Saying No Doesn’t Make You the Bad Guy

By Alex Damico – CIMGlobal MD – USA & Canada

Association Execs – sometimes you just have to say no.

In the association world saying no can be really hard. After all, associations exist to provide services to their members and stimulate commerce in the industry they represent. When a member asks for a new or enhanced service, program or benefit, how can you say no?

Well, the reality is, like all other organizations, associations have a finite amount of resources, both human and financial. If your staff’s time and annual budget are already spoken for, you need an organization-wide understanding of how to deal with the never-ending request to do more. Here are a few of the tactics I’ve used in my association experience.

  1. Start with your Board of Directors, if they don’t get it, your general membership won’t either. If they do, they’ll become your advocates. Help them understand, I mean REALLY understand, that a not-for-profit tax status doesn’t mean you can lose money every year. You’re running a business – just like they are.
  2. Train your staff to be attentive to every member request for new programs and benefits but, make sure they understand that when they say, “we’ll look into it” your members often hear “sure, we can do that”. This one can be a delicate balance because some of the best and most important ideas can come from the membership. It’s probably not appropriate to ask you, mid-level staff, to say no to a member suggestion but there needs to be a process in place to evaluate these suggestions and politely communicate why now is not the right time to take on the project.
  3. One way to justify saying no is to evaluate every new program through the lens of your strategic plan (you do have one of those, right?). This is very simply the first gate that must be passed in order to garner further consideration. If the suggested program doesn’t aim to fulfill the objectives of the strategic plan, if adopted, it will take time and money from other programs that will.
  4. Don’t be afraid to sunset non-producing and legacy programs. It is my firm belief that something in the range of 20% of what most organizations do, has little to no measurable value. The challenge is to define this 20% and then have the courage to stop doing it. Imagine freeing up 20% of your staff’s time to work on the truly important stuff.

In summary, saying no isn’t easy, but it is sometimes necessary.