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PEAK Grantmaking

The Healing Power of “No”

This post originally appeared on Exponent Philanthropy’s Blog.

Forgive me for stating the obvious, but the word “no” has a negative connotation.

And that’s a shame because, if used properly, “no” might actually be the ultimate philanthropic teaching and learning tool.

We live in a society where so many of us are afraid to say that magic word— “no”— and so, we become like that guy or girl you’re interested in who won’t return your calls (see: Girls Who Wouldn’t Return My Calls Back in High School and College).

In the case of philanthropy, it’s often those of us on the giving side who have decided against granting dollars to a particular group, but then don’t want to hurt the collective feelings of those running said local nonprofit.

We’re afraid to say what has to be said—“no”—which means that many funders: Don’t return phone calls. Don’t send letters or emails. Respond with incredibly ambiguous form letters. Avoid these nonprofit leaders at public gatherings.

This in turn has the nonprofit’s executive director thinking: They hate me. They hate us. We don’t deserve to be an organization. They haven’t made a decision. I should call them back. I should call them back again.

We’re stringing them along, like What’s-Her-Name did to me back in 1975: “She must like me; she hasn’t shot me down. She hasn’t said, ‘I like you as a friend.’ There’s still a chance!!” And I’ll admit, I’ve been guilty of this once or twice before as well (something of which I’m not very proud), all because I wanted to avoid being the “bad guy,” which then actually made me the “worse guy.” I became What’s-HIS-Name.

If a prospective grantor is truly in the capacity-building business, and really wants to “teach a man to fish,” then the foundation’s rejection of a grant proposal (OK, maybe the word “rejection” isn’t the sweetest sounding thing) carries with it tons of positive potential. The proper delivery of your “no” can maximize its potential to become a “yes” in the future, with your foundation or perhaps another foundation that has a mission and a passion different from yours.

Simply put: Tell the nonprofit why you said “no” to its grant request. Was it the organization? Was it the project? Was the application missing the data or results needed to sway your board members? Did the financials simply not add up? Is there still bad P.R. lingering from a previous organizational misstep? Was the ask short of the needed details? (Exactly how will this program work?) Is there simply no match here between your organization and our organization?

Throw away the standard rejection form letter and take just a few minutes to explain the reasoning behind your board’s “no.”

Now the pushback from some funders will be, “But we’re too busy to personally respond to all of them!! Do you know how many grant applications we get?” I beg to differ. Nobody’s that busy, especially if he or she really wants to strengthen potential partners and subsequently change the world.

Here’s another possible response: “I don’t owe them [the nonprofits] an explanation. All that matters is my decision.” Sure….that’s….great. It’s from the Universal Time-Honored Parents’ Handbook (Chapter 4, Paragraph 3) that begins with the words “BECAUSE I SAID SO.” We all know how well we liked hearing that back in the day.

It comes down to this: Is it about us? Or them? Is it about protecting our own turf? Or protecting and educating and lifting the people of our planet? If the answer is “us,” then a lot of us are in the wrong business.

The “no” will set you free, and the “explained ‘no’” will set the nonprofits on a path of self-examination, growth, and fulfillment. Philanthropically, this negative can be quite… positive.