Do More With Less. Really? Maybe Time To Say No.

The boss gave you more balls but no additional arms.

The boss gave you more balls but no additional arms.

The boss gathers you around for that meeting. You know the one.

Carefully scripted with just the right dose of empathy for exiting staffers and an equal measure of appreciation for the lucky-to-still-be-employed.

And then it comes: “Well, I guess we’re just going to have to pull together and do more with less.”

Silently the room clears with heads hanging low. Not a soul calls out what everyone is thinking:

What are you? Nuts?”

How could someone in her right mind (let’s give her the benefit of the doubt) say such a thing when as a nonprofit staffer, you already have more to do than you have time to do it?

How can you stop the insanity? It’s actually really simple, in concept, though maybe not as easy in practice.

However, keep reading. First, I’ll frame the biggest reason for “Do-more-with-less-itis” and then I’ll give you some specific examples of how you can fix the problem.


It’s really that simple. Executive directors are pleasers. Everybody knows it. Your boss is no different. She’s all about pleasing the board and other key stakeholders. It’s not about the best possible way to fulfill your mission. It’s about being a CEO who does not cut services, even in the tough times. That shows strength and leadership, right?

Well actually, no it doesn’t. A topic for another day.

Then there are those pesky funders who seek out your organization to launch a new program that’s just right for you. Meanwhile, core admin staff has recently been laid off and everyone’s already doing more with less. Along comes a funder who thinks “Wow, what this organization needs is a big gymnasium for these homeless kids,” and offers a matching grant for ½ the money. Sure, you need this money but the gym wasn’t even on your priority list.


Senior staff have some of that same pleasing disease. And of course, we’re all hired to please our boss too. So there’s your double whammy.

But what everyone is forgetting is that saying no is not about insubordination; it’s about prioritization. It’s about doing your job. It’s about making decisions that are in the best interest of your clients, your mission.

So it’s time to exercise your “NO” muscle.


Go ahead. Try it. Say no.

Repeat after me.

1) The annual gala is tomorrow. I don’t care if Jim Bob the Board member is allergic to hyacinths. I am not changing all the centerpieces. He just won’t get one and I’ll stop by and apologize.

2) What a great idea for a new program but not now and not with my current staffing. I can spend an hour or two putting together a two pager that offers you smart talking points so that you can go back to that donor and explain why a valuable idea isn’t going to happen right now.

3) You’re at a senior staff meeting with the E.D. For some reason, none of you feel empowered to say no. The E.D. has learned about a grant for a new program that’s off mission and the proposal is due tomorrow. If you can’t work together as a team with each of you weighing in on why no is not insubordinate but smart for the organization, then stop calling yourself a team because you are just a collection of individuals with more self interest than mission focus.

4) You’re on the board recruitment committee and your ED thinks a prospect is great – he’s ready to write a $10,000 check. But, you’ve heard that this guy is toxic, high maintenance, and may have a substance abuse problem. Don’t just say no. Offer a solution. Be a truth teller and then problem solve for your boss. “Here’s how we can engage this guy so he doesn’t make your life miserable.”


When you say no:

a) Have talking points your boss can use to bolster the “no” case to whomever is pushing.

b) Work together to say no as a team.

c) Problem solve for your boss.


I have this saying I use with my clients: If you don’t learn how to say no, your organization simply becomes a conglomeration of half-assed yeses.

As a donor, as a client, as a stakeholder, I want real solid yeses. Because yeses of the half-assed variety aren’t really yeses at all.


1. In the comments below, let me know your favorite stories about saying “no” (or about that time you wish you had said no!)

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