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When Should Your Nonprofit Say “No” to Opportunity?


By Elizabeth Pun

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Reading Time: 4 minutes

Nonprofit organizations are built on mission statements. Driven by core beliefs and values, you aim to solve a specific problem and make an imprint on the world. While the path to success is lined with opportunities, not all will accelerate your impact. In fact, there are times when saying “yes” can take you off-course.

Your nonprofit approaches crossroads all the time, whether it’s deciding to launch a suggested campaign, choose a potential partnership, or invest resources in a new project. A new initiative might seem like a great idea, but if it doesn’t align with your values or mission, it only ends up being a distraction. Here’s a look at why you should say “no” to grow and succeed, and how to know when you should decline.

Saying No Sets the Stage for Success

In the for-profit world, the most successful businesses are driven by a sharp focus. When they first start out, they refuse to settle for a short-term opportunity at the expense of a long-term vision. A chief example is Facebook. In 2006, when Facebook was just two-years-old, Mark Zuckerberg turned down Yahoo’s $1 billion offer to buy Facebook.

Critics immediately challenged the decision, questioning Zuckerberg’s competency as a young CEO. But Zuckerberg explained that Yahoo, with “no definitive idea about the future,” did not align with Facebook’s higher purpose and direction and would thus “undervalue the business.” Now, Facebook is one of the most valuable brands in the world.

Growing nonprofit organizations also understand the value of staying focused on a single vision. Take the Vs. Cancer Foundation, an organization that empowers athletes and communities to fund childhood cancer research. In two years, Vs. Cancer went from a startup nonprofit to a $1 million organization. In a webinar Classy hosted with its CEO and Founder, Chase Jones, he explained that one of his biggest lessons learned in Vs. Cancer’s early days was that he couldn’t do everything. He realized the ability to say no would propel Vs. Cancer further. He says,

When [Vs. Cancer] first started saying ‘no’ to things is when we first started really accelerating our process to becoming a much better organization.

As your organization grows, it becomes increasingly important that you evaluate and prioritize the opportunities that turn up. Fail to do so, and you can wind up exhausting yourself and your resources over projects that distract you from your core mission. Begin by defining your objectives and only take on projects that help you work toward these goals. This will help your organization stay focused on its mission and move closer to achieving it.

When Your Nonprofit Should Say No

By fully understanding your organization’s own goals, you can decide which opportunities and projects are worth your attention. Though it’ll require some grit, here are a few situations when you may want to say no.

1. When the Activity Does Not Support Your Core Mission

All of your campaigns, initiatives, and events should align with your core mission, values, and beliefs. Let’s say your startup nonprofit educates families about proper health and nutrition. Hosting a pie-eating contest would work against your organization’s message.

Sometimes, though, it’s not so black and white. In Vs. Cancer’s first year, Jones was asked to host a 5K. While it seemed like a great idea at first, he realized that hosting this run would detract from building the relationships necessary for Vs. Cancer’s main goal at the time: to work with baseball teams. Though difficult, he decided to say no to the offer and focused on stewarding his current donor relationships. Only take on projects that will move you toward your core mission.

2. When the Return is Low

Most nonprofits have limited resources. If you’re considering a new request or project, make sure it will yield a high return on investment. Given the projected results, how much of your time and resources will be needed? Is it worth it?

For example, let’s say someone wants to host a dinner to benefit your brand new organization. The venue is three towns away, and you’re asked to co-host and pitch in financially. How much of your time, budget, and manpower would be used to support this event? What fundraising results will it yield? If the ROI is low, you may want to turn down the request, but let the individual know they’re welcome to host it themselves and donate the proceeds.

3. When a Potential Partnership Does Not Align With Your Core Values

A strategic partnership can improve your organization’s impact and efficacy. But whether you’re collaborating with another nonprofit or seeking a corporate sponsor, make sure the partnership is compatible.

Do you share similar missions and values? Is the partnership going to strengthen and amplify your efforts? Failing to choose partners wisely can waste your time, stir controversy, or damage your reputation. A recent partnership between UNICEF Canada and Cadbury, for instance, received criticism because of the conflict between UNICEF’s mission—to advocate for children’s health and development—and candy as a high-caloric food with little nutritional value. An unwise partnership can end up hindering your work instead of supporting it.

4. When It Takes Time Away From Your Target Audience

When defining their missions, nonprofits must specify the target audience they serve. One of the most difficult challenges is to turn down initiatives that take time away from your target group.

A nonprofit that serves low-income women and their families, for example, might target women ages 12 to 21. Their services are narrowed to this specific age bracket. Another nonprofit might help children with a specific type of cancer, and must turn down a patient with a different illness. These decisions are hard to make, but they will help your organization stay focused and achieve greater progress toward its mission in the long run.

Saying No Means Saying Yes to Something Greater

It’s difficult to say “no.” Understand that it will disappoint some people. It will spark tough conversations. But it will also contribute to your organization’s growth, clarity, and success. In the midst of good ideas, select the ones that that align with your core values and directly serve your ultimate goals. Saying “no” in some scenarios allows you to say “yes” to your mission.

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