What to do When Someone Asks for Your Time and Talent

                                                    Mindful | Photo Credit: Emily Scott

                                                    Mindful | Photo Credit: Emily Scott

You are a busy person.  You juggle so many balls in the air, you could join a circus with your prowess. You are highly networked. You are also a philanthropist. You advocate for causes important to you. YOU are exactly the person I would ask to join my board if I was a nonprofit.

Why?  I believe, if you want to get things done, ask a busy person to do them.  If that person has learned to say “no,” and says “yes” to you, you can be almost certain it will get done. Combine that with their vast assembly of people and financial contribution to the nonprofit world, and they will be the winning combination of time, talent, and treasure. 

It’s cringe-worthy to think of my early board experiences.  I joined several boards for the wrong reasons (a large donation, a friend asked, my ex-husband insisted, perceived prominence, etc.).  I didn’t do my due diligence to learn the board dynamics, governance policies, fiduciary responsibilities, and so on.  In two cases, I didn’t even sit down with the Executive Director or Board Chair to see if my passion aligned with the organization’s mission.  Talk about learning lessons the hard way!

So, just how do thoughtful, smart, savvy philanthropists say “no” when asked to share their time and talents in the nonprofit world?

“I say no for the use of my time and talent just as I say no when it comes to my donations.  If I don’t have robust passion for the mission, I express my appreciation for being asked, and decline because they deserve someone on their board who will be enthusiastic about their mission.”
“A board role is a job and I treat the initial process as I would if it was a paying job.  I interview them, they interview me.  I ask to sit in on some committee or full board meetings when possible, before making the decision. If it isn’t a good fit, they know it and I know it.  ‘No’ becomes a nonevent.”
“If I am not prepared to fully extend myself - talk about the organization with everyone I know, ask others for funding, serve on committees, etc. – then I am letting myself and the organization down.  I would rather know that upfront and am very honest with myself and with them about why I am saying ‘no.’”
“I'm very clear about boards at this point in that I don't want to be on another... possibly ever.  Time is dear, and I have less bandwidth than I used to.  ‘Bandwidth’ has become one of my favorite words.”
“In the early days of my philanthropy, I was afraid that if I didn't say "yes" that I would not be asked again and that everything would pass me by.  I guess I suffered from FOMOphobia (FOMO is Fear Of Missing Out - I know, that phobia means "fear of", but there was a lot of fear).  Over time, I learned that just because you decline an "opportunity" today, doesn't mean that it won't come back tomorrow (sometimes with greater force).”
“I choose to significantly participate with organizations where I believe in the cause, that is a good steward of resources, and where I can make a difference.  This consumes 75% of my giving, I will be on their Boards, and use my skillset to advance their missions.  If any of these objectives aren’t met, I say no easily.”
“I prioritize my family responsibilities and that is the point from which I decline. I wish them well, say no and then feel guilty.”

In his book, Essentialism, The Disciplined Pursuit of Less, Greg McKeown writes, “Make your peace with the fact that saying “no” often requires trading popularity for respect.” He continues with, “…when someone asks for something and doesn’t get it, his or her immediate reaction may be annoyance or disappointment or even anger.  This downside is clear.  The potential upside, however, is less obvious: when the initial annoyance or disappointment or anger wears off, the respect kicks in. When we push back effectively, it shows people that our time is highly valuable.”

I now have close to 25 years of nonprofit board experience.  I have discovered whether an organization wants my treasure only or the trifecta of what I can bring to the table.  I know what I am capable of and what more I need to learn. Saying “no” has saved time and a misuse of resources on both sides.  It keeps the door open for an organization to find a better fit to accomplish their mission, and it keeps the door open for me to associate with an organization whose mission aligns with my passion.