How Should We Say No?

by Jessamyn Lau

Last night I received an angry and frustrated reply to an email I had sent earlier in the evening. The entrepreneur it was from was highly critical of the decision of the PF to not fund his organisation, and the process used to come to the decision and communicate it.

Obviously the news was not what the entrepreneur wanted to hear. Though his email seemed to indicate that his reaction was also influenced by other situations and factors outside the PF’s interaction with him, a strong reaction like this is cause to look very carefully at what we do and how we do it.

The least fun part of my job is to let people know that the PF can’t fund them. Right now, I do this, on average, at least twice a week. Particularly when we’ve met the entrepreneur in person and begun some level of due-diligence it takes me a while to write those emails - usually about 30 minutes. Last night’s was no different as I tried to figure out the right level of clarity and explanation. I’m fairly confident that my response was candid, respectful and timely given the situation.

I’ve been doing this for just over 18 months - not long at all - and I’ve definitely gotten a few things wrong along the way, but these are the key points I’ve picked up so far:

1) Timely
Being timely with a response is fair and respectful. Sometimes you just *know* when you first visit a website that we aren’t going to be a fit. Other times you *know* half way through the due diligence process that you’ve found a deal-breaker. But there’s a definite point where you know you have to say no. Though often it would be easier to leave the no until another day, generally as soon as you’re sure is when it’s good to say so.

2) Clear
Clarity prevents misunderstanding, wasted time/energy, and continued time investment. Being absolutely clear that it’s a ‘no’ might seem harsh at first, yet if it prevents organisations using time and resources to continue pursuing funding that isn’t possible then that’s got to be better for everyone. This is something I’m still figuring out and attempting to determine what clarity really looks like in individual cases…

3) Respectful
I think people appreciate knowing that even though a funder may not be a good fit, they recognise and respect the achievements or value of the work the organisation is undertaking. Both of the above points add to showing the respect due to entrepreneurs we meet. And on top of that, infusing the due-diligence process itself with a respect for the time and capacity of the entrepreneur. For example, though each foundation/funder has a unique focus and criteria, the majority of things we look for are the same or very similar, so in most cases there is no need to request specifically created documents. Requesting documents as they have already been created either for the organisation’s own use, or for another funder (that they are willing to share) and then following up with more specific questions or a phone call to fill the gaps.

I think there’s a another key point around ‘usefulness’. Some of the funders we most respect leave all entrepreneurs better than they found them because of the diligence process and feedback. Yet, quite honestly, there are times when it is not constructive to go in to or list the entire reasoning behind why we’re not a fit for an organisation. So I’m still working on that one and how it best works.

So what do you think? Am I on the right lines? What other points are key to us interacting and communicating respectfully with entrepreneurs we talk with and conduct due-diligence on? We’d love your perspective from whatever angle of the situation you look at it.