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  • Melinda Lackey

Can You Really Fulfill That Promise?

"Until you learn to say no, you only have half a life."

- Anonymous

Those of us working in nonprofits do not seek an easy way of life. We wish to make the world equitable and compassionate. We want to be of service, but the need for what we offer continually exceeds our means.

Frequently, our limited resources require us to say, “No,” or at least, “Not now.”

Yet, “no” is an infrequently used word in the nonprofit sector.

When a client, boss, colleague or friend asks you to do something, do you tend to say “yes” before considering the consequences?

Does this affect your outputs? How about your relationships? Do you later look back and recognize what you have wrought?

Case in Point: Michael

What calls me to muse on this topic is a young man named Michael, who says “yes, yes, yes,” so frequently that he is not sleeping nights. He works unceasingly and still cannot deliver on all his commitments. Each time we meet for a leadership coaching session, I see his sweet, compassionate smile, the baseball cap covering his exhausted head, and his heavy-lidded, darkly-circled eyes. My heart goes out to him.

He has such talent and gifts!

The problem is that everyone he knows can benefit from what he does best, and he wants to help everybody realize their potential. Whether you offer Michael a job or ask him for a favor, he says, “Sure, okay!”

He wants people to know that they aren’t stuck, that they can do anything they can dream in life – they can set goals and accomplish more than they thought possible. He works hard to be helpful.

Unfortunately, the combination of his optimism, his love of people, and his inability to accept his own limitations hinders him from effectively delivering on his commitments. Both he and his employers wind up frustrated.

Michael is nearly thirty, and the sight of him makes me wonder how long his health will bear the stress. I so want him to know the deep satisfaction of his promise as an inspirational role model in his community. Michael must learn to say, “no.”

The Opportunity

Michael’s challenge is not unusual. I encounter it especially in young professionals. Bursting through the starting gate of their careers, many tend to focus more on the destination than the journey. Caught in a race to the finish, they can run blind to their own limitations.

How do you say “no?”

How do explain that you must say “no” to some things in order to accomplish others—that you have prior commitments and cannot be distracted by additional responsibilities?

No matter how politely you try to say no, does it feel like you are letting someone down? Does it feel like you are rejecting the person, not their idea?

Given the grave consequences of taking on too much, what can we do to allocate our time without feeling bad about our limitations?

The Consequences

Let’s consider how Michael’s clients might see it. If I wanted to hire Michael for a project, would I rather have a half-hearted yes or an emphatic no?

When Michael says “yes” to me, he forges an agreement, a promise. He puts his reputation on the line. If he overestimates or over-commits his resources, he does not please me; rather he raises questions about his judgement and abilities.

My assessment of satisfaction (and my trust in both Michael and his organization) will be based on his timely delivery of value.

Our organizations have limits too. The capacity of an organization to deliver its mission (and make some part of the world a better place) is very much rooted in trust among clients, partners, investors and colleagues.

A Simple Method to Avoid Making Promises You Cannot Keep

If you are in the habit of saying “yes” before weighing your capacity to deliver, you might try delaying that “yes,” to give yourself time to consider what you can realistically do. Here is an example:

Michael’s client: “Michael I’d love to have this done by July 1. Is that doable for you?

Michael: “Let me look at my calendar and give this thought. I don’t want to commit to July 1 until I’m positive I can make it happen. Can I let you know by tomorrow at 2 pm?"

Michael’s client: “"Sure, that sounds fine. Will you text me then, by tomorrow at 2 pm?”

Michael: “Yes, I will text you before 2 pm.”

Terrific. In this example, Michael has committed-to-commit—by tomorrow at 2 pm. When we do this, we give ourselves time to consider our limitations. We can use this time to comprehend the scope of what is being asked of us and visualize what will make the client totally satisfied.

Below is a less effective dialogue that could lead to problems:

Michael’s client: “Michael I’d love to have this done by July 1. Is that doable for you?

Michael: “Let me look at my calendar and give this thought. I don’t want to commit to July 1 until I’m positive I can make it happen. I’ll let you know.”

What’s missing here?

Neither Michael nor his client specified a next step and when it would be done. This will cost both of them precious time to reconnect and nail things down.

Clear and achievable agreements (with dates for completion) are always negotiable and absolutely essential for relationships to thrive. By accurately assessing our capacity and then making realistic commitments, we can fulfill our wish to be helpful and deliver real value to those we feel called to serve. We can build healthy, thriving organizations, and live balanced lives.

What a vision! So much rests on that two-letter word.


Melinda Lackey is Co-founder and Director of SEED Impact, which has assisted more than 250 diverse nonprofit initiatives to communicate and coordinate action more efficiently, sustain higher performance and achieve greater social impact.

Special thanks to Editor Rex Batson, a freelance writer and editor living in Des Moines, Iowa.


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