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Don’t Just Say ‘No’

Don’t Just Say ‘No’

April 23, 2024
Howard Cohen

A Dialogue

Board chair [Susan, four years in position]:  

Good morning, Dan. Thanks for rearranging your schedule to meet me this morning. I’ll try to keep to our regularly scheduled time in the future, but I know you want to get started planning the year ahead.

Executive director [Dan, new to the organization (a small nonprofit community service agency); first one-on-one meeting with the board chair since being appointed]:  

This worked out well for me, Susan. You’re right. I didn’t want to delay our beginning to work together.

I want to get off to a good start with the organization’s staff. I’ve sensed some dissatisfaction with the office physical environment that may be affecting the staff’s morale. 

At first glance I can see why they think the office looks and feels quite run down. Honestly, it is very drab and the furniture is quite shopworn. I would like to use some of the money in the reserve account to paint the office and replace the furniture. Before I go ahead, I’m asking for your and the board’s approval.

Susan:  Tell me more, Dan. What furniture do you want to replace? How much of the reserve fund are you proposing to spend?

Dan:  I’m thinking of a complete upgrade to the furniture: new desks, chairs and side chairs for all 15 of us; a new conference table with chairs; a sofa and side chairs for the reception area and new paint and carpet everywhere. 

It will give us a more professional look and let the staff know they are valued. And I think our clients will feel that they are being served by a first-class organization.

There is about $100,000 in the reserve account, Susan. I would like to use up to $75,000 of it on the upgrades. 

Susan: I agree that the office looks a little shopworn, Dan. However, we need to think carefully about this. Using three quarters of our reserves at the beginning of the year won’t leave us much flexibility if something unexpected comes up.

Dan: I see that. We could agree that if we don’t need the reserves for an emergency by mid-year we could go ahead and start the project.

Susan: My concern is whether this is the best use of the reserve funds. Is the office upgrade our highest priority? Over the years for the most part we’ve only tapped our reserve funds for expenses that aren’t optional. Some expenses must be committed immediately. At times we have made investments from the reserve fund to generate new revenue. 

On a budget as tight as ours, we need to think about how to make wise investments that will show a financial return. I’m open to being persuaded, but in my view office furniture is more an expense than an investment.  But if it is an investment, as you say, is it the best investment we could make with $75,000 this year?

Dan: I don’t have a good answer to that question right now. Susan, I guess it’s part of being new to the organization and not fully aware of its history. However, I’m concerned about staff morale right now, which is why I’m bringing this up to you.

Susan: Of course. I don’t expect to resolve this today, Dan. I would like you to take two weeks to do a little research. We can come back to this issue at our next scheduled meeting.

I would like you to consider, for comparison purposes, a $75,000 investment in our annual giving program. What would that look like and what might we expect as a return on that investment? Maybe some of that projected increase could be applied to the operating budget for a gradual office upgrade.

When we meet in two weeks at our regularly scheduled session, let’s talk about what you have discovered and see if we can come to some agreement about the use of the reserve funds, or other new revenue, if that money is available at mid-year. If there are other options we should look at, let’s do that as well. I’m confident that we can work something out.

Once we have a plan, we can take another look at our resources at mid-year and decide what to do.

Dan: Thanks, Susan.  I’ll look forward to our discussion. And thanks for this meeting with me. I know how valuable your time is.


  • “No” is a dead end; offer alternatives.
  • Try to make a rejection a learning experience.
  • Keep the dialogue open; schedule the next meeting.


Howard Cohen

Howard is chancellor emeritus at Purdue University Northwest. His career in higher education has spanned more than 50 years. His areas of practice include strategic and academic planning, department chair leadership, leadership team development and organization structural transformation. Howard has held academic appointments as a professor of philosophy and administrative appointments as department chair, program director, dean, provost and chancellor, serving at the University of Massachusetts-Boston, the University of Wisconsin-Parkside, the University of Wisconsin-Green Bay, Purdue University Northwest and SUNY Buffalo State. He formerly was a senior associate and executive director of AASCU Consulting, a group that works primarily with public regional universities. Howard’s teaching and research interests have focused in the areas of social philosophy and ethics, as he addresses questions related to the obligations of those in positions of authority who make decisions for others. He is the author of two books — “Equal Rights for Children” and “Power and Restraint: The Moral Dimensions of Police Work” — and numerous journal articles. He holds a bachelor’s degree in philosophy from the University of Minnesota and masters and doctorate degrees in philosophy from Harvard University.