How to Say No At Work (Without Jeopardizing Your Nonprofit Job)

Boundaries are increasingly important as we grow in our careers. The more we’re able to do, the more people want our time. That’s why one piece of advice seems to stick: saying no at work.

And it makes sense. There’s only so much you can do in one day. Saying no is a matter of necessity, because it’s simply impossible to yes all the things.

There’s just one problem. Saying no isn’t always an option at our orgs.

For those who think this sector is all nicey-poo, here’s the reality:  a nonprofit can be just as grueling as any other high pressure setting! There are some environments where you can push back, and others where doing so puts your reputation, career & employment at risk.

Yup. Even unicorns get fired.

That’s what makes this advice sketchy: it’s an overly simplified prescription for how to exercise boundaries. The real life application – telling someone “no, I’m not doing this” – can actually alienate your coworkers, miff your superiors and put you in a really awkward position. Yikes.

But there is a middle ground! To protect our boundaries and careers, we need to say no in the right ways, at the right times.

Uncomfortable? Then we’re getting somewhere.

First, here’s what you should know about saying no at work.

Before you run off and start throwing no’s at everyone, keep in mind that:

1. It’s harder to use your ‘no’ the less senior you are.

Age and greenness can impact how it feels to say no at work. But generally speaking the less authority you have, the harder it is to say no…because of all those folks higher up the chain.

2. It’s harder to use your ‘no’ the less confident you are, too.

Again, this can be a side effect of age and newness to a role. But it also boils down to plain insecurity! If you’re not confident in your convictions or you suffer from impostor syndrome, then you’re going to have a hard time saying no to others who are this way.

*Tip:* You’re ideally confident in yourself. But if not, act like it anyway. The brain is funny and if you fake it long enough, you’ll actually start to believe it.

3. It’s easier to say no when you’ve built influence at your organization.

Influence isn’t just for senior career professionals! Building rapport across teams and establishing competence in your line of work is something ANYONE can do. And, it pays in dividends when it’s time to drop those no’s.

*Tip:* You don’t need to be a subject matter expert to build influence. “Line of work” here can be anything you do well. (Imagine all the nonprofits that would shrivel and die if not for that 1 person who knows how to fix the printer.)

4. Your no’s will always be evaluated against your yes’s.

Your reputation functions like a bank.  Someone known to shoot down everything is going to have a lot of no’s counting against them. That’s why it’s good to balance those out with meaningful yes-work from time to time.

5. Women, this is one of our things.

As the Society for Industrial and Organizational Psychology writes, women in particular face the challenge of “[being] able to decline a request without jeopardizing personal and professional relationships, performance evaluations, or resulting in feelings of guilt.” Because thanks to social norms, all of those are very real scenarios. Isn’t it time we shut that down?

Now, here are some constructive ways to say “no.”

I’ll start by saying this: some people can say no and leave it at that. If you can afford to do it the Ron Swanson way, and prefer it, well then. Go crazy.

But in my experience, it’s much easier to say no when the word isn’t the end of the sentence. In other words, you can rightly shut down an idea without shutting down the conversation.

And look. This isn’t about softening your language or stance in order to appease someone else. This is about smart power wielding. Because unless you’re the ED herself, or you’re asked to do something amoral/unethical/illegal, you do yourself a disservice by saying no on principle alone.

Actually, this goes for ED’s too. Who gets inspired by a leader that shuts down staff without offering anything in return?

So when you’re gearing up to say no, figure out which of these no’s you really mean. Then, use them to turn the conversation in a positive, useful direction.

“Not now, but…”

Is your ‘no’ a question of timing? Then say so! You can’t get it in x timeframe, but you can in y or z timeframe instead. (As a database admin for a data hungry bunch, I use this one a lot.)

“Not unless we can…”

Some no’s are a question of circumstance. If there’s something concrete preventing you from saying yes – and someone has the power to change It – then explain that. For example, “I can’t take this on, unless we agree to shift the priority for projects A and B.”

“No, but we can do…”

If something really isn’t possible, there should be an alternative you can offer – especially for those technical asks. Treat this ‘no’ moment as an opportunity to problem-solve, especially if the solution you’re being asked for is totally whacky.

“No, not without…”

It’s easy to say we can’t do something when we’re lacking a resource. But framing matters, and can impact on how the person receiving your ‘no’ hears (and acts) on what you’re saying.

So instead of resorting to “No, because…”, try pinpointing the missing pieces. For example, “No we couldn’t organize this fundraiser next month, not without pushing back the golf tournament and ensuring that staff are available for the event.”

“Not I, but he/she/they can….”

Working at a nonprofit = wearing multiple hats = living that ‘other duties as assigned’ life. You can be asked to do things that just BARELY fall within your purview. And then, you’ll get asked to do something that isn’t your job – because it’s someone else’s. When that happens, just be sure to point your colleagues in the right direction.

Okay, but what if I still don’t know when to say no?

Don’t underestimate the power of a good gut feeling. Once you’ve gotten your sea legs at work, and as your adulting improves, you’ll start to just recognize these moments!

But if you’re still really not sure, consider saying no when any of the following are true:

1. There’s a limitation that’s beyond your control.

The only thing worse than saying something can’t be done, is saying it can be when you know otherwise. Maybe it’s budget, timing, or you’re working under a set of unrealistic expectations! Consider this your invitation to speak out.

2. When a task falls outside your jurisdiction.

If something isn’t your job, because it’s actually someone else’s, then you need to make that known to your colleagues. Otherwise you risk doing work you really shouldn’t be handling, and you reinforce this mistaken assumption that you’re the go-to person.

3. When your boss tells you otherwise.

If your boss tells you not to do something, it’s a no-go. Plain and simple.

4. When it comes at the expense of your own well being.

Self care is important. Yes I work hard, and my hours are occasionally questionable. But I know my limits, and won’t drive myself into the ground for a task that can wait! If you’re being asked to do non-essential work that is driving you mad, please….use your ‘no’.

5. When it goes against your personal values.

Note: this is different from political values, because we all have those. But if you’re ever asked to do something at your nonprofit that compromises your rights or integrity, and the consequences are worth the battle in your eyes, then you have every right to shut it down.

We’re finally at the end!

In short 🙃, saying no’is a skill that requires thoughtfulness and clarity, and can enable us to be more effective at our organizations. While there’s always a risk to pushing back, we can still do it in a way that gets our point across, without jeopardizing our positions at work.

How have you found ways to say no at your organization?

Share your thoughts!