When is ‘Yes’ the right answer?

About 10 years ago, I was invited to work with a group of high-tech executives who were concerned about passing the leadership torch from one generation to the next. Their specific worry was a potential decay in the spirit of philanthropy within their industry.

Our work together focused on helping executives and their families develop their own personal mission and vision statements. While the overall goal of the work was to impart a commitment to philanthropy as a bedrock value, the benchmark objectives included providing each executive with the tools needed in making philanthropic decisions.

These individuals either already had a relatively high net worth (and a high profile for nonprofit contact) or were soon to have one (and thus both). But, it turns out, many of them had soured on philanthropy because they were exposed to a volume of requests that overwhelmed their ability to respond.

The answer they gave most was “No.”

Although they disliked giving a negative response, they actually got quite good at it and became anesthetized to the process and numb to the consequences.

We all face this problem, especially in business. We are asked too often to do too much, saying no far more than we get to say yes. And under those circumstances, sometimes saying yes isn’t all the fun it’s cracked up to be.

The tools we are too often missing are mission and vision statements. Knowing who you are and where you are going – as a person, as a family, as a business – can help you feel as good about saying “no” as you do saying “yes.”

Know your priorities

Knowing what our priorities are allows us to support our decisions – positive and negative – with equal passion and commitment.

This resource, by the way, is especially effective in dealing with the telemarketing trade – which, absent effective call screening – can be a major source of solicitation proliferation and aggravation.

Where to start?

There is a valuable lesson to be learned from foundations, which are in essence professional donors.

And with foundations as a reference, you might start with a solid philanthropic mission statement that says exactly what you support and why. A vision statement can also be helpful: What do you hope to achieve through your giving?

With this in hand, you can be prepared to appropriately and thoughtfully evaluate the next request. Moreover, you can effectively communicate your decision as filtered through your personal mission and vision.

What to look for in a nonprofit

Assuming you now know what types of activities, programs or projects best fit your priorities, you are on to the task of measuring organizations to determine whether or not they are worthy of support.

Many of the organizations we support are already known to us, which provides us with a built-in comfort level. And if we are donors to those organizations, we have presumably received their annual reports.

For new organizations that present themselves to us, a request to see their most recent annual report is a good idea. A review of the report will tell you quickly how well they are run.

Look specifically at their overhead costs – a fair measure is that a minimum of 85 percent goes directly to services.

Want a second opinion? The Guidestar and Charity Navigator websites are well recognized for helping evaluate nonprofits.

For telemarketers, I use this simple test:

Is the caller volunteering their time? Is he or she knowledgeable about the charity? Can the organization send you information, including the most recent annual report?

If the answer to any of the above is no, I think your answer should be as well.

And whether it’s yes or no – on the phone, through the mail or by personal request – put yourself in a position to feel good about your decision. Make smart choices and be generous when and where you can.

Expect organizations to practice good stewardship in acknowledging your support and reporting back to you on its impact. If they do, they will probably continue to earn your investment. If they don’t, they open the door for another worthy cause.


Mike Westby is president of Westby Assoc. Inc., a Vancouver-based regional fundraising consulting firm. He can be reached at 360-750-3825 or on the web at westbyassociates.com.


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