The impact of saying “no” posted 05/01/14

By Jonathan Goldford
Board Member

Steve Jobs once said, “People think focus means saying yes to the thing you’ve got to focus on. But that’s not what it means at all. It means saying no to the hundred other good ideas that there are. You have to pick carefully.”

This is never more true than in a young friends board. Not only is your board filled with individuals excited enough about your nonprofit to commit an enormous amount of time for free, but I’ve found that people who join young friends boards are thoughtful enough to frequently offer great ideas. While everybody loves great ideas, too many great programs, activities and events can cripple your associate board, even without you noticing. That’s why it’s so important, even critical, to focus on saying “no”.

What takes up time for your board members

In any given month your young friends board members can have the following tasks:

  • Attending board meetings
  • Attending committee meetings
  • Documenting processes (hopefully)
  • Planning volunteer events or volunteering
  • Planning fundraising events and attending those events
  • Attending social events within the young friends board
  • Communicating via email or phone
  • Researching, developing and working on new programs or activities

That’s a ton of stuff, and don’t forget that many young professionals are also dealing with:

  • Trying to develop and succeed in their young careers or in school
  • Starting a family including getting married and having kids
  • Participating in other activities like sports, associations and clubs

So it’s worth remembering that young people often have plenty of commitments and being on an associate board is no small commitment in itself.

Why saying “no” is so important

The list I provided above illustrates why saying “no” is so important, because when you’re working with volunteers they only have so much time in the day. And their time is by far the most valuable asset they’re contributing to your nonprofit (especially since most young people aren’t rolling in cash). Their time can’t be wasted on anything but the activities that will provide the organization the greatest return.

Along those lines, when a group of people are over-committed, they often under-deliver in much of their work. I think most young friends boards would rather have two incredible events in one year than five mediocre events.

Finally, it’s a lot harder for the leadership team to be strategic and forward thinking if their time is spent scrambling to check off the to-do list.  The less committed, the more likely the team can build a strong foundation for future success, and ensure high quality in every one of the group’s efforts.

Tips for saying “no”

Saying “no” is hard, especially with a group of volunteers.  Everyone wants to be polite and inclusive, and there is always a fear that rejection will lead to decreased engagement and involvement. On top of that, ideas for new events, programs and activities are usually fantastic, since anyone can hop online and get 50 proven fundraising ideas in less than ten minutes.

So how do we say make it easier to say “no”?

Default to “no”

No matter what time-consuming activity is presented, always start with “no”.  Bocce ball tournament?  No.  Volunteering at the Jack Johnson concert?  No. Throwing a gala?  No.  Once you change the model from “sure, why not” to starting with “no”, it requires you to really think about whether each activity is the best use of everyone’s time.

Utilize the board’s goals and metrics

If we’re trying to determine the best use of time, how do we compare the infinite number of options?  Utilize your young friends board’s goals and the metrics to determine what to do.  That way the conversation goes from “they both sound cool” to “the bocce ball tournament will raise the most money and we likely won’t be able to build a lot of awareness at the Jack Johnson concert.”  Focusing on goals also keeps the conversation more objective, which makes saying “no” easier.

Elect a “No” Leader

If you’re really having trouble electing someone on the board to be your “No” Leader may be a good idea. At meetings this person plays devil’s advocate and constantly reminds the group of your limited time. Since everyone knows this person’s role, it’s less likely they’ll offend people when they politely object to an idea.

Too many great ideas is a good problem to have

Most importantly, it’s worth noting that so many suggestions is usually a good problem. You can never have too many committed and thoughtful volunteers, and the best boards are the ones where everyone is contributing innovative ideas and solutions.

So, have you had the problem of saying “yes” too much on your board before?  Any tips to make it easier to say “no” to even great ideas?  Let us know in the comments below.

Start building your young friends board today

Challenged getting young professionals involved in your nonprofit? Download our free guide to start engaging your future leadership today.

Download free guide

Leave a Comment