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So You’re Asked to Represent Your Community

An illustration of a woman lying down because she is over-capacity

3 Ways to Answer the Question, “Do I have capacity for that?”

By Uma Rao, Rainier Valley Corps Capacity Building Coach

In my work as a Capacity Building Coach, I have come to understand that at its core, my job often comes down to helping organizations and their leaders figure out how to find the resources in order to do more — or alternatively, how to help organizations do less when resources are not available or relevant.

Now, this sounds simple, but as you can imagine, it gets endlessly complicated. We as a sector need to better understand our actual capacity and how to work within it. On a personal note, I myself don’t just want to understand it — I need to understand it — in order to avoid burnout.

The burnout conundrum

When I talk to program staff and executives, a frequent topic of conversation that comes up when we address burnout is getting real about our priorities.

Unfortunately, it can be hard to do this, because we are pulled in so many different directions, and we often bounce between requests from our communities and requests from the “mainstream” agencies that also try to serve our communities. Another obstacle that takes us away from our main priorities are the times when we are asked to represent our community and educate others.

Consider these frequent asks that come to leaders/organizations serving communities of color: “Will you join XX task force?” (a long term commitment) or even “Will you speak on a panel/give us a training about your community at XX event?” (a short term commitment).

If you’ve worked in an organization specifically serving communities of color, no matter the field/expertise, you have received this request, right? Staffmembers often tell me that requests like this take up a lot of time  and so staffmembers are tempted to say no to requests, but they are worried that if they say no then somehow their community will miss out on an opportunity for greater visibility or be left out of important policy decisions.

I completely understand this struggle.

As leaders who work to advocate for our communities, we hold the weight of our community’s well-being and access to greater resources. We place a high amount of pressure on ourselves to be everywhere and to meet everyone’s requests because we want to serve the best interests of our communities.

However, as a  Capacity Building Coach, I want to challenge you to really consider which opportunities serve us and which ones do not. I urge you to answer this tough question because it’s important for us, people working in nonprofits that serve communities of color, to get better at saying NO to things or opportunities that don’t serve us or our communities.

I know what you might bethinking. You’re thinking, “That’s fine in theory, Uma, but when we work with communities of color, the sense of urgency can always feel high, which makes it harder to prioritize.”

You’re right! I completely understand this, too.

The ‘Do I have capacity for that?’ checklist

I offer you this: Three things to understand before you decide to say YES or NO to a new opportunity presented to you or your organization.

1. Rmember that not everything is urgent. I understand this gets tricky because you want to put your name out there and be at the table for important conversations, and it’s hard to know what is important — but here is a simple test for you to decide whether or not something is worth participating in. If you find yourself saying NO to more than 1 of these 3 questions, it probably means it’s not imperative for you to be there.

  • “Which tables are truly important in terms of impact?”
  • “Is my participation positively affecting my community?”
  • “Do I feel respected and honored for the work I’m doing? (aka, “Am I treated as an equal?”)

Also consider this question:

  • “How much do I have to code switch, and is it worth it?” (aka, “How much emotional energy is this taking from me in order to ‘advocate’ for my community?”)

I once heard B. Cole, Executive Director of Brown Boi Project, say on a panel that, in her workplanning she only accounts for 75-80 percent of her time. She leaves the other 20 to 25 percent open for real urgencies that come up for her community, and we all know they will. I thought this time allocation, down to the percentage breakdown, was brilliant! Remember, the bulk of a typical work day schedule should not be made up of “urgent” tasks.

2. Remember that not everything is equally important. My guess is that you’re asked multiple times from multiple people and organizations to serve on a task force or speak on a panel. It’s tempting to try to do them all — so how do you decide which to participate in? I suggest asking yourself the following questions when considering:

  • Is this task, project, or commitment directly related to our core programming?”
  • “How do these tasks relate to our mission?”
  • “Is this community-based? Am I learning more about or from my community?”
  • “Does this lead me to better serve or be more present with my community?”

How many times did you say NO to the above? Was it split down the middle? If so, also  consider the adjustments in internal operations needed to pursue an opportunity. Like, how much does it cost and how much time do you spend managing other people to do this work? Is the cost too great or is it pretty comfortable?

3. Know who you are. Understanding your organization’s particular mission, as well as its role in the landscape of services and advocacy efforts that address your community, is critical. In order to know whether or not an opportunity aligns well with your organization’s values, ask yourself:

  • “Is what is being asked of us what we do best?”
  • “Are there others that can do it better?”
  • “If it needs to be us doing it, what will it truly take to do this well and in service to our
  • community? Can we do that in this moment?”

Once you’ve gone through this checklist, you should have a pretty good idea of whether a request deserves an overall YES or a NO.

When it’s a YES, the dreaming and planning begins — yay! — and so does the hard work of finding resources (people, time, money) in order to do the work well. Still yay, right? You should be feeling good about this decision! (If not, then maybe it’s a good idea to revisit the checklist above.)

Now, if you go through the checklist and find that it’s a clear NO, then the hard work of saying NO happens. This can feel awkward for us, but you know what? Now that you’ve gone through the checklist, you understand all of the reasons that lead up to your NO, which will make it easier for you to explain to someone else and for the word NO to actually flow out of your mouth.

You will have talking points such as, “We don’t have capacity for that because it’s not what we do best. Our partners are better suited for this.” You might also say something like, “We don’t have capacity for that, because it’s not one of our core strategic priorities.”

In this sense, saying NO can feel as powerful as saying YES, because the NO is grounded in your truth! So go forth: Get clarity on your capacity and make a bigger impact on your community by prioritizing well and strategically!