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How to Say No

How to say no can be a tricky situation, but you can do it confidently if you have the right tools and message.

By design, social entrepreneurs, what we’ll call founders of social enterprises and leaders of not-for-profit organizations, are problem solvers. Solving a societal challenge, large or small, is the reason they get out of bed in the morning. For some, there is an adrenaline rush from working on and then solving a problem.

How great is that? Well, not very, actually. The problem is that social entrepreneurs are prone to losing focus on the one issue they set out to solve when other ones—even those related to their original mission—start vying for their attention.

If you don’t know how to say no and think that it’s distracting you from your core mission, here is how to regain control.

First, get crystal clear on why the work you do is important and why anyone should care. Your “why” should have a compelling, emotional focus, one that inspires and energizes.

Second, emphatically say what it is you do to support your “why.” Then—and here is the secret ingredient to this little recipe—determine how you do that “what” differently and better than anyone else—usually at least three and no more than six.

These “hows” make up the litmus test that will show you how to say no. If a new problem arises and it does not fit neatly within one of your Hows, then you have the right, no, the responsibility to say no. Saying no doesn’t mean you have to ignore the problem. Find someone else who can do it, but don’t take it on yourself.

Enter the Focus & Messaging Framework

What we have just described is our Focus & Messaging Framework. It’s one of the deliverables we create for almost all of our clients. To us, having a compelling message has to start with focus. Hence, the combination of both in our framework. And, many clients tell us after working with us that an unexpected benefit of having the Focus & Messaging Framework is showing them how to say no.

For example, last year, we worked with Leading Cities, an international nonprofit organization that connects smart cities across the globe with the innovations and insight to drive resiliency, equity, and sustainability.

Let’s look at their WHAT and HOW:

Leading Cities connects cities across the globe with innovations and insight to drive resiliency, equity, and sustainability, by:

  • Cultivating a global network of forward thinkers from the public, private, academic, and nonprofit sectors
  • De-risking innovation for cities by sourcing and vetting solutions that will answer their most pressing challenges, and
  • Delivering advanced research, emerging trends, and technologies through consulting services from global experts.

Let’s say someone comes to them with an idea to replace all traffic lights with solar-powered, robotic traffic cops. The questions then become:

  • Does such an initiative cultivate a global network of forward thinkers?
  • Does it re-risk innovation for cities?
  • Does it deliver advanced research, emerging trends, and technologies through consulting services?

No, no, and no.

This example is an exaggerated one, of course, but it serves the purpose. Having an articulated focus answers the question, how to say no.

Of course, if you’re struggling with saying no, we’re here to help. Let’s talk!

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