Working in the non-profit field can sometimes make you feel like an athlete. Your coach (or immediate supervisor) is calling the plays. The fans of your team (or donors, volunteers, and members) are yelling at you from the sidelines on what they think you need to do. Your teammates (fellow co-workers) have their own opinion on strategy and if not following the play as outlined by the coach, might try to take you down a different path. And, as the athlete, you have your own perspective of what you need to do. With so many voices coming at you from many directions, who do you listen to?

This has been a dilemma we all face as we grow through our professional career. Early in my career, I hung on the words of my immediate supervisor because let’s face it, none of us want to get into trouble by not listening to our supervisor with the fear of losing our employment. But those voices… they grow larger over time and as you grow professionally, you look towards those other voices for advice and guidance.

But, which voices should you listen to and which voices should you ignore?

I have a litmus test for the advice people give me. It isn’t a perfect test, but it works for me most of the time and additionally, I am not shy about sharing this litmus test with people who throw ideas my way. It goes, basically, like this:

1. Is the idea mission-related?

It seems pretty straight forward. If the idea doesn’t fall in line with your mission or advance/promote your mission, why would you consider doing it? But, inevitably, what can happen, and usually does, is that a major donor, board member or key volunteer has an idea and we feel obliged to implement their idea. Instead, what we should be doing is listening to their idea and asking them, “How do you feel that this fits with our mission?”

2. Do we have the time to make it happen?

After we determine that the idea is mission-related, we need to start looking at the feasibility of implementation in terms of manpower. How much staff time will this take? If we have a volunteer run with it, how much staff oversight will be required?

3. Do we have the financial resources to make it happen?

After we determine that the idea is mission-related and that we have the manpower to implement the idea, now we have to look at the money. How much will this idea cost the organization? Is there a revenue stream that will offset some of these costs?

If you determine that the idea is mission-related, you have the time, and you have the financial resources to make it happen, then start going down the road of moving forward with the idea. However, if you say that the idea is mission-related and you have the time, but you do not have the financial resources, you have to ask one last question:

4. Is it worth raising the capital or securing the donations to bring the idea to life?

What I like about this strategy is that it allows me to be very transparent in terms of how I make decisions for the organization. I can have open discussions with the people bringing these ideas to me and run them through the litmus test with the them.

One of the hardest things to do is to tell someone important to your organization that while their idea has merit, it doesn’t align with what we are working to accomplish. But leadership isn’t about saying yes to every idea that comes your way, leadership is about making decisions that keep your organization or business focused. And, just because I tell you “no” it doesn’t mean that I don’t like or admire your idea, it just means that it isn’t a good fit for us at this time.