The Power of No

Imagine not being able to turn away from a problem that you see in this world. You are compelled by a sense of responsibility, passion, and the audacity to believe that you can do something about that problem. You have decided to take the leap and start an organization, an initiative, or a social enterprise.

To do so, you of course need resources. You don’t have them. You have to ask those with money to invest in you.

Imagine sitting across the table from a potential donor, attempting to make your “pitch.” And this person, who may have the power to determine your potential success, will not even look you in the eye. It seems, as if to him, being anywhere else in the world would be better than sitting across from you.

At first you assume that you obviously need to make your case more effectively, that somehow your message is not getting across. You talk faster, given his apparent impatience. You add more detail in your panic. Are you even making sense? You don’t know as the nervousness mounts. Needless to say, the meeting ends poorly.

But eventually, your anxiety turns to anger. You think, why in the hell did this guy waste your time, and more importantly perhaps, your emotional energy? He made you doubt yourself. Why did he even agree to a meeting in the first place?

He took the meeting because he was not yet mature enough as an “impact investor” to have learned the power of “no.”

(And yes, this is unfortunately based on a colleague’s actual experience at a recent conference.)


SayingNoWhen I worked for a family foundation, I became very grounded in “no” and the importance of it. We were there to serve community leaders in Africa who were in the process of organizing at the grassroots level. To submit a proposal, written in a second or third language, often making a trip to another town to the internet café to send it to us, deserved a response—a dignified one, even if it was no.

As a grant seeker, I have also thought a lot about how to ask for money in a dignified way, i.e. not accosting donors in the toilet. (And yes, I also personally overheard such an interaction across the stalls at this same conference.) When I ask for money, I have come to learn that I am inviting people to join in, not to inject resources. It’s an important distinction, as it sets the tone for partnerships. Those focused only on “returns” are not going to be the right partner for me. If this were a dating scenario, the man who only wants, eh hem, one thing is not good relationship material. Right ladies?

But also as in dating, it’s sometimes hard not to take a “no” personally, especially if it’s delivered by someone who will not even meet your gaze. Also, the longer you string people along, the more difficult the “no” will be. We just hope the jerks make us stronger and prepare us for the right one.

So my message to funders is simple. What other people are doing to make their contribution to the world will often not fit with your priorities or your interests. If you know the answer is “no”, offer it quickly and gracefully. Respect the vulnerability, but also the resilience, of those doing the asking. Don’t always assume that you are that important.

Funders can say ‘yes’, or ‘no’ so that grant applicants understand the rationale, feel that they’ve been treated fairly, and can make realistic plans and decisions about their next steps. This publication by GrantCraft, Saying Yes/Saying No: Strengthening Your Decision-Giving Skills, offers more great advice.

Funders, don’t pour water on the fires that people are working hard to build. If you don’t have the wood or kindling to give, just let the change-makers get on with collecting it elsewhere.


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  1. Great insight! From my work with Palestinian community-based groups (available in a report at, applicants also talked about their interpretations of form rejections. Often, they believed it meant their application had not been read and that the whole process had been rigged from the beginning. It is much more polite, and more in-line with capacity building objectives, to provide real feedback with the rejection so that applicants can do better next time.

  2. Clement N Dlamini

    An interesting read Jennifer, you see being in the third world we are constantly reminded that responding to an Request for Proposals (RFP) in as much as it is an attempt to access financial resources by the beneficiary but it is also meant to be an empowerment process. I have learnt over the years that donors in as much as they seem aloof they need “us” because they themselves are funded by partners who demand reports on utilization of these scarce resources. What’s the point of an RFP if we are all going to fail to eventually access those resources dedicated to CSR?

    If donors could understand that it’s a win win situation if they empower me to generate a brilliant idea into a winning proposal, not the other way round. Don’t say “NO” and not tell me why I got a “NO”

    In the past I have found myself wasting my time and that of the donor by writing a proposal, that the donor is clear will not make the cut. By the way time is a resource and a valuable one at that.

    I guess we need to also push the beneficiaries to learn to say “NO”, because when it suits donor interests they push money into beneficiaries’ throats, to do what is not in their best interest. Because they are desparate to impress they take funds and fail to utilize and worse off fail to account for.

    I completely agree with your statement “Funders, don’t pour water on the fires that people are workng hard to build. If you don’t have the wood or kindling to give, just let the change makers get on with collecting it elsewhere.”

  3. My favorite story is of a little group that I funded in Malawi. When they received notice they’d been awarded, they of course were very thrilled. But a few weeks later, I received a letter in the mail from one of the founders. In it, she included a copy of the rejection letter that she had received from our executive director when she had been working at the Global Fund for Women, seven years prior! She had kept it all that time because it had meant so much to her to have a respectful response, and as a reminder to keep on going!

  4. This is interesting reading thank you – whilst my blog article Is NO the mightiest word? | Gabazira’s blog looked at this from an individual (manager) lens, you bring in the ‘motivation-cost’ brought about by funders that cannot say ‘no’. At the end of the day, the damage done by such funders + individuals in my blog is the same, only that for organisations, some of them resource poor, managers/staff not being adept at saying ‘no’ costs effectiveness and efficiency and ultimately – the viability of organisations

    Let us continue the movement to say ‘no’ and seamlessly

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