How curiosity and creativity can foster self-aware nonprofit leaders.

Tapping into your natural creativity and curiosity can enhance your ability to be a clear and confident leader.

How curiosity and creativity can foster self-aware nonprofit leaders.
17 mins read

Cultivate curiosity and clarity, deepen trust, and ignite your work.

At the Creative Education Foundation (CEF), we train people to be creative problem solvers. When we engage in the growth mindset fostered by the Creative Problem Solving process (CPS), an alchemy happens — we get clear on our challenges, and, in the process, we also get clear on how we understand challenges. And as we get clear on our process of understanding, we come to know ourselves and others.

For nonprofit executive directors, this clarity is challenging to achieve while running an organization, raising money, and managing a staff and board. To add to this, the nonprofit sector is on the front lines of society’s most critical issues. We leaders feel this responsibility keenly, and we are invested both personally and professionally in our work.

Many organizations are understaffed and under-resourced, and few have the resources to invest in professional development. This lack of resources is compounded by a funding sector that continues to evaluate nonprofit success on percentage spent on programs, eschewing investment in operations as well as staff and board development as “overhead.” It is precisely because of this pressure and these constraints that nonprofit leadership must evolve. Board members and executive directors alike must make the time to get curious about how they operate and interact to move past many obstacles to success.

For Curiosity, “What” is Better Than “Why”

That is, “what” invites curiosity without judgement. Organizational psychologist Tasha Eurich observes that “our judgements are seldom free from bias,” and the question, “why,” activates this judgement and bias. When this happens, we cannot discover because we already “know.” As the above point makes clear, being curious is both tricky and essential for strong, collaborative leadership.

This might come as a shock to many. Indeed, before my 9-year tenure as CEF’s ED, I thought leadership meant being clear and confident, not realizing that curiosity and questions must precede these more apparent characteristics. But I have learned that asking questions and wondering enhances my ability to be clear and confident, rather than making me seem unknowledgeable or unconfident.

Curiosity is something we are naturally good at as children, and something we need to relearn as adults after the demands of the day-to-day squeeze out the time and energy we have to explore. When we explore without judgement, we are better able to hear and understand others, and we are better able to grow as leaders.

But Beware: The Path to Curiosity is Not Always Easy

My start at CEF was rough. I was hired by the board to be a changemaker, so I embraced looking for things to change. As it turned out, change-making was not popular at an organization devoted to its history and legacy. I realized that people like change in theory — but not when you start changing their stuff. I had also inherited a long-standing community with many members who were still reeling from bad experiences with my predecessor. This set the stage for mistrust, and I had to get through a fair amount of projection before folks realized I was not my predecessor.

Before I started changing anything, I started with getting clear on where CEF stood. My first project was an organizational assessment, which included interviews with dozens of people in our community, as well as a review of our finances, marketing materials, and program materials. Considering our limited staff size and capacity, I decided to invest in our organizational strengths. Namely, we would lean into what we knew worked well (our annual Creative Problem Solving Institute (CPSI)), operationalize those strengths with systems, and then diversify into other promising areas of development (i.e. major gifts, sponsorship). This felt like a strong and clear start to me.

But I was blindsided during my first performance review. “You are crushing the Board’s creativity,” a board member said. My creativity-crushing statements included that we were not ready to do new programs and simultaneous development of all potential revenue streams. I also sometimes noted things were “not in the budget.” The board had (great but) lofty ideas — like admitting more fellows to our Parnes Fellowship, hiring another editor for our Journal of Creative Behavior, and offering free access to CPSI and workshops.

All of this put me into a panic. As the only full-time staff member (and the only staff with any fundraising experience), I knew we had neither the money nor the staff capacity for many of their ideas. I said, “No” a lot, secure in the knowledge that I was right.

The board began to see me as an idea crusher — not as a careful steward of the organization. In turn, I began to view the board as freewheelers who did not understand our capacity challenges or our fiduciary responsibilities. We all felt frustrated and stuck.

A Return to Creativity

CPS teaches us that when we get stuck, we are probably not asking the right question.

And I wasn’t. I was asking “why” when I should have been asking “what.” According to psychologists J. Gregory Hixon and William Swann “why” questions can undermine insight because they invite interpretation, which requires judgement (and probably that aforementioned bias). So, for the board, my focus on financial responsibility — by asking, for example, why do we need new programming — was interpreted as me disliking new ideas. Our interpretations of relative importance diverted all of us from self and group awareness.

On the other hand, Hixon and Swann suggest that “what” questions focus the mind on “the actual components of attitude,” which “promotes insight.” So, I started to ask myself what was keeping me from being able to tolerate ideas outside of the budget. They were just ideas — nothing was happening yet. I got curious about me.

In this shift from judging to clarifying, I needed to move from assertion to curiosity — the “what” inviting curiosity. To do this, I needed to better understand my surroundings through observation.1

Taking a Look Around

When I took the helm, CEF had not had an executive director for three years — the organization would have closed had the board not taken over. By the time they hired me in 2014, they had right-sided the organization and were particularly excited by my background as a development director: they needed money, and I was an experienced fundraiser. For my part, I was impressed that they had worked together to save the organization.

During my organizational assessment, I connected with “what” the board had done. This deepened my respect for them and my understanding of their commitment to the work. As I worked to reset my leadership approach, I returned to this initial mindset of curiosity.

I realized that CEF did not have well-developed, traditional revenue streams. Despite being more than 60 years old at the time, there was no major gift or legacy program. Sponsorships were sparse and at low price points. The organization did not qualify for local or national grants because there was no significant work being done locally and no impactful work being done nationally. I followed this up with a second listening tour and asked “what” of board members and donors.

Asking “what” allowed me to hear that we could get sponsorships if we offered speaking opportunities. In the past, when I created sponsor packages for galas, I had limited stage time, so speaking opportunities only went to the biggest sponsors. I realized I could bring sponsorship price points into range of our community by capitalizing on the fact that we had lots of speaking opportunities at our 5-day creativity conference. By asking “what” of others, and then by reviewing “what” I had always done as well as “what” was different about my current circumstances, I created a new sponsorship program that boosted participation and income.

Refocus on the “What” of CEF

So, what does CEF have? Well, CEF provides professional development training paid on a fee-for-service model. It runs conferences that bring in registration fees. And it also has income via royalties from its academic journal.

This meant that I was a nonprofit fundraising professional in charge of an organization whose primary income was earned revenue. Some of my skills applied — but not all of them. I needed to embrace new thinking, and I needed to cultivate new skills. I also needed to understand the board, their skills, motivation, and assets so we could all work well together. Being curious about what was true helped me get to non-judgmental clarity, which helped me make a plan for moving forward.

The majority of CEF’s board are from our creativity community, and most folks in our community came to us by attending our Institute where they learned CPS. Like many nonprofit boards, our members love our organization — they are people who routinely talk about how their lives have been transformed by CPS, and they want to expand our organizational reach to better the world.

So, the “what” I saw was my learning curve, small staff, limited budget, and an amazing program (CPSI) that we could make even better and more lucrative with refined operations and an appropriate pricing model. The Institute could carry us through to new ventures. Especially given the organization’s long legacy. When I got curious about myself, I realized that I needed to learn more about our earned revenue streams. To strengthen the organization, I needed to be open to new solutions and approaches to our work in partnership with our dedicated board and community volunteers.

Building on “What” We Share

I knew that the board and I shared a belief in CPS, a process that uses divergent and convergent thinking, alternately, through four steps to help people generate new and novel ideas. These steps are: clarify, ideate, develop, and implement. By leaning on our process’s common ground, I started building trust and community with the board.

In addition to using CPS’s language and tools in my communication with the board, I also identified the board members who were our diplomats: folks who wanted me to be successful, who held me accountable, and who had the esteem of their fellow board members. Through one-on-one conversations with these diplomats, I was able to express my frustrations and concerns without becoming the board’s lightning rod for discontent (the idea crusher). I began to trust that there were board members who understood my concerns, and they started to advocate for me and my ideas in board meetings and private conversations with other board members, forging paths of agreement.

The chair and I also began designing meetings by identifying what part of the CPS process we were engaging through various challenges, capitalizing on the shared belief that each step of the process had a time and place. We made space for opportunities to diverge and to ideate, helping the board feel engaged and essential. Further, we developed ideas and applied criteria (i.e. staff and budget resources and restrictions), which allowed us to get to actionable and effective implementation.

Refocusing on the CPS process has allowed us to grow as an organization: in the past 9 years, we have expanded to a team of 5 employees, a core faculty of volunteer trainers, and more than 80 skilled volunteers who provide top notch deliberate creativity training annually. We have added virtual training workshops as a result of the challenges of the Covid-19 shutdown, creating an entirely new revenue stream for the organization. We now offer sponsorships that include speaking opportunities, as well as a legacy and major gift program. We’ve also implemented challenge grants from donors to help our annual fund beat its goal every year since 2015. Three years ago, we acquired the Florida Creativity Conference (FLCC) and managed to get through the pandemic with all of our staff — and even with reserve funds!

What To Do from Here

This year, the board developed a board self-assessment [RA1] based on Creative Problem Solving. This assessment is informing their redevelopment of the executive director evaluation, which will in turn inform our staff evaluation process. Our goal is that evaluation be wholistic, retention-driven, and focused on personal and professional development. And most notable of all, we have a 5-year strategic plan that I reference weekly to drive staff and board meetings as well as organizational conversations.

As we look forward to the next decade, the board and I continue to cultivate our curiosity and clarity, deepening our trust, and igniting our work. Here are four takeaways from our journey I hope can be helpful to you.

Be curiousabout both yourself and others. Ask “what” is happening to observe without judgement so you can get clarity. This will help you make discoveries about your motivations and fears, and it will deepen your compassion for others.

Identify your strengths and lean into them. By leaning into your strengths, you will be able to activate improvements more quickly and more successfully. This will build your confidence and others’ confidence in you. Have faith that your incremental gains will accumulate.

Cultivate (and recruit) your board diplomats. Let them help manage the board. When you have allies who understand your struggles, they can provide valuable perspective and champion your cause when silence is strategic.

Be the light, not the lightning rod. Inspire, encourage, celebrate, and express gratitude. If we complain, debate, or defend too much or too often, we are seen as a problem (even if we are right).

In closing, I encourage you to remember there is leadership strength in tapping your natural creativity and curiosity. There is confidence within your vulnerable moments when you explore what is true for you and others. In the end, we can be more effective leaders when we are in collaboration (instead of conflict) with our boards.


  1. I intentionally use the word, safer — as opposed to safe — as it is never 100% in our control to prevent harm from reaching our workplaces. However, we can absolutely decrease risk and increase mitigating factors in order to lessen harm directed at ourselves, our staff, and our workspaces. This is an ongoing process, not an end goal. ↩︎

About the Author

Executive Director at

Beth Miller is Executive Director of the Creative Education Foundation, a professional development nonprofit, where she has refined operations, fundraising, events, publications, and programs. Beth and her team navigated the pandemic by developing virtual programs and by acquiring the Florida Creativity Conference in addition to continuing to run the Creative Problem Solving Institute.

Beth taught writing at Trinity College and was a Writing Fellow at Quinnipiac University. Beth earned her B.A. in Women’s Studies and her M.A. in American Studies at Trinity and was inducted into the Phi Beta Kappa honor society. Beth received the Petry Prize in American Studies, the Brinton Thompson Prize in History, the Fishzohn Award for Civil Rights and Community Service, the Martin Prize for Leadership, and the Tyler Award for Interdisciplinary Studies. Beth received an honorary PhD in Arts and Humane Letters from Southern New Hampshire University.

Her thesis, “Challenging Race and Gender Boundaries in Antebellum America,” was adapted as the play, “An Education in Prudence,” by the Open Theater Project in Boston, MA. Beth was named one of the “50 for the next 50,” which honored women professors, alumni, and students as Trinity’s future leaders, and in 2023 was a “Women We Admire” Awardee.

Articles on Blue Avocado do not provide legal representation or legal advice and should not be used as a substitute for advice or legal counsel. Blue Avocado provides space for the nonprofit sector to express new ideas. Views represented in Blue Avocado do not necessarily express the opinion of the publication or its publisher.

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