Get the Confidence to Sell Your Ideas

“Ideas are a dime a dozen. People who implement them are priceless.”

Getting Board Buy-InWhatever your feelings on her pink Cadillac, the above quote from pioneering businesswoman Mary Kay Ash perfectly encapsulates the struggle of the “great idea.” Thousands of amazing ideas are born every day, but they fail to go anywhere.


They lack the support of champions passionate enough to make these ideas a reality. After all, unless you win support for your idea, from people at all levels of your organization, it may fail to deliver on its promise. Recent research shared in the Harvard Business Review showed that 70% of all organizational change efforts fail, and one reason for this is executives simply don’t get enough buy-in, from enough people, for their initiatives and ideas.

Securing buy-in from others can prove intimidating under even the friendliest circumstances but it’s something that happens throughout an organization. Technology teams have to get buy-in from their leadership. Senior leaders across an organization have to get buy-in from C-level executives. Nonprofits then often have the additional step of selling their ideas to their board for final approvals.

How can you get the ball rolling? The Harvard Business Review article “Get the Boss to Buy In” provides a series of useful tips, each of which translates directly to the nonprofit world. Whether you’re a front-line staff member who has identified an opportunity through daily interactions with your membership or a C-suite executive steeped in the annual planning process, these seven techniques can help you build support and gain traction

1. Tailor Your Pitch

Who are you talking to? Understand your audience including their goals, values and their frame of reference to shape the presentation of your idea and ensure it resonates. Use clear, concise, easily understood language that’s relevant and timely. Understand the key performance metrics that will matter most and back up your idea with data and research including details from your constituent management and engagement platform, CRM or AMS.

2. Position Your Idea in Context

Where your idea ends up on a list of priorities depends largely on how it’s positioned with your target audience of decision makers. How does your idea contribute to the vision, values and strategic goals of your organization? Will it help existing programs or create value for existing efforts around constituent acquisition, engagement and retention efforts?

Once your leadership team sees how idea contributes to the big picture, they’ll be more willing to devote resources to it. Consider:

  • Creating a sense of urgency, with the idea presented as an opportunity that shouldn’t be missed.
  • Highlighting a threat—a consequence of not adopting your idea—to create pressure to act.
  • Bundling your ideas with related ones.

Also, take the time to position your idea in terms of how it supports not only your organization but the experience of your members or donors. This helps you articulate how executing on your ideas will support your organization’s biggest asset: its constituents.

3. Manage Emotions

Passion, if appropriately expressed, improves your chance of capturing attention and triggering action. However, beware of coming across as angry. Your idea may have come from frustration with the status quo but decision makers who detect negative emotions from subordinates offering even constructive criticism tend to perceive those employees as complainers.

4. Get the Timing Right

Timing really is everything. Be mindful of organizational priorities and broader market trends.  Too, recognize deadlines. If, as Harvard notes, “an idea relates directly to an imminent product launch or software release, by all means speak up—now is the time to be heard. But as recent research shows, when a deadline is far away and decision makers are still in exploration mode, an open-ended inquiry can be more effective than proposing a specific solution.”

5. Involve Others

There is power in numbers. When it comes to selling ideas, one person may have access to important data, for example, and another may have a personal relationship with one of the top managers you’re trying to persuade. Experts in relevant areas add to your credibility. Be open to including others in the presentation of your idea and leverage their strengths.

6. Adhere to Norms

Understand and respect the process of how decisions are made. Provide the information that decision makers want in the manner they prefer it, be it through a formal or informal approach. While casual conversations may feel more comfortable, a formal approach can convey seriousness and apply helpful pressure on decision makers to take action, even if the ideas are innovative in nature.

7. Be Prepared with Solutions

Respect their time and yours. If you’re prepared to introduce an idea or raise an issue, be prepared to suggest thoughtful fixes. Introducing a solution signals that you’ve put considerable thought into the issue and shows a level of due diligence to those being presented to. If you aren’t yet prepared to recommend a solution, propose a path identifying one, with a cross-functional group that brings diverse knowledge, experience and expertise to the table.

Wrapping Up

Even with relentless preparation, presentation of your ideas takes guts. No amount of skill can completely remove the risks and potential disappointment associated with hearing the word, “No.” But using some, or all, of the tactics outlined above can help give you greater confidence and boost your chance for success.