Bringing ideas to life is now my #2 high.
Helping others feel that feeling has become #1.

With my most recent volunteer creative project, I’d say a close third is learning that the project giftee has reaped profound meaning and sustenance from the gift (which happened, and it was heart-melting). However, keeping in mind that a real gift is given without any obligations attached, we’ll call this one a Nice to Have. 🙂

I’m a member of the Colourlovers website and creative community. A little over a year ago, I noticed they’d set up a partnership with Spoonflower, a custom fabric-on-demand site. Excited about the potential, and eager to share knowledge with other site members, I used the Colourlovers group function to create the Colourlovers on Spoonflower group.

Recently, we completed our first cooperative project:
a Cancer Healing Quilt.

Molly's Quilt Photo - October 2011

It was gifted by the group to a beloved Colourlovers member who’s been undergoing breast cancer treatment. The project was a bumpy ride, with disproportionate labor assigned to too few*, but we were fortunate to have generous sponsorship from Colourlovers, Spoonflower and CreateMixedMedia, another craft site.

The project began when I decided to celebrate our 75-member milestone by proposing a cooperative project to the group—perhaps a quilt?

The enthusiastic response was immediate and intoxicating! It was like tossing a tiny kite up to the wind and seeing it unfurl into a huge, winged and multicolored dragon. I did everything I could to honor that incredible enthusiasm, to feed it… and I hope to learn any secrets there may be to purposely, consciously strike that initial spark.

Exploring Project Leadership

For this project, there was so much pure good fortune—the stars simply seemed to be aligned. When a project goes so well, can anything be learned? Absolutely. Here are a few gems I plan to carry forward to future projects:

  1. Make sure the load is balanced. Volunteers (including the one writing this article) get caught up in the excitement of the moment, before they fully realize what they’re promising. As a project leader being introduced to new processes, ask questions until you understand. Do this early on, so backups can be arranged in time. Ask things like:
    How much time will it take?
    What can you start on now?
    How hard is it?
    How hard is it, really?
    How much will it cost?
    How can we involve more hands?
    What are your hopes and fears (i.e. “Will it be good enough?” “Will I get credit for my hard work?”)?
  2. Build a super clear, concise list of basic rules, and repeat them in every group communication. After the first couple, they can go to the bottom, but they need to be there, every time. Include a link to the longer set of rules, too.
  3. Protect the team. Contact volunteers privately and make sure they understand the deadlines and other expectations, and can really do them. This gives them the respectful space to check themselves. If there is concern, adjust promises made to the group, and to sponsors.
  4. It is great to guide someone across the bridge from dreams to reality, and tremendous to facilitate their creative growth in the process: Consciously provide the framework for growth. This allows me to bring creative and leadership lessons forward to the next project, and provides a pathway for those volunteers who’d like the option to do the same.
  5. I’ve begun a “Postpartum Thread” for the group, restricted to creative growth (rather than general venting). I’ve salted it with specific questions, such as, “What did I learn about designing for fabric? What do I wish I had done differently? What do I want to try next?”

Photo by Dannielle Buckley

About that Sleeping Dragon

My best guess about the “sleeping dragon” is that it wasn’t really sleeping—it was at least stirring. People joined the group because they had a lot of the same questions I had. For many, there is a desire to explore the bridge between the delightful creative tools on the Colourlovers site and the ability to do more with one’s creations. Because it’s a new-ish idea (with room for improvement in the user experience department), and because bringing one’s ideas to life involves crossing personal thresholds, the bridge feels gated. But there was “pressure” against it—people tapping and pressing, unsure about how to step through.

Combine that with the fact that the site itself is very active, very positive, very supportive. People feel safer there to stick their necks out a bit. As a result, the culture is already unusually sparky and productive.

Picture this: A set of incredibly fun creative tools + a vibrant, supportive creative space + an opportunity to add an awesome new creative tool to one’s repertory =


* The entire quilt was sewn by one person—Dannielle Buckley (sundancer on Colourlovers), who contributed weeks of intensive work to make the deadline; Besides writing regular group updates, I landed the job of uploading everyone’s patterns to Spoonflower, because the quilt blocks needed to be ordered from a single account—and I had to do it as quickly as possible to buy maximum sewing time for Dannielle. That, combined with scores of private emails encouraging group members and helping them through the unfamiliar steps, added up to more late nights!

3 Responses to Cooperative Projects: Wake a Sleeping Dragon

  1. Vicky says:

    The over all project was quite an undertaking for sure but one that’s out come was beautiful. It was wonderful seeing first hand the designs everyone created for the fabric blocks, truly an outstanding job. Being one that occasionally quilts I know full well all the work that went into this quilt. I agree with the four objectives listed above; Exploring Project Leadership. However, I would have to say it was a labor of love. Congratulations on a job well done I know the recipient of the quilt is very happy.

  2. Penina says:

    REALLY glad you’re happy with it, Dannielle!
    I hope you’re getting some well-deserved rest 🙂

  3. Dannielle says:

    Thanks for featuring me in your article! I’m so happy with the way the quilt turned out. It was a fantastically fun project.

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