How Getting Friendly with NO Can Change Your Life

Photo by Nick Fewings on Unsplash

I recently turned down an opportunity to lead a fundraising campaign for a transformative nonprofit. I struggled with the decision, going back and forth multiple times. The role would have been lucrative, challenging, and a quality learning opportunity. It was even near my home and I love giving back where I live. Despite these positives, I said No. I didn’t have the bandwidth to give the project the time it deserved. More importantly, the mission of the organization, though enriching and positive, didn’t sync up with what I’m trying to create in the world.

You may be saying, “What’s the big deal?” So you said No. What you don’t know about me is that I’m a recovering over-committer. I’m not sure that’s actually a word but just think of the opposite of someone with a fear of commitment! Since joining the nonprofit sector two decades ago, I’ve said Yes to nearly every opportunity I sought out as well as those where I was honored to be sought out.

The above is most likely attributable to my early work experience. I have lasting memories of my first post-college job when I was recruited to a bank training program. The senior executives told us to “just say Yes to whatever was asked of you.” We were advised this was the path to learning, growth, and leadership. Saying Yes showed you were a team player and that you were willing and eager to take on new opportunities and challenges.

This idea is even ingrained into our culture. We’re conditioned to trust that Positive, Productive, and Purposeful People are those that say Yes. Conversely, those that say No are cynical and negatively inclined. Articles like Five Reasons Why Saying ‘Yes’ Is The Best Decision For Your Career and Discovering the ‘Just Say Yes’ Approach to Daily Living are just two examples of this thinking and there are many more.

It’s only recently that I’ve started to challenge that idea and experience the empowerment and freedom one gains by getting comfortable in the land of No. Don’t get me wrong. I still love hearing a Yes from a prospective client. I still love saying Yes to the right opportunities. And on a related note, my favorite band of all time is Yes (if you’re not familiar, learn about them and their music at

Photo by Jens Lelie on Unsplash

But back to our story…I’ve developed a clear and concise process for saying Yes or No to opportunities. It serves as a filter allowing me to connect with the right things. It also enables me to say a polite No Thanks to what doesn’t fit. This goes for work, volunteer opportunities, hobbies — and just about anything else. I just ask myself the following:

  • Will I genuinely enjoy the opportunity?
  • Will I get to use the skills and talents I love to use?
  • Will participating bring about the impact I’m looking to have in the world?

You may notice, there’s nothing about money, career development, or other more “logical” decision-making components. The questions are really just a framework for knowing that something seems like a cool choice. I also recognize that these criteria may not fit what you’re looking for. And that’s the point — you design it fit you!

It’s that simple but not always easy. Living from this place is entirely new to me. What keeps me coming back despite the struggle is seeing that saying No is, in essence, saying Yes to what is most true to me. It keeps me in the zone of those activities that align with how I want to show up.

I love sharing this concept with the leaders I coach. I’ve had numerous coaching engagements that have started off with the theme of time management. These conversations typically end up being about a lack of willingness to delegate (a.k.a. saying No to certain tasks and assigning them to other team members). Once there is a commitment to sharing responsibility, leaders can focus on spending their time on the work that requires their unique skills.

The only time this approach goes awry is when we ignore our own inner wisdom. When I evaluated the fundraising opportunity I mentioned earlier, I could hear myself saying No. But I didn’t trust it. Instead, I created a decision matrix. I designed a cash flow chart. I consulted other fundraisers. All of that “valuable input and information” pointed to a Yes. But when I finally answered my own questions, there was only one clear answer: No. I was grateful to be able to get out of my head and listen to my heart.

So, what will your process be? You may be pleasantly surprised at the new freedom you gain by simply adding a bit more No into your life.



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Robert Grabel

Robert Grabel

Robert Grabel is committed to serving and does so through his practice Nonprofit Now! Learn about him at