Ben Taylor: The power of saying ‘no’ to an opportunity

Sometimes passing up the chance to take on a tender or deliver a service is the right thing to do – but how can charities make the right decision?

Ben Taylor

As a charity leader with plenty of business development experience, I am reluctant to pass up an opportunity.

Presented with a tender or another opportunity to develop a service that I know is needed, and that my organisation would be well-placed to provide, my first instinct is to go for it.

Most of our funding is not long-term and I know that we need to continue developing in order to be sustainable and effective. 

I’ve learnt, though, that sometimes passing on these opportunities is the right thing to do.

But when should organisations go for it, and when should we let it go?

Some of the reasons for a charity to let go of an opportunity are relatively easy to identify and apply.

Occasions when it isn’t even much of a dilemma could include a poor fit with organisational values or strategy, when the charity does not have the relevant expertise for the opportunity or when there is another (often more specialist or incumbent), local organisation doing good work that is better placed to take on the job. 

At other times, I really struggle with which way to jump. In these circumstances, I’ve found there are five helpful questions that can be applied to any given situation. 

The first is: what are my colleagues feeling?

It is particularly interesting to get a view from team members who tend to be the most cautious and most gung-ho respectively, as well as from those who would be most directly affected by the decision. 

Another key thing to consider is whether the delivery truck can keep up with the development engine.

It’s important to have the implementation capacity to back up a successful bid – otherwise there is a risk of negatively impacting staff wellbeing and morale, or the reputational damage that comes from bumpy implementation.

This swiftly leads to: what are our chances of success?

On some occasions you might know that submitting a bid represents a really long shot, and it could be better to direct the time and energy that a submission will take into something else.

It is also vitally important for organisations to critically think about whether they can deliver the quality they are proud of within the financial envelope.

If the answer to this is no, it should mean either walking away, or accepting making a loss on the contract.

This brings me to perhaps the most important question of all: how much do we want it?

There are times when the strategic benefits of securing a contract weigh so heavily in the balance as to justify finding a way to overcome concerns regarding competition, capacity or finances.

This might be particularly true when it looks likely to open up further opportunities in the future.

Bromley, Lewisham & Greenwich Mind has grown significantly over the past few years, with income, activity, geography and staff team all expanding – but maybe this is partly because of, rather than in spite of, the opportunities we have walked away from. 

There have certainly been a number of occasions when I have made the call not to bid for a service that I know we could deliver effectively, having given consideration to the questions above.

Maybe those are the ones that would have led to staff burning out or commissioners losing confidence in our ability to deliver. 

Ultimately we will never know, but I certainly feel comfortable being a person who is prepared to let things go from time to time.

Ben Taylor is chief executive of Bromley, Lewisham & Greenwich Mind

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