Learn to say no

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Being a communicator for your charity is a busy role, with multiple priorities on the go at any one time. You’re often operating on at least 2 fronts – the everyday, business as usual type communications and the more complicated project or campaign communications.

This is tricky enough in itself. When you throw in the sudden changes of mind that can come from elsewhere in your organisation, it can be difficult to keep everything on track and maintain your own wellbeing.

These change requests can come from a variety of sources, including (but definitely not limited to):

  • your senior managers, your trustees, your service delivery teams, your innovation team, your beneficiaries, your fundraisers.

Large or small?

This situation can arise at any size of organisation.

In larger organisations there may be a bigger communications team to spread the load, but the flip side is that there is likely more complexity and more moving parts to keep your eye on. Senior people who take decisions about changing focus may well be at a greater distance from the comms team and less aware of the impact of their decisions.

In a smaller organisation there may be a lower volume of complexity and communication activity overall (although that isn’t necessarily the case). But there will be a smaller number of people involved in communications, even just one person/part of a role. And the decision-makers may be equally removed from the day-to-day of your work. OR they may want to be more hands-on, perhaps without specific comms expertise.

Whatever your situation at your organisation, you will need to find ways to push back on changing requests or say no from time to time.

But where should you start?

First of all, develop clear and strategic communication objectives and get them agreed at the start of each year, quarter or month.

As part of the agreement process, make sure you have included wherever possible the reasoning behind them and their link to your organisation’s business goals, mission or priorities. While this isn’t a fool-proof approach, it is much easier to say no to something new when there is clear reasoning.

When you receive a new request, start by deciding whether this is a time when you need to be pragmatic.

If the new request is relatively small and won’t actually detract too much from existing plans, it might be quicker and easier to just get it done. Similarly, if changing a plan to accommodate a different request earns you some favours to call on in the future, that might be worthwhile.

The criteria for deciding on pragmatism will vary by organisation, so there are no perfect solutions here. Just take a beat to have a think before you take action.

Recognise what is good in their request, even if it is challenging.

Personally, I find it sweet when someone has listened to me talking about the importance of communication and has decided this needs to form part of their project or programme. However, believing communication is important and adopting an appropriate way to communicate don’t necessarily go hand in hand!

So I like to acknowledge what they have learned, but then explain how the current request doesn’t fit the bill yet.

Really listen to what they are asking for and offer them alternatives, if possible.

It can be easy to get caught up in the logistical and (im)practical details of a new request – will you have space in your e-newsletter for another new programme launch or how will you find the time to moderate an additional online chat, for example. But if you can take a few minutes to consider what they really want to achieve with this new request, that can help you to find a better way forward.

It could be as simple as showing them that if they wait for the next fortnightly e-newsletter they will get top billing and a higher response rate from the audience. Or explaining how an alternative channel will be more effective for their particular needs.

Finally, remember that you are the comms expert and speak with confidence.

You are not saying no for the sake of it or making alternative suggestions on a whim because you can’t be bothered to make changes. The person requesting a change may know more about their programme or be a more senior person, but you have the comms expertise. Pushing back with confidence in your own knowledge and experience can be a persuasive thing.

Of course, a change of plans can be unavoidable for a whole range of reasons. And being a communicator at a charity can be stressful at times. Please make sure to take steps to protect your own wellbeing. The CharityComms wellbeing guide for communications professionals is a great place to start.

If you’d like help to build your confidence or practice your approach to pushing back, you might like to try my mentoring service. Get in touch for a chat to book a session with me.

Until next time

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