  • WHAT: Calling all visionaries around the world: have a new organization in the works but need some support? This highly competitive program supports its fellows with start-up cash, an $80,000 stipend, technical assistance, and a powerful network over the course of two years to make their idea the next big thing. Criteria and info here.

Tags: , , , , ,

Why you should hire people who disagree with you

In her book Bossypants, Tina Fey recounts the biggest lessons she learned while working for Lorne Michaels. One is “Don’t hire anyone you wouldn’t want to run into in the hallway at three in the morning.”*

Your office is probably not like the soundstages of Saturday Night Live. Maybe your rules for hiring are different. But it’s pretty natural to want to hire people who aren’t, in Fey’s words, “too talkative or needy or angry to deal with in the middle of the night by the printer.” It’s really nice to work with people you genuinely like spending time with.

But that doesn’t mean they should be like you.


Healthy skepticism is the building block to making your organization even better. Photo by Joe Shlabotnik (Flickr/Creative Commons).

As part of my research on how to get more good ideas into the brains of more people, I’ve been reading a lot about innovation. And over and over again, the one word the keeps popping up as a crucial component to innovation is “diversity.”

Yes, diversity. Of not only race and ethnicity, but gender, viewpoint, talent, work style, values, and more. This is the ingredient that forces ideas to mix, mingle, and ultimately create that wowser idea your peers can’t stop talking about.

Most everyone gives lip service to the value of diversity in the nonprofit sector. So why is there often a disconnect? The New Organizing Institute has a great piece on why diversity is inefficient. It takes time to go outside of our own networks, and it takes effort to work with different voices and opinions.

But if you do take the time to hire people who don’t think like you, then you might have a wonderful result: creative abrasion, the process where ideas are challenged and new ones are made.

Steve Jobs knew this. He hired a team with a wide range of talents—programmers, thinkers, musicians, artists, and more—to create the Apple computer many of us use today.

But building computers (or writing sketches about Mom jeans) is one thing. In your workplace, does everyone think and look like you? Or is difference embraced? If so, we’d love to hear how it’s helped fuel innovation in your organization.

*Fey, 2011, pp. 127-128.

Tags: , , ,