The Power of No

Leadership: Develop Unlimited Talent
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Mar 1, 2016 | Blog

TV showrunner Shonda Rhimes recently spoke at the TED conference here in Vancouver, sharing insights from her Year of Yes. If you missed her talk, she’s also chronicled her experience in a bestselling book — relaying her journey of saying yes to everything that scared her, and overcoming the debilitating fear that limited her life. 

Fear is a powerful emotion many of us in the not-for-profit space can relate to. But often our fear is rooted in a different place. Our fear is not of taking on new projects or being open to the world, but a fear of saying no. 

Deep down, the very concept of ‘no’ runs counter to how we approach our work as not-for-profit leaders. Saying no feels like an admission of failure. It evokes feelings of deficiency and shortcoming. 

We might think to ourselves, if only we had more – more budget, more time, more people, more volunteers, more support from government or funders – we could say yes. Maybe if we were better leaders, we would be enough and have enough. So ‘no’ feels like it has consequences, both for our organizations and for ourselves. Saying no means turning people away, be they funders, clients or stakeholders. And saying no can feel like admitting our leadership has limits. It’s not a surprise, then, that for some not-for-profit leaders, saying ‘no’ feels like a constitutional impossibility. 

But ‘no’ is the most powerful word we can use to hone in on what’s important. 

After all, how can we plan and prioritize if we say yes to everything? If all opportunities and strategies that come across our desks are on equal footing (despite a mismatch in organizational priorities)? If every good but not-good-right-now idea brought up in the board meeting gets the greenlight (and the strategic plan be damned)? If all the volunteers who came through the door were automatically on our roster (without first screening for skills and mission alignment)? 

A few years ago, I was part of a working board that lacked the ability to say no. Instead, at our annual strategic planning session we said yes to every new project and idea suggested. The room felt rife with possibility and promise. It was electric and intoxicating. Everyone left feeling excited for the coming year.

But, when we moved into operational planning, it became clear that achieving our strategic goals would mean we would have to double our financial resources and event planning capacity. We didn’t. We couldn’t. And a year of frustration and friction followed. I think back to that first strategic planning day, and wished I had the courage to be the naysayer in the room.  

So, here’s to saying no: No to the new project idea that isn’t a strong fit with our current strategic plan. No to funding opportunities that require us to turn ourselves inside out and shoehorn ourselves into work that departs from our organizational mission. 

Instead, let’s say yes to ruthlessly seeking to aligning our priorities, our resources, and our strengths with our vision for community change.

Vantage Point Arrow


Carol Neuman

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