Management, Management & leadership

Sustain your organisation – say ‘no’ more

The fourth in a special series of posts by Graeme Reekie to mark the release of ‘Making a Lasting Difference – sustaining nonprofit organisations and their impact’.

In this, the fourth free excerpt from Graeme’s new book on nonprofit sustainability, he explains that the things that an organisation needs to survive can also kill it. Saying ‘yes’ to everything is fatal.

This paradox manifests in organisations when they can’t say no to the things that should help them to survive, but which can have toxic effects on their sustainability. Things like referrals, funding, development opportunities, partnership requests etc.

When organisations think they will be more sustainable by saying ‘yes’ to everything, they are actually doing the opposite. They are diminishing their sustainability and chances of survival. Paradoxically, those who say ‘no’ usually confidently describe how it improved their organisation’s health.

Think of organisations like a balloon. Uninflated, the skin isn’t stretched, with lots of capacity to expand. But this capacity is finite. Each time the organisation says ‘yes’ the balloon inflates and grows. Its skin stretches to accommodate the new air. The pressure increases. There is only so much air that can be put in a balloon before the skin gets stretched too tight. Unless the pressure is released, sooner or later the balloon will burst.

This paradox, like non-profit sustainability itself, is about managing capacity.

If safety, quality and staff wellbeing matter, many of our organisations are working beyond their capacity

We might not think it is possible to work beyond our capacity. We might laugh (or groan) when we hear interviews with sports stars describing how they are going to ‘give 110%’ to the team. However, if safety, quality and staff wellbeing matter (and of course they matter immensely), many of our colleagues and organisations are indeed working beyond their capacity. Common examples include:

  • Developing new pieces of work while previous developments are left to flounder.
  • Teams taking on work without having enough staff capacity to deliver.
  • Individuals taking on work without having enough headspace to deliver well.
  • Agreeing funding or contracts that don’t cover their full costs.
  • Using waiting lists in order to ‘accept’ referrals the service doesn’t have time to consider, or space to accommodate.
  • Staff working beyond contracted hours and allowing or expecting colleagues to do the same.

In fact, the most common sustainability challenge comes from saying ‘yes’ too often. Another way of expressing the paradox is that many organisations are less sustainable because of saying yes, not in spite of it.

The most common sustainability challenge comes from saying ‘yes’ too often. Many organisations are less sustainable because of saying yes, not in spite of it.

If this makes you feel uncomfortable, ask yourself ‘Do I regret saying yes more than I regret saying no?’. When I use this question in workshops and conference presentations the sound of pennies dropping is almost audible. In a way, it’s a trick question – I know that people won’t have a lot of practice of saying no in their careers. The non-profit world thrives on having highly committed people like this. But we must also accept that in many organisations staff could work 24 hours a day and it still would not be enough to deal with all of the issues they are trying to address. Much as we might like to think we’re superheroes, there comes a point, individually and collectively, where we can’t give any more. A sad aspect of this paradox is that while non-profit organisations are all about caring about issues and people, they’re not always good at applying that care to their own staff.

What if someone else says yes and we miss out?

There may be many reasons why we say ‘yes’. As people and organisations driven by purpose, we want to help. It’s not nice to disappoint people or feel guilty for not helping. And if we’re honest, it feels good to be needed. There might also be darker motivations – what if someone else says yes and we miss out? This competitiveness drives many of our decisions. But at its root, the main reason organisations say yes is that they believe they will be less sustainable if they say no.

Examples of this belief in action are listed below, along with illustrations from experience of why they are probably mistaken.

External: Funders will not support us in future if we turn down their money now.Funders want to fund effective work. They want to reduce the burdens on non-profit organisations, not add to them. They respect good governance and decision-making.
External: Referrers will stop referring to us if we close our doors.Referrers are busy too, experiencing the same pressures you do. Knowing you are prioritising the people or issues they have already entrusted you with, before taking more on, will reassure them.
Organisational: Our reputation will be affected if we say no.Your organisation’s reputation will be affected if it says yes and doesn’t deliver. What does it want to be known for? For quality and integrity or for being prepared to accept anything?
Organisational: We might regret saying no.You might, but you don’t know for sure. But you know for sure that you’ll regret saying yes to everything.
Individual: People will think I’m a bad person, incompetent or unable to cope.People value honesty and it’s dishonest not to say when you don’t have the capacity to take something on.

Table: Beliefs and experience of saying ‘no’.

It’s extremely hard to say no and we need lots of reassurance and practice before feeling confident that it’s the right thing to do. For this reason, during workshops and conferences I often ask if anyone is willing to share an example of saying ‘No’ and what happened. On every occasion, people describe it being the hardest decision they or their organisation had to make – but the right one. They may have temporarily closed their doors to referrals, going against the very reason they exist and risking their reputation with referrers. Maybe the example was of not pursuing a funding bid, which risked upsetting the funder – or trustees with a keen eye on the balance sheet. Maybe they turned down an invitation to form a new partnership, putting relationships with stakeholders at risk. Or maybe the organisation needed to restructure, making decisions about which services to close and which posts to make redundant. But the speakers always end the story by saying that time has shown them that these were the right decisions to take. In every case they and their organisations have not only lived to tell the tale, they were stronger for it. The world didn’t end.

It’s not enough for organisations to monitor the pressure in the balloon. They already know when they are working beyond capacity, from metrics like staff absence, retention and turnover rates; referral rates; client waiting times; project lead-in times and completion rates; accident and incident reports; user satisfaction and so on. Instead, they need to release the pressure. People at all levels must be confident and supported to say ‘no’.

In next week’s blog, I’ll say more about managing capacity and how to spot the difference between an octopus and a pirate.


The Yes/No Paradox: The things that an organisation needs to survive can also kill it. Saying ‘yes’ to everything is fatal.

Principle: Sustainability is about more than just money. Capacity and quality matter.

Practices: Understand when, how and what to say ‘no’ to.

This is an adapted excerpt from my new book, Making a Lasting Difference. Buy now