the power of "no" with Dr. William Clark

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When you’re a small nonprofit, it’s hard to say no to any opportunity that comes your way. After all, you want to make the most out of every single day and help as many people as possible. But if you try to take on too much, it can be a detriment to your effectiveness as an organization. When should you say yes vs. no?

We're talking with Dr. William Clark, founder of Eli Patrick & Co. which provides fundraising consulting to nonprofits. He has over 15 years of experience working in city government, nonprofit administration and public housing operations. Dr. Clark assists nonprofits with developing sustainable revenue strategies and identifying talent acquisition solutions for growing businesses.

Myths that Dr. Clark wants us to walk away from:

  • Saying NO will cost you opportunities: In making important decisions, we need to think about things more intentionally rather than being driven by the need of the moment, which is most likely revenue for small nonprofits.

  • You are always in control: If things didn't work out in your favour, remember that there are forces bigger than you that may have contributed to this as well, forces you couldn't and will never be able to control. You must accept the fact that you will not always be in complete control.

Dr. Clark’s Tips on the power of "no"

  • Know your capacity. One of the questions you can ask yourself is: Can you do the job? It is a question of skill, talent, money and partnerships and everything that goes into running a successful business, or non-profit.

  • Communicate. Communicate consistently with folks that you work with, your consultant, your colleagues, and your board to get different perspectives and advice.

  • When you said no when you should’ve said yes. Every organization has its ups and downs. It's fine to rethink things and reevaluate how we proceed so that we can build up this account of goodwill with the various people with whom we were doing business.

Favourite Quotes from Today’s Episode

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“Giving yourself space to grieve, grieve in the moment, grieve in potential loss, grieve in potential failure, grieving the fact that your view of yourself is not necessarily consistent with the situation. Grieve in the fact that some people may look at you slightly differently and it might not be favourable because of changes that they may blame you for. So I think a lot of it is just processing through. And as you've worked through that, you don't want to stay in that moment way too long, because there's still work to be done. There are still clients who are looking to you for services and resources and they need you. And so you need to process through these things, but get up, dust yourself off, get back on that horse. Learn from what happened and grow ”

“When it comes to yes-no, it’s just understanding the moment and living in that moment and responding as best as you can. And lastly being okay with that response. ”

Resources from this Episode

The Good Partnership


Cindy W.: So one of the things that comes up a lot in our work with smaller organizations is when to say no. And in fact, my team has been saying no a lot recently because we get so caught up in the energy and excitement and potential of what could be when we do say yes that we sometimes forget our own limitations or a lot of what happens is this sort of shiny object syndrome, which is there are good ideas out there. We want to say yes to all of them, but sometimes, the best option is to stay no and focus on consistency.

Now, our guest today is going through this with a client and has some really great insights to share. So we're going to be talking about when to say yes, because I'm not saying there's not a good time to say yes, but when to say yes and when to maybe say no, and how to deal with it when you said yes, but really the answer should've been no.

So I'm your host, Cindy Wagman and you're listening to The Small Nonprofit Podcast where we bring you practical down-to-earth advice on how to do more in your small organization. You are going to change the world and we're here to. help.

So it's my pleasure to welcome today's guest Dr. William Clark, who is the founder of Eli, Patrick & Co. where they provide fundraising consulting to nonprofits. He's also an avid two-wheeler, enthusiastic think bicycles, and motorbikes. And I love this one, a believer in the good that comes from nonprofits. And aren't we all, Dr. Clark, welcome to the podcast.

Dr. William C.: Thanks for having me, Cindy.

Cindy W.: It's so nice to see you. And I love this topic because I feel like it's been present for us and in our work and it sounds like it's very present for you right now. So without giving too many details or naming the organization, tell us a situation that you're facing with one of your clients where there is a sticky situation.

Dr. William C.: Yeah. I think, what's interesting is that this scenario is true for all organizations at some point in time in their life cycle where, you are in need of, and in pursuit of resources revenue to do the work that you have been created to do. And there are these ebbs and flows in the life cycle of an organization that may lead you to pursue a funding opportunity to continue to support the work as it stands or to expand the work.

I'm not here to talk about what you should or shouldn't do. I think that's an internal process that staff should go through, a board should go through if necessary, and of course, if you bring in a consultant they can help you with that as well. But there are these moments where there need to be serious conversations about, do we need to take this particular step, is growth necessary? Or if there is a pain point that we're trying to resolve, will that pain be resolved by taking this step, making this decision or partnering with this particular organization.

And I think another way to frame this or look at this too, is it's not only when you're in need but even when things are going pretty well and there are changes on the horizon with you or your funder or your partner, even in the midst of good things happening, should you stop to re-evaluate continuation, should we move forward? Should we stand pat? Should we take a couple of steps back?

We need to think through these things more intentionally, as opposed to being more driven by the need of the moment, which is most likely for small nonprofits as revenue. And I'll say this too before I turn it back over to you, this question, this conversation is not unique to smaller organizations. It's not the problem of the small non-profit, it's the problem of nonprofits across the board, mature, new, small, and all of the nonprofits in between.

Cindy W.: Yeah. And in fact, as a business owner, I see this, I work with a number of businesses that support nonprofits. We have revenue too. We're facing the same challenges sometimes of when to say yes. And when to say no that those dollars can be pretty appealing, right? Like it's hard, it's hard when they're right there in front of you. And you're like, have you seen organizations? I mean working with small organizations, I've definitely heard in the past 20 years concerned around mission drift, right?

This idea is that when we start to see those dollar signs that potentially that bring us, we take action that might not be aligned, with our mission. Have you seen that with organizations at all?

Dr. William C.: Yeah, I've seen mission drift and I think a lot of people are familiar with that where you're chasing dollars or you're chasing opportunity or revenue. That is well out of scope for your organization. I would say that the silent killer are projects that are slightly out of scope. Because we don't see the car, we can stretch a little bit. And there's nothing against stretching a little bit. There's nothing against, growing a bit into a new area, but unfortunately what's unseen or what's not talked about is, when we're stretching just by this little inch, how much has that taken away from something else that is stable? That's what is in context for us.

So I've seen a lot of that, but I'm gonna tell you another silent killer is the projects that are within scope. But the timing is just wrong or the city capacity, right? The timing, capacity of the season, the moment it's, we should take a year off ourselves as opposed to having the funder tell us to take a year off, that's the silent killer because all the things that matter are checked off. It's a fit. We do this now. It's our customers, our line the mission, and the vision of values they align. And yet we're not reading the tea leaves. We're not noticing the change in seasons that are coming for the organization that tells us should take time out. should pause. They should pause. And to take the time out and just allow your organization to regather themselves and reset.

Cindy W.:Yeah. I want to come back to that. I wrote down what's at stake, but I want to come back to what's at stake because I think there's a lot we can talk about, but I also want to dive in a little bit to what are some questions that we should be asking ourselves? Or how do we start to think about this when we're faced with those decisions to say, okay, yes or no. How do I evaluate that?

Dr. William C.: So you hit on the first thing on my list, which is knowing your capacity, and when we say that turn, which is corporate-speak for men, can you do the job? Can you do the job? Can you do the job as a question of skill and talent and money and partnerships and everything that goes into running a successful business, or non-profit, can you get it done. Now, I will say there are moments where you can confidently and fairly say yes, I can get it done, but there may be changes of the foot that just surprise you. And it happens. So you put in a proposal and you start the program year and you're in a good space, but the capacity realities change on you.

So then knowing capacity is not about knowing it when you're proposing it's knowing it as the project is unfolding. I've heard LeBron, James one of my favorite basketball players of all time mention that listen when it comes to winning a championship course, you need a coach, you need culture and the team needs star players, all that other stuff.

But the one thing he mentioned is you need a little luck, right. I'm a Christian, so I'll say you need some blessings. You need God to smile down on you at the right moment in the right season. And sometimes that luck or that blessing or that open door, just might not be there even though every other door, every other box is checked off.

That is very hard to talk about whether you're a small nonprofit or bigger to just say everything was there. Everything is in place, but it's not the right time, so our capacity changes. So everything that was there starts to go left. Yeah, partners fall off, supportive revenue, disappears staff, and they take on new opportunities.

We have some sort of moment in the organization that sucks resources away and it impacts this project or impacts multiple projects. Things happen, so just being aware of the pasty before, during, and after a project is huge.

Cindy W.: That's yeah, such a big one. And like realistically checking, I find sometimes we overestimate the capacity of the people around us without checking in on like, how are you really doing, I feel like our sector. We don't want to say no to things, because again, these are the things that are mission-aligned. How can we actually get a really good sense of are we okay?

Dr. William C.: I don't know, I am in a position today as of this recording of this podcast. I don't know. I think that it's an evolutionary thing. It's something that we learn along the way, right? In your business, in my business with our clients, it's something you just grow into when you start to realize the signs of not being okay. But knowing the signs that capacity is shifting seasons are shifting, and resources are shifting in my favor or against my favor.

And it may not be anything that you have done specifically as an executive director or a board member or a staff member. Sometimes things change being, I think, giving yourself, and this is what I'm processing through, giving yourself permission to acknowledge this truth, I think is a good starting point.

What happens after that? I think this is part of my second point of, yes and no, which is you gotta communicate consistently with folks you're in a relationship with. So there's a training that I host regarding, managing relationships. And I talk about relationships in a 360 fashion. where you have relationships that are east and west of you. So these are like a parallel relationship and they have relationships north and south of you.

Cindy W.: Yeah. And as a fundraiser, I love this point because often, and coming off for our last point around capacity, very often we're thinking like our internal capacity and those internal relationships. But sometimes that communication in so many organizations is afraid. They'll like, do everything like work themselves to the bone to avoid having a conversation with a funder. And sometimes it's the first conversation you need to have. Tell me let's talk about that communication and how we can have it, or, engage in communication before we're in crisis.

Dr. William C.: I think FOMO is real when you said that people who are listening to you and listen to you, make that statement about being scared to have the conversation with funders. The reason why there's so much fear is that, you're saying to me, Cindy, that I need to go to the money source and talk about a problem, which when we advise our clients, might not be the most viable step at the moment. So it is situational, but I do think that the fear of missing out or losing out or something being taken away is very real, which can then draw people away, our clients away from having conversations at the right time with their funders.

So therefore you go through a process of identifying capacity issues. You identify problems that really are within your control, outside of control. You navigate them with people, around you, and then you don't talk to the funder at all 'cause you just feel like it'll work itself out. That's the bigger problem, right? As opposed to talking to the funder first, not knowing when to talk to the funder, some of us wait until the end of the year when we give a final report and we have a bunch of zeros in our KPIs, some of us wait until a problem.

Cindy W.: That's the wrong time. I can tell you two wrong run times. Don't do that.

Dr. William C.: Don't do that please. Don't just don't right. So it is a dance, a delicate dance. It's an art and a science to figure out when to talk to the funder, but completely ignoring it or waiting till the end is definitely not it. I would venture to say talking to them first, probably not, is it either because it shows to some funders that you don't have the capacity to think through the solutions.

Yeah, but that timing, I think, has to be worked out in partnership with people you trust. Your consultant, your colleagues, your board, yeah, you get different perspectives and figure out, Hey, I'm not sure we're going to be to work this through, or we're going to be able to work it through, but when should we talk to the funder? Let's work through that. What are your, what's your perspective and doing it in a group environment? I think really will help.

Cindy W.: Yeah, I really love that. And we saw that with our clients at the beginning of COVID at the beginning, when things shut down and we work with arts organizations that work in schools like they were, they had a ton of program funding that they couldn't run programs for.

And we coach them and had those internal conversations to go to the funder and say, it doesn't look like we're running these programs anymore. Can we talk about how your funding might be best used? Most of the funders said, keep the money, use it for your core operations and we'll circle back when we know what the future looks like.

Some said, hold onto the money until we run the program again. But we did the work internally so that we had those options and we knew what they look like.

Yeah, that's a, there are so many examples. I think of this. We did another client just now who got three grants, we were successful. You always write a few more grants than you think you're going to get it. But we were successful with three for the same project and program. And so it's okay what can we actually use for that project and program? And where are the conversations to say, you know what, we're funded for this, can we talk about this, using this for something else or being okay with turning that, like saying, what we can't deliver? Maybe this isn't maybe you should keep your money, but it's, it's not always a bad situation that you're having these conversations with.

Dr. William C.: I am reminded and I'm just listening to you share of the importance of not seeing business as black and white.

You know, cause at the end of the day, what we're talking about is business. Now, obviously, we're talking about business from the lens of a nonprofit business and it's not as black and white where you can say if I do this will happen. It's not the cookie cutter. You talk about a great scenario.

I wished. And you talked about a scenario that is desirable. We got overfunded, which is awesome sauce, right? But it's not as black and white, what you can do with it, it's not as clear. In some cases, you may have a funder that may resent the fact that they are not considered a prime funder or they're an afterthought, whatever they may assume.

And so I think, just I think, one of the takeaways for me as I'm sharing today with your audience when it comes to yes no is just understanding the moment and living in that moment and responding as best as you can. And lastly, being okay with that response, carrying that guilt, you know what I'm saying?

Cindy W.: Oh, I so know what you're saying.

Dr. William C.: It sits heavy on us in this industry because we're, and, I've been in corporate America, but there's something special about nonprofits. There's a reason why I'm here. There's a reason why you're here. We are givers and I'm just making a broad assessment, but we're givers, we're heart-driven. We care a lot. And when you have, when you live and work in that space and you have a job that allows you to be in that space, we carry a lot of guilt unnecessarily, we carry a lot of blame and necessarily in is sits heavy, and so being in the moment and understanding the moment for what it is and adjusting, it's not necessarily the answer, Cindy, but it's a part of the process of understanding how to say yes or no. moment to moment

Cindy W.: I think. Poignant, like just do your best with what you have right now. And that will get us far, but it's not perfect, as you said, it's not black and white. And so can we talk a little bit about, maybe we didn't make the best or maybe it was the best decision at the time and now what's no longer the best decision. How do we handle that? Cause that's not unheard of.

Dr. William C.: That is the million-dollar question. I would tell you that in part for me handling that moment, when it shows up, and let me just reiterate this for audiences, the scenario is you made the best decision at the moment. It made sense. And then the condition has changed on you. What I have shared, what I've learned is that give yourself grace. It has to be a part of that process, whether it's first, last, or whatever, you gotta work through that, but give yourself as project leader, executive director, or team member, grace to understand that you may have played a role in things changing, maybe but there are forces bigger than you that may have contributed to this as well that you could not control and you will never control. And you have to be okay with the fact that you're not in control a hundred percent at a time.

If ever, right depending on your use of life. And so giving yourself grace to just process that, giving yourself space to grieve at the moment, grieve in potential loss, grieve in potential failure, grieve in the fact that, your view of yourself is not necessarily consistent with the situation. Grieve in the fact that some people may look at you slightly differently and it might not be favorable because of changes that they may blame you for, so I think a lot of it is just processing through.

And as you've worked through that, you don't want to stay in that moment way too long, because there is still, there's still work to be done. There are still clients who are looking to you for services and resources and they need you. And so you need to process through these things, but get up, dust yourself off, get back on that horse. Learn from what happened and grow.

Cindy W.: Have nothing to add. I think that was absolutely perfect.

Dr. William C.: And let me say this Cindy, but let me say this it's easier said than done. So for that person who says that's easy for you to say, no, it's easier said than done, but it has to be part of the process.

Cindy W.: And it doesn't mean something about us when we're in that situation. It's not about our leadership. Going back to that, we make the decision with the best information we have at any given time and things change. And it doesn't mean we're, it's not about how good or bad we are at our jobs or anything like that. This is life and things change.

I want to talk about, cause I want to talk a little bit as we wrap up the conversation about what's at stake because whether this is the first there are some two points where we have, and there could be multiple points, but we've really talked about this two sort of inflection points around saying yes or no. One is right at the beginning when we're looking at something new and we're like, is this the right thing for us or not?

But then the second inflection point is when things do change and we actually have to say yes or no again. And I want to talk about what's at stake in these decisions, right? What happens when we, I'll be specific? What happens when we say yes, knowing that in our hearts, the answer is no.

Dr. William C.: It's never a great place to operate from, you're not being honest with yourself up front and somehow some way that has a way of manifesting in your work.

Yeah. Or the reverse is what happens when you say, no, you should have said yes, generally speaking, there's an internal struggle that you will go through. And that creates unnecessary stress that is not shared, that is individualistic stress that you are bearing by yourself, and so that has to be a part of your thought process.

I also think that, when you're saying, the opposite answer to what the truth is I think can put the reputation of the organization at risk right, now this is not to threaten folks or make people fearful because they made the opposite decision that they noticed should've made.

Just understand that could happen, but again, there are life cycles, within organizations, there are ups and downs. And the hope is that you have made more deposits within your various funder relationships and partner relationships and community relationships, than withdrawals, and making a wrong decision that leads to changing conditions that may not look favorably on you may be a huge withdrawal. So hopefully there are still enough credits in the bank that you can lean on, but then also know that, Hey, we just took a major withdrawal. So what do we do? We got to make more deposits and it's okay to start all over. It's okay to rethink things. It's okay to reevaluate how we progress so that we can build up this account of goodwill, with the various people that were doing business.

Cindy W.: Yeah. And I think circling back to what we talked about before, around communication, I think that's one of the most effective ways to deposit right. To build those deposits is not trying to work in isolation from those around you, but to, oh, at the end of the day, we're all doing this for the same end goal, we're all partners in doing good work and you have, you're not alone.

Dr. William C.: Yeah.

Cindy W.: Dr. Clark, where can listeners connect more with you? You do lots of great things. And one of them I don't want to say funny things, but one of the things, when we were talking about what to talk about on this podcast I feel like truly there's a whole mountain of options. And so we've really just scratched the surface of your expertise. Where can I listen to as connect and learn more about what you're doing and yeah, be part of your community?

Dr. William C.: Absolutely. Thanks for having me. Cindy folks can find me at Again, it's and on all social media platforms, if I'm on that platform, you'll find me at Dr. William P Clark.

Cindy W.: Amazing. Thank you so much for joining us. I really appreciate this conversation. I think it's a, it's an important lesson. We all probably learned the hard way at some point or another. Yeah, but it's definitely worth talking about.

Dr. William C.: Absolutely. Thanks for having me,

Cindy W.: My pleasure. And of course, to our listeners. Thank you so much for tuning in. We'll see you next. Well, folks, that's it for today's episode of the small nonprofit. I'm your host, Cindy Wagman, and this show is brought to you by The Good Partnership. As a reminder, if you want more resources around raising more money for your small nonprofit, visit and download our free fundraising strategy guide. I'll see you next week.

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