I recently asked a colleague for advice on how to do something. His reply: “Maybe you should be saying ‘no’ not ‘how?’”

I had previously not considered turning down the request, but once he said that I knew it was the exact right answer. I was struggling with the ‘how’ to do it because it really was too much to do given the circumstances and I was far better declining outright.

Many times, people find themselves in an untenable situation because they take on more than they should or than is reasonable to do. Nonprofits often keep adding programs or services – figuring out how to get it all done – without setting boundaries regarding how far resources can be stretched. People bend over backward to pull off miracles or routinely carry workloads that are double from when they started in an effort to be a good team player. When I worked in higher ed, I watch the student activities office morph to include community service, leadership development, multicultural programming, parent/family programming and orientation, and many offices today also oversee an entire e-sports program, LBGTQ services and much more as dedicated staff figure out a way to get it all done.

People keep saying “how?” instead of no, often because they feel that they don’t have a choice. If you have the capacity to figure out ways to keep doing more, more, more I’d suggest that you add an additional “more” to your list: conducting an assessment of what is truly valuable. Are people really utilizing both the new and older services? What does the organization gain from stretching its people and finances to the limit? If you started all over, is this the end product you would plan for?

Would I have benefitted from the request I declined? Yes. Did I gain more in mental health and the capacity to do something with an even greater impact? Yes to that, too. Before you figure out “how”, take a moment to consider “if.”

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