Just Say No

Remember that song–“I’m just a gal who can’t say no?”__from the play, Oklahoma!?

No, I’m not going to talk about #MeToo (important as that may be).  This is about the Executive Director or the Development Director who hasn’t figured out how to say no to inappropriate board requests.

I write a blog called Too Busy To Fundraise—because for too many Executive and Development Directors fundraising becomes the one thing they don’t ever have time to do.  Or, more accurately, effective fundraising, the kind of fundraising that brings in the most money for the least amount of expense, goes by the wayside because the board is insisting on yet another event; or for them to write another proposal, even if those funds are so restrictive as to minimize value to the organization.

Learning to say no—especially to your board—is a critical element for any chief development officer. And it takes skill.

Just saying no may (or may not!) allow you to avoid the task, but it won’t necessarily help you in the long run.

The first thing is to recognize when No is the right response and when it may be simply a knee-jerk reaction.

For example, I hate special events.  I believe with all my heart that they are the worst way to raise money.  They are expensive, suck up staff time, have opportunity costs up the yazoo.  So when my board would say, “Let’s have an event,” my immediate response would be “NO!”

But sometimes, an event is a good thing.  Sure, it may not really raise any money, and yes, it will consume time like you can’t believe, but it can pull the board together; raise awareness in the community; start conversations with prospects you otherwise would not be able to speak with.

Instead of NO, my first reaction needed to be, “Tell me why.”

If the why doesn’t pass muster (“We need to raise more money right now—an event will raise the funds we need”), then you must learn to say no to what is being asked of you while saying yes to the person (or in the case of the board, the people) asking.

Sticking with the event example, you need to first acknowledge that their reason has some merit. You may not actually need to raise more money in the short term—but show me an organization that couldn’t use more money to better fulfill its mission.  So, yes. Raising more money would be a good thing.  Raising money via a special event, may not be so good.

How do we say no without antagonizing our board?

“I agree that raising more money would be a good thing.  Before we commit to an event, let’s look at some additional ways we could raise funds and then see which would be most cost-effective.”

Before you say that, however, you need to do a little homework.

  • Based on your donor base, perhaps on history, what is a reasonable about you could expect to gross at an event?
  • What might it cost to run the event?
  • How much staff time will it take?
  • What about needed volunteers?

Armed with this information—much of which you can get from colleagues at like organizations if they will be willing to honestly share true financials from their last event—you can show the board your expected gross less direct costs, staff costs, and how much the return on investment would be.

You are not done yet, however.  You have to show at least one alternative.

“As you can see, we’ll be doing a lot of work for what may be very little return.  Here’s some other ways we could raise money.” And then show ways you are already raising money—or ways you could if only you could get past all their suggestions!


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