How to Say “No” to Nonprofit Board Members

Organizational Management September 21, 2017

Terry Ibele

By Terry Ibele

Board Member: “We need to do something viral, like the Ice Bucket challenge.”

Everyone Else: "I don't think that will work for us."

Thirty minutes later, the board member is still insisting on a viral challenge.

Situations like this, where a board member completely derails a conversation, or refuses to try something new, can hinder a nonprofit from optimizing their potential and meeting the needs of the people they serve. 

This is when saying “no” and setting firm boundaries are necessary to keep productivity moving in the right direction.

Unfortunately, saying “no” can also be difficult, especially in front of others.

If you’re facing a difficult situation where you need to be firm with a board member, follow these six tips on how to say no to help you frame the conversation in a constructive, collaborative way.


1) Tactfulness and Clarity Go a Long Way, but This Will Get You Further

Gentle delivery of a harsh message is ineffective, but so is placating. While you want to present your “no” with diplomacy and grace, you don’t want to beat around the bush or sound wishy washy. The best way to do this is to start with a firm, polite “no” (or alternative), followed by a concise reason why.

For example, if the idea is unreasonable due to time or resource constraints, tell them. 

If their suggestion doesn’t align with your current strategic plan, say that. 

If there’s still persistence on an unreasonable idea, follow the famous words of W. Edward Deming: “In God we trust, all others bring data.” 

How to Say No to nonprofit board

Backing up your “no” with data creates an unbiased, fact-based argument that cannot be refuted by opinion. IT may be just what's needed to put that long-standing argument to rest.

If you need some help finding data for your argument, here are some places to look:

  • Finances, member records, and event data
  • Case studies from similar organizations with similar challenges
  • Input from other respected individuals who have relevant experience
  • Outcomes of past failures at your organization that followed a similar tactic
  • Reach out to on-the-ground staff, who may be able to provide more context and rationale

By substantiating your “no” with data, you’ll also be giving the board member the opportunity to come back with a more informed, amended suggestion that may actually work. This can also a great time to throw the ball into the board member's court to see if they can step up to problem solve whatever issue is blocking the realization of their idea. 


2) When to Bring in Someone Else

Sometimes even the the most explicit, polite, and reasonable responses can be received poorly, especially if you’re dealing with a particularly stubborn or negative board member. In these cases it may help to partner with another board member to leverage interpersonal relationships while facing an especially difficult issue. 

People are often more receptive hearing feedback from a peer, and adding another voice into the conversation makes the “no” feel less personal. 

This approach also takes some of the heat off you in hopes of preserving a positive working relationship for future meetings. 

This new person may also have a different perspective on the matter, which could open the doors to new ideas or a better understanding of why the board member is being insistent in the first place.


3) How Reverse Psychology Can Get Them to Say "No" on Their Own

Sometimes it's clear to everyone but the board member why their idea is completely unpractical. No amount of "no's" seem to stop them from bringing it up time and time again.

If this is the case, using reverse psychology can help. Encourage the board member to flush out their idea to the full extent. Once they start planning out the details, they often realize why their it won't work.

One example that comes to mind was of a board member who insisted the board contact Bill Gates for donations (if you’d like to relish in more bad fundraising ideas, I wrote a whole post on 15 utterly insane fundraising ideas people actually thought would work). It wasn’t until the board assigned him to get in touch with Bill that he finally discovered how unrealistic this was. Now he’s the first one to laugh about the time he thought it was a good idea.

On the other hand, flushing out an unreasonable idea may bring to light new opportunities you hadn’t thought of before.

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4) Remember Why They're on Your Team

Before you dismiss any idea, remind yourself that the board member believes they have the best interest of the organization at heart, otherwise they wouldn’t be sitting on the board in the first place. 

Board members are volunteering their time and resources to support the mission of your organization and deserve to have their voices heard and respected. 

While you may disagree with them, making sure your words reflect that you’re coming from a place of appreciation and respect is a must. 

When you are dealing with highly esteemed or longstanding members of the community, choose your words wisely and be gentle. You may also want to do this in private — the last thing you want is embarrass them in front of the board.

Even with the best intentions, sometimes a conversation can go awry. If you fear you may find yourself in a tense spot in future board meetings because of this, follow this great advice from conflict resolution expert Margaret Sumption on How to Deal with Difficult People in Your Meetings.

As a final step, circle back in with the board member afterwards to discuss how it went.


5) Use Nonviolent Communication

Nonviolent Communication (NVC) is a 4-step communication process designed to improve connections between people. I've seen it used between colleagues (and even used it myself — NVC is something we deploy here quite frequently at WildApricot) to resolve conflicts that seemed like they would last until the end of time.

The history of NVC is actually quite interesting. It was developed in the 1960's by Marshall Rosenberg, who reportedly used it in peace programs within conflict zones in Rwanda, Malaysia, Colombia and other countries. 

In a nutshell, NVC states that conflicts arise because of miscommunication about unmet needs. The conflict can only be resolved once everyone understands what the needs are of everyone involved. From example, if a board member keeps insisting on contacting Bill Gates for donations, but everyone keeps shutting their idea down, the board member may actually have an unmet need of recognition from the rest of the group. Once the group takes the time to explore their idea, it may meet the board member's need and resolve the issue.

If you would like to try NVC to resolve a conflict, follow this 4-step guide from

NVC how to say no 

6) Build a Strong Board to Begin With

When it comes to board member tensions, an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure. Assembling the right team to support your strategic goals from the onset will save you the time and mental anguish of navigating a sticky situation. 

Before you invite a board member on, carefully consider how their professional experience, interests, networks, and leadership style will support your organizational vision. Make sure you are forming a team of thinkers who can both honor the organization’s history, while pushing it forward with innovative ideas. 

Additionally, create a habit of revisiting expectations and norm-setting with board members every 6-12 months to ensure everyone is clear on their roles and briefed on vision, finances, active partnerships and any pertinent legal or bylaw information. 

Taking the time to get everyone one the same page will help curb most of those bizarre and unrealistic of suggestions during meetings in order to circumvent the whole “no” issue all together.

While negotiating board member relationships can be certainly be complicated, ultimately, they provide indispensable support, and organizations could not function without the dedication and direction of these committed volunteers.


Additional Resources:

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Sorry, this blog post is closed for further comments.


  • Mukarabe Lysiane Makinto-Inandava:
    I need all the help I can get to move my nonprofit
  • Michael Cade:
    Great post Terry, thanks for sharing your expertise. In conversations with NFP executives, I often hear that their biggest challenge is either over active or under-engaged Board members. These are great steps to keep members engaged without allowing them to take focus from the mission. Hopefully, the Board Chair or another respected member is watchful for these types of situations and lends a hand when necessary.

    Personally, I appreciate folks advocating passionately for their positions, but there is a right and a wrong time and place to do it. One suggestion that I might add is to defer the issue for discussion with a smaller sub-set of the Board. There may be value in the person's idea if it is properly investigated. And if the person cannot convince a few folks of the idea's merits, then they will likely drop it.
  • Margaret Sumption:
    A mentor told me a long time ago... " always remember, you can't kill a bad idea.... you have to let it die anatural death. ". When bad ideas come forward (e.g. Calling up Bill Gates for mone) instead of describing what it can't work , as questions. How would that work? What would be the steps? What is an appropriate timeline? Tell me more how that could fit into our overall strategy. This works every time. Using up the oxygen allows it to die a natural death and eliminates winners and losers !


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