How To Say No (The Secret Is Saying Yes)


(By centering – and believing in – what you’re saying yes to – your priorities)

Today I want to talk about how to say no.

Why am I doing an entire episode about this? Because it’s simultaneously so so hard and so so important. It’s like equal parts difficult and critical, and that’s really rare.

As a result, most people that I work with really struggle to do it effectively.

So I’m going to talk about how to know if an inability to say no is hurting your organization, and I’m going to give you the answer for how to do it better!

Think about whether any of this sounds familiar:

Your strategic plan seems more like a menu of programs and activities than a tight, focused roadmap to impact.

Your calendar is filled with so many meetings and check-ins that you don’t have time for deep thought, visioning, planning and other high leverage work.

You look around and somehow you have this oddly expanding set of programs – a new afterschool program to meet the needs of this part of your community; a reading program to serve this other part of the community; a training program for the young adults who were in your programs before but are now aging out and you don’t want to let them go…

Your board has 7 tiny projects that no one is moving forward on, instead of 1 or 2 central projects that everyone is supporting

Why are these things problematic? Because everything you invest in requires resources – time or money.

Expanding programs mean an expanding budget, so it’s super important that the expansion is strategic and not a result of an inability to say no.

Micro-board projects mean diffuse attention and energy and more discrete projects and relationships to manage on the board level.

Too many things in your strategic plan means that you’ll get more nos from funders and passes from donors because they won’t be able to quickly and easily understand what you’re really doing and focusing on — what they’re investing in and why.

A calendar filled with meetings that you probably should and could have said no to means you are not building deeper relationships with donors – or you’re not sleeping!

What I’m trying to say is that the failure to master the skill of saying no has a real cost.

I’m not judging – I get it.  If you’re anything like me, every time you’re faced with a list of options, all of which feel important or exciting, and you have to cut some of them, what you’ll actually start doing is finding ways to fit everything in.

Finding ways not to have to say no.

The problem is that saying no leave us feeling adrift. It can feel like we’re signaling that the thing we’re saying no to isn’t important.  On an even deeper level, sometimes the thing we have to say no to is something that is really exciting and inspiring to us.

One of my toughest nos was around a program that I loved that my organization needed to wind down.

NYC was on the brink of an historic mayoral election – we had had the same mayor for 3 terms which meant that there were young people coming of age politically who had only ever experienced one mayor. My organization had an opportunity to partner with the company that created the digital infrastructure for Obama’s first campaign to build out a digitally driven series of youth-led mayoral debates – to rally young people to attend the debates and have an

opportunity to engage with the candidates around issues the young people themselves were defining.

I was in heaven. It was exactly the kind of program I had started the organization to do – youth led social impact – and it was a smashing success! New partnerships, record youth engagement – all the things.

So here’s where the no came in. It should have been a time-boxed initiative, not an ongoing program. For many reasons having to do with our core mission, strategic direction, and operational priorities, it should have ended.

But I didn’t want it to end, so I kept fundraising for it and investing staff time and energy. And seeking out program outcomes that were increasingly out of alignment with our strategic plan and focus.

But I loved the work and the kids and the IDEA of the program.

Until my Director of Programs sat me down during one of our bi-monthly planning meetings and really pushed me to see something that is central to what I want to get at with this episode – why learning the skill of saying no is so important:

By not winding the program down I was draining resources – staff time, fundraising energy, operational capacity – from other places.

I had to make a choice.

I share this to say that I really do get it.  Saying no is an uncomfortable skill to develop, and our minds will come up with every excuse in the book not to do it.

At the same time, as a leader, saying no is one of the most important jobs you have.

Internally, saying no helps you balance growth with impact, and calibrate money with capacity. Externally, it’s a powerful signal to stakeholders about where you’re investing and where you’re not, and it opens the door for deeper conversations about the “why” behind your decisions, which is where investments come from – understanding and feeling an affinity for the why.

So what’s the secret to saying no?


That’s it. That’s the secret.

It’s easier to say no to certain things when the reason is because you’re saying yes to other things.

Example: We’re not going to add 3 more school partnerships because we want to work on a deeper level with the children in our current schools.

Another example: We’re not going to launch that new community food program in the short term because we’ve decided to invest in our food justice research project which will provide data that will help us expand our thought leadership, build new exciting partnerships, and tap into new funding sources in the intermediate term.

Having clear and powerful priorities that you believe in and are affirmatively saying yes to is the secret to finding the will to say no.

So how do you get clear about your priorities?

I’m going to recommend five questions to ask yourself to help you make decisions about what you’re saying yes to (and thus, what to say no to). These will help you get out of your own head and focus on the end goal.

First,  you have to start with the end goal in mind.  What is the result, end vision, impact you’re aiming for?

Second, make sure you’re clear about the choices you’re making.

For example – let’s say you’re wrapping up an annual work planning process and you have 7 goals you’re trying to decide between. You know that you need to narrow your focus to 3, max 4.

Choose two to compare and ask yourself these five questions:

  1. If both of these things were immediately accomplished, which would have a bigger impact on our overall goal, our long term desired impact, our mission, etc.?
  2. If both of these were immediately accomplished, which would be most value aligned for us?
  3. If we had to eliminate one of the two things completely and not do it at all, ever, which would be the least deleterious. This is about overall impact?
  4. If we could do both but had to postpone one of these by 6 months, which would it be. This is about immediacy. What would be the impact on our end goal?
  5. Between these two, assume equal impact — which will require the most effort and cost beyond our current capacity? This requirement of additional resources and capacity isn’t dispositive but should absolutely be considered.

Now look at your final results at least 3 of the answers will go one way. Identify the “winner” and do the comparison again between that winner and another option on the list, until you’ve made your way through your list of seven.

You don’t have to let the list decide, but this is a way to begin to get out of your own head and gut and to identify priorities that you affirmatively want to say yes to.

Let’s look at one more example – in the strategic work planning example, there are two specific items to compare. One to say yes to and one to say no to.

Now imagine you’re thinking about adding a new program – something where the trade off isn’t immediately obvious.

Remember my example of the program I wouldn’t let go of. You have to remember that saying yes to something is ALWAYS a choice – there is always a tradeoff. Part of what you have to do is name the trade off – make the thing or things that you’d be saying no to if you said yes to this thing visible.

When you’re deciding about something open ended, like whether to add a new program, whether to accept a meeting with someone who wants to “check in” or “pick your brain,” take a moment to say — what would I not be spending time or money or energy on if I did this thing?

Once you have the trade off clear in your mind, walk through the questions.

Again, it’s a way to get out of your own head.

I do an even deeper dive into how to approach setting priorities in the annual planning context in my episode: Strategic Planning Mini-Series: Set Your Strategic Priorities

As you head into planning season, you may want to check that out!

So to recap:

  • Saying no is hard but in leadership we must make decisions
  • We’re making implicit decisions by not saying no
  • Saying no will free you up to be more strategic and deliberate in your actions
  • The secret to saying no is knowing what you’re saying yes to
  • Set priorities by getting clear about your end goal, naming the trade off, and then asking five orienting questions

I hope that process if helpful!

That’s all for this week, and I’ll see you back here next week for more mastermind!

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