Author: Peter Cantelon, Executive Director
This might be the hardest word a non-profit can say.
As non-profit employees, volunteers and managers we are used to hearing no regularly in terms of funding requests, grants etc. but no amount of hearing it prepares you for having to say it.
This may be partly due to the fact that most non-profits are born out of a yes-oriented vision. Yes is woven into the nature of what we do and what we want to do. We want to say yes. Yes to those in need, yes to those requesting assistance, yes to often under-paid staff. Our vision is born out of YES.
As admirable as a yes-oriented vision and culture can be it can blind us to the times when we need to draw a line and admit that there are points past which we are not prepared to go.
These could be well-intentioned projects; requests for service and assistance or even a good idea from an employee. There are numerous occasions when we may need to say no against every fiber of our being that wants to say yes.
There are many reasons to say no. A good and visionary idea comes along ahead of its time for instance. You do not have the resources to move ahead but the idea is too goods to walk away from.
Knowing when to say no is important to a non-profit because sometimes no is all that separates you from longevity or burning out in a bright ball of well-intentioned fire.
Another opportunity is when scope creep begins to happen. This is when great initiatives or partnerships come your way that are slightly outside of your field of focus or vision. It is always tempting to take on responsibilities that are similar but different from what you do.
A non-profit focused on a vision of feeding the hungry has an opportunity to support a new affordable transit program. You rationalize that this makes sense because your clients often struggle to get to and from the resources you offer.
However consider this – shifting away from your foundational vision, however slightly may seem inconsequential in the short term, like a ship nudged one degree off course, but over the course of months or years you can lose sight of the destination your vision was meant to bring you to in the first place.
Being able to say no to the things that don’t quite fit is part of the skillset a non-profit needs to remain viable over the long term and ensure it is still serving the community in 10 or 20 years.
Now there are variations on the word that can allow you to remain compassionate. A simple no is not always required. Analyze what the barriers are that are leading you to no. Is it resources (people, materials, time, and money)? If so lay out the obstacles that need to be overcome. Instead of no you can set a direction by saying “If you can secure this, that and these then we can do this – otherwise we will not be able to.”
In the instance of time you can initiate a pilot project instead of a fully realized program or partnership with clear metrics to achieve. For instance a one year program that must deliver x, y, and z while bringing in grant and related revenue to cover operational costs not to mention actually achieve a reasonable deliverable target. If this works then you grow the mandate to three years with increased targets etc.
These kind of response sets guidelines for success and reasonable outcomes that, if not achieved, form the basis for having to say no.
It may be hard to say no but it is important to know the boundaries past which your non-profit should not tread. This is part of being a healthy, long-term organization.