There is nothing like a good scandal to grab people’s attention. The media is filled with stories of people saying yes to situations that end up calling into question their ethics, honor, and decision-making abilities. And while unethical decisions effortlessly find their way into the public scrutiny spotlight, ethical decisions remain largely in the dark.

So what happens when nonprofits and other organizations make a decision to say no to a seemingly advantageous opportunity (such as significant funding) that clashes with their values or mission? Is something really better than nothing? Here, we move the spotlight to hard but ethical decisions that led to positive outcomes.

Saying no can lead to the yes.

We asked Fabrice de Kerchove, senior project manager at King Baudouin Foundation in Belgium, if he encountered cases of organizations that said no to a funding offer. He replied, “We were touring the Balkan region guided by a nonprofit, and at the end, we asked them if they wanted to be our field implementation partner for a new program in Bosnia. They said no because this program was perceived as not being in line with their mission statement.”

A year later, the focus of the program had slightly changed, and the nonprofit then offered to implement it. The foundation was quick to accept, as it had trust in their integrity and commitment to their mission.

In Venezuela—one of the toughest environments in which to setup a social enterprise—Claudia Valladares, founder of Impact Hub Caracas, was in need of investors. “We started conversations with two likely investors and noticed that neither of them aligned with our mission,” Valladares expressed. “Despite the critical time and financial pressure, we chose to say no. Then we met a third group of angel investors who understood our business model as well as aligned with our values. The decision to say yes was crystal clear.

Putting yourself out of business is sometimes the right choice.

If collaborators who have aligned values are few and far between—and especially if you find there isn’t a strong market for your intervention—then it may be time to consider closing the organization.

TechSoup’s Chris Worman, a long time civil society activist and successful fundraiser, explained, “Perhaps due to the dynamics of the nonprofit marketplace or because most of us take our work so personally, there seems to be a self-reinforcing sense in the nonprofit sphere that one’s mission must succeed—and that our interventions are the ‘right’ interventions. We cannot always be right. And if citizens are not engaging in our vision, then we might—at a minimum—question our programming, if not the very necessity of our work.”

Avoiding funder-induced mission creep maintains focus.

In Austria, Peter Vandor has been saying no for years. He founded the Social Impact Award as a free, open to all, educational program and social enterprise competition for students. While fundraising, companies have repeatedly asked him to create awards focused on topics of their interest.

“Fundraising would be a lot easier if we gave away awards only on topics that donors care about, yet if we do this, we would end up excluding the entrepreneurs with less sexy topics like human trafficking or drug addiction,” Vandor says. “Until we come up with a model that solves this problem, we will keep saying no to such requests and try to transform them into a yes that is in line with our mission.”

Before saying yes to a collaborator, organizations should consider the following:

  • Find mission-aligned collaborators. Attract the right collaborators in the first place by openly expressing your mission and values. Ensure that your team is aligned on how to make these a living practice and what your deal-breakers are. Notice when a potential partner or funder triggers your moral compass to start spinning and openly address this with your team and potential collaborators.
  • Put beneficiaries first. Engage your beneficiaries to help guide your decisions. Have them on your boards and support them in holding you accountable.
  • Let go of the survival-at-all-costs mindset. If you accomplished your mission, or discover a better approach, then develop an exit strategy.
  • Be realistic. Take your fundraising time estimate and double it so that you are sure to have the time to find the right funding. Diversify your revenue sources so that you don’t have to put all your eggs in one basket.
  • Explain your boundaries. Enter a dialogue with potential partners to ensure that they understand your focus on your mission. This can express your integrity and commitment, which can lead to future opportunities.

Planning for the long run

Previously in the venture capital industry and now head of operations of Oak Foundation, Vinit Rishi understands the challenge of developing a long-term funding relationship. Many organizations count on their donor base not only to support initiation, but also remain a trusted partner for years to come.

Foundations’ strategies change over time. It is natural that grantee organizations—especially the ones with a smaller donor base—are more likely to say yes to a grant, regardless of mission alignment. Rishi points out,  "Faced with the reality of laying people off, organizations are willing to adapt quite heavily. This is human. It is the same in the venture capital industry.”

With this in mind, Oak Foundation provides exit grants of two to three years so that the organizations they fund can transition to other donors. Like their grantees, donors need to take responsibility for the long-term sustainability of the organizations with which they partner.

Moving the spotlight

If we want to be held accountable for positive change on societal level, we need to shine the light on organizations that say no when it matters most. We need to learn the why behind the no as much as we need to understand the process and outcomes of that decision.

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