Improvising in the Nonprofit Workplace

What Comes After Plan B? Sometimes best laid plans go wrong and it requires businesses and people to be flexible and prepared to change time after time.


When people hear the word “improvisation,” some say:

“I watched Whose Line is it Anyway on T.V. and thought it was funny!”

“I think professional actors do that at Second City in Chicago, like Amy Poehler did.”

“Who in their right mind would do that?”

What is this ”improvisation” that causes an array of reactions? Essentially, it is a type of performance that requires participants to think on their feet as an ensemble in order to create an experience without any prior written material. They may start with a prompt from the audience and build characters and a story from there. Improvising results are often funny, but improvisation does not always have comedic aims. Practice and training are crucial, as is exercising the mental faculties and the body.

If you work in the nonprofit sector, then you can probably count off at least a few dozen times you’ve had to handle an emergency situation, to convince your Board that plans for the fundraiser are not chaotic, or to lead a meeting about a topic of little interest to the staff.

The basic tenets of improvisation can improve the above nonprofit workplace scenarios.

  • Saying “yes, and” is the number one rule of improvisation. This does not mean that you never challenge thinking, but at the get go, it helps to acknowledge what a person says as well as to offer your own insights in response. In Bossypants, Tina Fey writes that saying “yes and” encourages you to start from an “open-minded place” and to “respect what your partner has created.” If you start with a resounding “no,” then you create an aura of negativity, and how can you move forward from there? A game you can try is “Campfire Story,” in which people tell a group story, one sentence at a time. Before adding a sentence to the prior one, the person should say, “Yes, and…”


  • Thinking on your feet and being okay with the results are also key elements of improvisation. Mulling over the pros and cons of a decision can be a good thing. Yet, sometimes, you have to trust your past experiences and intuition in order to handle the immediate situation. What you choose should make contextual sense, and you should be able to rationalize the decision. A game to try is “Freeze,” in which two people start a scene using their bodies in interesting but realistic ways. Someone from the backup line yells, “Freeze!” At that moment, he or she assumes the physical position of someone in the scene. This person will then start a new scene, justifying his or her position.


  • Working as an ensemble allows you to communicate ideas and receive immediate feedback. Occasionally, you may have the spotlight, and occasionally you may take the backseat. Whatever you do is for the good of everyone and what you are creating. Not only do improvisers feed off each other’s energy and ideas, but they also feed off the audience. A game you can try is “Machines,” in which one person starts a repetitive motion and a sound. Another actor joins in, adding a new motion and sound, until everyone participates. Then, the group can experiment and play, moving and making sounds together. What kind of machine has the group created? Is it new? Or familiar? What happens if one of the members malfunctions, speeds up, or slows down?


  • Exploring creative options may be obvious, but it is necessary to include. In improvisation, there is freedom to explore different characters, human behaviors, stories, and more. The only limitation is the physical space. A game to try is “Information Desk.” Someone sits at a desk and fields questions. Other people, one by one, approach the desk as particular characters asking questions appropriate to their characters. Even the information desk attendant makes a character choice and answers the questions as he or she sees fit.

As Forbes notes, the key for any improvisation game is to “be present in the moment, listen carefully, and contribute freely.” Having fun is also worth mentioning.

There are a wealth of improvisational games, many of which are documented in Viola Spolin’s Improvisation for the Theater, a book people have used for years to help teachers, children, and health workers. You can even find improvisers willing to come to your organization to shake things up!

If you can master a few improvisation games about chickens and proctologists, then you can find practical ways to apply your new found improvising skills to scenarios involving budgets and marketing strategies.

About the Author: Jennifer performs improvisational comedy with the Amish Monkeys as a way to entertain Pittsburgh audiences. The troupe is neither affiliated with the Amish nor the monkeys. She also enjoys improvises topic ideas as a writer for New Place Collaborations.