The Healing Power of "No" - Exponent Philanthropy
A post to Exponent Philanthropy's blog

The Healing Power of “No”

Forgive me for stating the obvious, but the word “no” has a negative connotation.

And that’s a shame because, if used properly, “no” might actually be the ultimate philanthropic teaching and learning tool.

We live in a society where so many of us are afraid to say that magic word— “no”— and so, we become like that guy or girl you’re interested in who won’t return your calls (see: Girls Who Wouldn’t Return My Calls Back in High School and College).

In the case of philanthropy, it’s often those of us on the giving side who have decided against granting dollars to a particular group, but then don’t want to hurt the collective feelings of those running said local nonprofit.

We’re afraid to say what has to be said—“no”—which means that many funders: Don’t return phone calls. Don’t send letters or emails. Respond with incredibly ambiguous form letters. Avoid these nonprofit leaders at public gatherings.

This in turn has the nonprofit’s executive director thinking: They hate me. They hate us. We don’t deserve to be an organization. They haven’t made a decision. I should call them back. I should call them back again.

We’re stringing them along, like What’s-Her-Name did to me back in 1975: “She must like me; she hasn’t shot me down. She hasn’t said, ‘I like you as a friend.’ There’s still a chance!!” And I’ll admit, I’ve been guilty of this once or twice before as well (something of which I’m not very proud), all because I wanted to avoid being the “bad guy,” which then actually made me the “worse guy.” I became What’s-HIS-Name.

If a prospective grantor is truly in the capacity-building business, and really wants to “teach a man to fish,” then the foundation’s rejection of a grant proposal (OK, maybe the word “rejection” isn’t the sweetest sounding thing) carries with it tons of positive potential. The proper delivery of your “no” can maximize its potential to become a “yes” in the future, with your foundation or perhaps another foundation that has a mission and a passion different from yours.

Simply put: Tell the nonprofit why you said “no” to its grant request. Was it the organization? Was it the project? Was the application missing the data or results needed to sway your board members? Did the financials simply not add up? Is there still bad P.R. lingering from a previous organizational misstep? Was the ask short of the needed details? (Exactly how will this program work?) Is there simply no match here between your organization and our organization?

Throw away the standard rejection form letter and take just a few minutes to explain the reasoning behind your board’s “no.”

Now the pushback from some funders will be, “But we’re too busy to personally respond to all of them!! Do you know how many grant applications we get?” I beg to differ. Nobody’s that busy, especially if he or she really wants to strengthen potential partners and subsequently change the world.

Here’s another possible response: “I don’t owe them [the nonprofits] an explanation. All that matters is my decision.” Sure….that’s….great. It’s from the Universal Time-Honored Parents’ Handbook (Chapter 4, Paragraph 3) that begins with the words “BECAUSE I SAID SO.” We all know how well we liked hearing that back in the day.

It comes down to this: Is it about us? Or them? Is it about protecting our own turf? Or protecting and educating and lifting the people of our planet? If the answer is “us,” then a lot of us are in the wrong business.

The “no” will set you free, and the “explained ‘no’” will set the nonprofits on a path of self-examination, growth, and fulfillment. Philanthropically, this negative can be quite… positive.

Scott Brazda is executive director of The Stuller Family Foundation. For 16 years, he served as a news and sports anchor at KATC-TV in Lafayette, LA, during which time he won seven Associated Press awards. He currently hosts the “Spirit of Acadiana” segment profiling good people doing good things. Scott is a committee member for the United Way of Acadiana and Community Foundation of Acadiana, board member of the Louisiana Association of Nonprofit Organizations, and faculty member of the University of Louisiana at Lafayette communications department.


  1. Floyd Keene

    Great post. Unique and very helpful.

    • Scott Brazda

      Thank you, Floyd. Coming from someone such as yourself–with a great deal of experience in this arena– it really means a lot.

  2. Richard Marker

    Dear Mr. Brazda,

    Of course you are correct – mostly. It does matter what message one wants to give. If one believes that there is potential in a project, and wants to be constructive even when saying no, then a carefully thought out and engaged rejection can make a difference. But there are times, when the more one says, the more it opens up misunderstanding. When I headed a foundation, I began by carefully crafting every rejection along the lines you propose. I learned, though, that some people assumed that I was just opening up a negotiation and wanted to revisit or appeal the foundation’s decision. There is no magic answer to when to do which, but I came to see that sometimes the most responsible thing to do – for all involved – was to simply say no.

    • Scott Brazda

      Thanks for the response, Richard. Appreciate the input.

    • Scott Brazda

      I just try to be very straight with them, Richard. If there’s no fit, either for the specific project or the cause, I tell them that in a straightforward, respectful way– I don’t want to waste their time or mine. If their group falls within our parameters of giving, but we turn them down for organizational or project issues, I do tell them to keep in touch. I also steal some things from Shark Tank, and tell them that, in our minds, they’re “…not quite there yet.”

      If they choose to continue to send me notes or queries, that’s kind of on the nonprofit. I don’t really mind; it’s kind of why my position exists, I think. I simply repeat my answer and wish them the best of luck. Doesn’t take me very long to write a line or two, even an “I don’t know”. Eventually, they get the picture, and I’m not so busy that I can’t send a two-or-three line email.

      Other times it’s strictly an interest or passion issue. It’s like I tell my Junior Philanthropy classes, “Just because it’s a good organization doesn’t mean it’s the right fit for every funder. Sometimes the funder’s passion simply isn’t there”. Doesn’t mean anyone has made a mistake; it just means there isn’t a fit. (Kind of like dating: two good people, but there’ s just not a connection. I know I’m preaching to the choir on this).

      Now, if they get mean or personal….. then they get cut off. LOL!

  3. Anela Shimizu

    Great article, Scott. I also fee strongly about the subject. So strongly, in fact, that I recently suggested it as a session for next year’s Exponent conference. There is definitely an art to saying no in a way that can be helpful to the one being rejected. Done well, both parties can benefit.

    • Scott Brazda

      Thanks, Anela. This would be fun session, wouldn’t it? Appreciate the response.

  4. Linda Styer

    I believe grant applications are a beginning of a conversation so that the grant seeker has a pretty good idea of what our funding is probably going to be when the Board meets (the Board having the final decision of course), and we tell the applicants when the Board meets. By the time we decline an application, there have been weeks of communication to get answers to questions, supporting documentation, suggestions for collaboration with other organizations, and a discussion with the grant seeker on whether their project fits our priorities (which should begin before they apply). I think it is critical to give more attention to applications that are probably going to be declined so that our due diligence has been carried out. But I guess the core issue for me in this article is do we respect everyone equally? And if not, why are some people more important than others?

    • Scott Brazda

      Great response, Linda. Thanks for the comments. I completely agree with the applications being the start of the conversation; I say that all the time. Of course the easy ones to decline are the ones that simply aren’t within our scope of giving or our passions/interests. After that? If the organizations fall within our realm of possibilities, I then have that conversation, preferably in person or by phone. This morning it was one of those, “We love your group; just couldn’t get fired up by the project. Let’s talk about the possibilities for our March or July meetings.” It’s always hard to say “no”— I come from local TV where being liked and telling people what they want to hear (instead of what they need to hear) runs rampant.

    • Scott Brazda

      Just seeing this, Jennifer. Good stuff.
      Thanks for sharing.

  5. Douglas Walker

    The ambivalence among foundations you describe to say “no” is curious. If a foundation invests sufficient time and care in constructing its web site, with clear guidelines and criteria, then the burden is the applicant’s to insure their program is responsive to and meets those standards. Rejecting applications is a fundamental aspect of grant making. Ours is a board managed foundation, we do when needed the due diligence, review the grants each quarter. Responding individually to rejected applicants is not feasible. Moreover, everything needed to understand our objectives and criteria is clearly spelled out on our website. The fact is many grant writers do thoroughly read our site. Instead, possibly because they’re pressed for time, rely on sites that aggregate foundation information whichever frequently leaves out vital information. Only a foundation without a clear sense of purpose would have difficulty saying “no”.

Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *