How does it feel to be the one who always has to say no? Personally, I hate it.
After all, “yes” is kind of my motto:
I like to make things happen, try out new ideas, be agreeable and positive, keep people happy. And these can all be great qualities. But they can also be my Achilles heel. Always saying “yes” and finding ways to make the improbable probable usually comes at a price.
Take this paraphrased version of a true scenario:
Them: This organization needs a TV channel.
Me: Sounds amazing but we don’t have the money, time, or skills to create a video library for our organization.
Them: We’re video producers and I’m on the board so we’ll do it for free.
Me: But what about when you’re not on the board anymore?
Them: Why are you resisting this? We’re willing to do it for free right now.
The confidence and power to say, “no, thank you” would have served me (and my team) better. Rather than spending time we didn’t have on a project we couldn’t control or sustain, we would have done well to put our efforts into programs that directly affected our mission. Namely, delivering programs and fundraising.
Hours and hours misspent = dollars wasted and opportunities missed to make progress in other areas.
This mistake of mine is one small example of the ways in which we, as organizations, try to be everything to everyone. To take every offer we’re given. To address every issue that arises. To extend ourselves beyond a reasonable scope.
Because we aren’t supposed to say no. We are supposed to take what we can get and then figure out how to use it. We are supposed to do more. Help more. Be more. On everybody else's terms.
So, for this week’s back to basics message, I'm sounding the alarm on over-extending ourselves and I'm calling, once again, for us to focus on eliminating the nonessential. To do that, I suggest taking inventory of the projects you’re working on and consider how closely they’re tied to your original mission. Are there “nice-to-have” programs that don’t really move the needle for your cause? Events or tasks that seemed simple enough in the beginning but now take valuable time and attention away from more mission-focused efforts? Is your team chasing the latest trend (like making tiktok videos, for instance) instead of picking up the phone and asking people for support?
Another way to illustrate this point is to imagine a scenario in which someone gives you a dump truck - when all you really needed was a wheelbarrow. Sure, the dump truck will move a lot more dirt, but now you'll need to pay for gas to run it, insurance to take it on the road, and an experienced driver to operate it. And, unlike the wheelbarrow, that truck can't get the dirt into the small places it is needed most. You asked for a wheelbarrow, but a dump truck was what they wanted to give so a dump truck is what you received.
Not every terrific program/project/offer/dump truck is right for your organization.
As a nonprofit leader, the best way you can serve your organization is to be ruthless about eliminating every activity that does not directly further the mission or accomplish the vision. Staying laser focused protects your resources - human and otherwise.
We like to think it’s just a matter of prioritization. Or delegation. But those of us "in the game" long enough know that everything gets billed as “top priority” and there are precious few people to actually delegate to. Plus, being accountable to multiple - and sometimes competing - stakeholders makes the act of saying “no” even more complicated. (Office politics, anyone?)
Making the tough choices requires that you have the authority and support to say no when the situation demands. And that you are respected and trusted to choose wisely.
P.S. I know, I know: sell the dump truck, buy a wheelbarrow, and spend the rest on infrastructure!