Thanksgiving Top 5 (2015 edition)

One of the blessings of freelance work is the variety of jobs I get to do and the variety of people I get to work with. Each Thanksgiving it’s become a tradition for me to choose five projects from the past year that I’m particularly grateful for. This tradition gives me an opportunity to review my year, remember my work, and reflect on the good people in my life.

So, these are the…

Thanksgiving 2015 Top Five Projects I was Thankful to Work On

Deer Creek Christian School branding

Thanksgiving 2015Deer Creek is a small private school that had to re-think its identity in order to thrive rather than simply survive. By the time they contacted me, they had already done much of the groundwork—the key constituents had already been discussing values, vision, mission, distinctives, buy-in, and “living the brand.” They just needed help communicating it all. We started with business cards and then discussed the benefits and costs of direct mail, a quarterly newsletter, and social media. Their budget is small, but their dreams are big. Brainstorming with them was a reminder that a brand can succeed independent of budget, that investing in people doesn’t have to cost money, and that the process is as important as the goal.

Thank you Deer Creek!

Dying Like Jesus

It’s a real treat for me to work with someone who has his own ideas but also respects mine, because then a project becomes a true collaboration. Chris Spoor is an old friend, my former pastor, and a retired hospice chaplain. He began working on a book for people facing death, and he came to me for help editing the manuscript so he could submit it to publishers. We had many email conversations, but we also scheduled a number of phone calls—because Chris often wanted to discuss what I was doing to his book. Sometimes he disagreed with my editing choices. Sometimes he just wanted to understand my reasoning. And sometimes I had to re-think my editing when I heard what he was really trying to communicate. Through it all, because of our mutual respect, we were each able to contribute our best work, and no one’s ego got in the way.

By the way, the title is one example of how this kind of collaboration plays out. Chris did not have a title on his manuscript, and he was open to suggestions. I put Dying Like Jesus forth as a possibility. Chris wasn’t thrilled with it, but we used it on a couple of the submission proposals we sent in. Later, Chris suggested Seven Words for the End of Life as a title. I don’t think it has the same intrigue as Dying Like Jesus, but I’m willing to live with it for a while and see if it grows on me. Neither of us knows yet what the final title will be. Chris and I work well together because we both want what’s best for the book, and we both respect each other’s strengths. That kind of collaboration is rare, and I really appreciate it.

Thank you, Chris!

Living Springs sermon series slides

I maintain the website for Living Springs Community Church, and that gives me the opportunity to create banner ads for each new series of messages. Now, I don’t consider myself a “real” designer. That is, I don’t draw or paint or create my own designs. But I do like taking pieces of existing images and combining them to create something new, and I like choosing fonts that contribute to the message. The banners below are a few of my favorite creations from the past year:

Thanksgiving 2015

Thanksgiving 2015

Thanksgiving 2015

Thanksgiving 2015

I don’t often get a lot of lead time to create a banner, and sometimes the descriptions are kind of sparse. But Living Springs trusts me to work with whatever they give me and come up with something. (In fact, one of the pastors told me he’s always eager to see what I come up with!) There’s no routing process or approval committee, and I appreciate the freedom to just do my best to create a visual representation of an intangible concept.

Thank you, Living Springs!

Medi-Mex brochure

Thanksgiving 2015When a friend and former co-worker asked me about updating a brochure for a nonprofit that provides medical supplies to impoverished areas of Mexico, she sent me as much resource as possible—their existing brochure, their Facebook page, a recent newsletter, and an explanation about the process their board would go through to accept and approve a new brochure. All of that, plus my own experiences in Mexico and with nonprofits, helped me write a brochure that uses story to connect donors and volunteers with the people who receive the supplies they bring.

I was given plenty of lead time, which is really helpful. In fact, the brochure pictured at right is only the first draft that I sent back in time for a December board meeting. I enjoyed the work I’ve done so far—playing with different type treatments, choosing compelling photos, and telling the Medi-Mex story in a new way that I think will be effective. Plus, it’s always fun to work with old friends.

Thank you, Michelle!

Oak Tree Leadership website

Thanksgiving 2015Sometimes, it’s just fun to clean up code! When Jason Perry gave me access to his website, I could see that the code behind it was a mess. I spent a few hours sorting it out and cleaning it up, which I found strangely gratifying. Along the way, with Jason’s permission, I simplified and clarified his message by pruning duplicate information and organizing his many projects into logical categories. And I designed a less literal banner image (again by combining existing images and fonts) that conveys growth and leadership, with a new tagline that has dual layers of meaning.

Thanksgiving 2015
(previous header image)

Working on websites is fun because the results are immediate and visual. Page by page I could see the difference I was making, and the end result was a clearer message via a more efficient website.

Thank you, Jason!

Other thanks

My Top 5 list never contains all the projects I work on in a given year. I hope you know that though my list is short, my gratitude is not. My thanks extends to all the interesting people who have requested my help with their interesting projects this year. I am grateful for the work, but mostly I appreciate your trust. Thank you.

I’m grateful, too, to all of you readers, subscribers, commenters, and friends who make up my online community. That community is very real to me, and I thank you for it.

My Thanksgiving prayer for all of you is that your tables will be filled with more than you need, your homes will ring with laughter and love, and your hearts will respond by blessing someone else even more generously.

Happy Thanksgiving, all!


Cheap, easy photo editing: A short review of Noiseless

It’s a small app that makes a big difference. Not just in my photos, but also in the time I have to spend on them.

review of noiselessNoiseless is the name of a little program by Macphun that I recently bought, downloaded, and started using on the old grainy slides and scanned photos that were the main content of the family photo book I recently completed for a client. It really saved me a lot of time—and therefore it saved my client a lot of money.

Noisy photos

Digital noise is a problem particularly in photos taken in low light or at low resolution. Typically, I use Photoshop’s Filters and Adjustments options to eliminate noise, but it’s a tedious process. The goal in this kind of editing is to reduce the noise but preserve the detail, and that can be a difficult balance to find.

Noiseless does it all in one swipe. Easy.

Wanna see?

review noiseless
The print I have of this photo is a copy of someone else’s 20-year-old point-and-shoot original, and I scanned it on a low-quality scanner. Lots of noise.
noiseless review
I opened the image in Noiseless and applied the “Extreme” preset. I was worried about losing too much detail around the tentacles on this rambutan (an Indonesian fruit), but they came out pretty well. And my fingers look awesome!


A true review of Noiseless might go into detail about how the software works, what your settings options are, and the actual process of using it. But I’m going to cut to the chase: It works. And it’s easy.


It’s also cheap. I bought Noiseless for only $14.99, and later I saw it in the app store for $9.99 (doh!). There is also a Pro version for $59.99 that can be used as a plugin for programs like Photoshop, Lightroom, and Aperture, as well as a standalone app.

I recommend Noiseless

If you have old JPEGs that were scanned at lo-res, or you tend to take a lot of pictures at dusk, I recommend Noiseless as a cheap, easy way to eliminate digital noise and improve your images.

Cambodia remains

Cambodia remains
Victims of the Khmer Rouge in Cambodia’s “killing fields.”

On top of my bookcase, where I almost can’t see it as I’m seated at my desk, is a piece of a human bone. A thick, three-inch fragment.

It shocks me when I catch a glimpse of it, even though I am the one who put it there.

For a while, it was on my desk, next to my keyboard. That seems flippant, but I didn’t mean it that way. Instead, I felt I was honoring the dead—for each time my eyes rested on that weather-worn bone, they filled with tears again.

But over time I “got used to” seeing it, and the effect wore off. So I put the piece away, almost out of sight. Not because I wanted to forget about it, but because I wanted to remember.

War and pieces

During the weeks leading up to my Cambodia trip, when I would tell people where I was going, the response was usually mild confusion, something along the lines of, “Cambodia? Really? Why?” My father asked, “It’s not exactly safe there, is it?” A co-worker half-jokingly labeled it “The Trip Nobody Else Wanted.” And a lady at my church hugged me goodbye, wished me a good trip, and cheerfully advised, “Don’t step on any landmines!”

I prepared for the assignment by watching “The Killing Fields,” which tells the story of Cambodian journalist Dith Pran, who was trapped in the country when Pol Pot came to power. I also read Children of Cambodia’s Killing Fields, a book by Dith Pran, who gathered the stories of fellow Cambodians who were children when the Khmer Rouge took over.

The Khmer Rouge murdered or banished the wealthier, educated professionals of Cambodian society. The remaining population were reduced to brutal slavery. Cities were bombed. A lush countryside was littered with the bodies of millions of victims.

This reign of terror lasted from 1975 to 1979, and the Cambodia I saw in 2000 was still scarred and crippled. Streets were unpaved and rutted. The marketplace vendors offered pieces of wartime artifacts as souvenirs. A lot of locals were missing limbs, victims of landmines that still dot the countryside.

Now, I don’t understand all the politics behind the war that spilled over into Cambodia, but my trip brought me face-to-face with the effects.


Tuol Sleng, the Cambodian Genocide Museum, is a compound of five buildings that had been an elementary school before the Khmer Rouge took over Phnom Penh. Comrade Duch, a Khmer Rouge commander, turned the school into a prison where people were brutally tortured and killed. Each of the classrooms was turned into a cell. Some housed individual prisoners; others held large groups at a time.

Most of the rooms in Tuol Sleng, the Cambodian Genocide Museum, have been left almost exactly as they were found in 1979.

What makes this museum so powerful is its simplicity. Most of the rooms and artifacts have been left exactly as they were found in 1979 when Vietnamese troops forced the Khmer Rouge out of the city. The Vietnamese found in each room a body chained to an iron bed, left there to rot when the persecutors fled. The officers took a photo (please, click the link) before removing the body and burying it in a plot next to the building. Large, framed prints of those photos now hang on the walls of the rooms, making the space a sort of shrine to the victim who died there. A few signs have been added to explain what happened, but nothing is roped off or under glass. You can walk into each room and touch the shackles that held each prisoner; you can see the blood stains still on the floor; you can grip the barred windows and feel your heart pound.

Grave realization

Tuol Sleng was a place where city people—educated businessmen or government employees—were killed. After lunch we drove out to the countryside, where thousands of peasants had been slaughtered. This site too is haunting in its simplicity. Looking across the field, you see only grass and trees and paths around a series of large pits. It doesn’t look like much, and there are few signs or explanations. But slowly you realize that each pit was a mass grave for hundreds of victims. When you look closely along the worn paths, you find fragments of clothing, bones, and teeth.

The fields look serene and hardly significant, until you realize that each large pit was a mass grave filled with men, women, and children.

That’s where I found the bone that is now on my bookshelf. It was nestled in the grass along the edge of one of those pits. I hesitated to reach for it, not wanting to dishonor its owner any further. But it seemed less honorable to let it lie there, forgotten.

The bus ride back to town that evening was very quiet. The group had been stunned by the enormity of the genocide that decimated a once proud nation of quiet scholars. And the fact that we had been so absolutely unaware made us feel even more helpless and guilty.

Redeeming the remains

When people ask me how I can believe in a God who allows evil to happen, I think of Cambodia. I think of the one-legged children begging in the streets. I think of the social workers trying to rebuild a nation whose teachers, professionals, and elders have all been wiped out. I think of how heavy the hopelessness felt as I stood in the shadow of a tower of skulls.

I think of the human bone I hold in my hand.

But I also think of Vannary, a bookkeeper in the office that hosted my trip. Vannary lost her whole family to Pol Pot’s horror—father, mother, sisters, brother, all killed in front of her eyes. Vannary was with us while we toured Tuol Sleng, but she stayed on the bus. She didn’t want to alter our plans, but she was not able to face what she knew had happened inside those walls. Certainly not in the company of oblivious tourists.

After supper that evening we gathered in the hotel conference room and sang an old song together:

Because He lives, I can face tomorrow.
Because He lives, all fear is gone.
Because I know He holds the future—
and life is worth the living just because He lives.

Vannary was singing too. In spite of the horror she has lived through, she sings. In spite of the fear that still threatens her, she sings. In spite of the death all around her, Vannary sings. She courageously believes life is worth living because her God lives, and He has conquered death.

Illogical and undeniable

Why do I believe in a God who allows suffering? Because He is also the God who overcomes it. His answer is not always to protect us from it. But He does promise to walk with us through it.

Much like Vannary, Cambodia remains broken, fearful, scarred. But the tears I saw glistening in Vannary’s eyes reflect her hope in His resurrection power.

I need that glistening hope.

I need a hope that shines through tears. I need a hope that makes no sense, that can’t be justified or explained. A hope that just is. In spite of all the evidence against it.

I know that hope is real. I saw it in Cambodia.

And I can feel it in my bones.


Related: Nonprofit writing

The appeal of Labor Day


A large percentage of the work I do is for the nonprofit sector—healthcare, religion, poverty relief, literacy, and others. So I’ve written hundreds of fundraising appeals.

It is common for nonprofit organizations to schedule their appeals around holidays. Christmas is the most popular (and the most effective), but I’ve also written fundraising letters that are themed to coincide with New Year’s Day, Easter, Mothers Day, Independence Day, Election Day, Thanksgiving, and other recognized seasons.

Labor Day appealBut I’ve written only one Labor Day appeal. And since I know that creative fundraising success is top-of-mind for you in the days leading up to a holiday weekend, I’m here to share it with you. See if it moves you to give:

Dear Friend and Partner,

I love Labor Day — and not just because it’s a holiday!

I love what Labor Day stands for. It’s a whole day dedicated to the achievements of working Americans. It’s a national tribute to ordinary people who have made daily contributions to the strength, prosperity, and well-being of our nation.

Now, it may seem ironic on Labor Day to be writing about people whose labors, for the most part, are over. Most of the residents in [our senior living] communities are no longer part of the active workforce.

But they were. And for that, you and I are in their debt.

Think about it: Our retirement centers today are filled with former teachers, missionaries, nurses, homemakers, pressmen, cab drivers, factory workers, and farmers. Our retirement centers are filled with yesterday’s workforce—both paid and volunteer! These people have built a nation. They’ve built a community. They’ve built me and helped make me what I am today!

I don’t ever want to forget that.

The people in today’s nursing homes spent their lives laboring for me and the blessings I enjoy today. I feel obligated to give something back.

How about you?

Will you recognize what yesterday’s workers have done to make America great, and to make your community great? Will you labor a little for them after all they’ve done for you?

Give a little from the fruits of your labors this year. Not only will you be saying thank-you to some forgotten heroes, you’ll also be setting an example for the next generation who will someday need to say thank-you to us.

Happy Labor Day,

The fruits of my labors

Now, to be honest, I don’t know if this appeal letter did its job—the client did not relay any results to me (though they did return for help with several other appeal letters).

Still, I thought it was a creative approach to an unusual holiday request.

If you need creative thinking that is not too far out of the box, consider asking LifeLines to work on your next fundraising campaign.

In the meantime, Happy Labor Day!