Brock Yetso | Crain's Baltimore

In this ongoing series, we ask executives, entrepreneurs and business leaders about mistakes that have shaped their business philosophy.

Brock Yetso


For two decades, the Baltimore-based Ulman Cancer Fund for Young Adults has supported young adults with cancer and their loved ones. The Ulman family started the fund after their son, Doug, was diagnosed with cancer during his sophomore year at Brown University. Ulman provides college scholarships, sends “patient navigators” to help cancer patients at hospitals, purchases holiday gifts for families battling cancer and organizes volunteers to help patients.

The Mistake:

The biggest mistake, especially early on, was not saying "no" enough. Because we didn't say "no" enough to clients and potential partners, the Ulman Cancer Fund’s resources were spread thin.

It certainly applies in the nonprofit world more than in the for-profit world, but leaders and entrepreneurs in both often look at the world with an opportunistic mindset, and the glass is usually half full. Every opportunity is a golden opportunity, so we never want to say "no." And I've certainly had the experiences where I didn’t.

We have put on events for years, like one of our bike rides, and it became personal for me. I got into an organization helping young people with cancer for personal reasons, but in reality, after 10 years, the event ran its course. It was no longer in the best interest of the organization, but it became difficult to say, “No, this isn’t what we should be doing. We should be allocating time and energy to things that are going to help bring people together to raise more money.” I eventually was able to see that with the help of others, so we moved on.

We often get approached by people who want to do good. A lot of the time, they come to us because they have a loved one affected by cancer or they lost them. I remember you never say "no" to money. It’s how we do our work, and this individual had been impacted and he wanted to do some real good and make significant donations and raise money. But what he wanted to do over time just started to creep outside of what our core mission is. And it was just stretching us.

We call it mission creep in the nonprofit world, and I’m sure there’s other terminology that for-profits use. You see it all the time in businesses that stick to their focus and do very well at first and then they start to expand into other markets and do other things, and they creep away from what they do best.

You hate to get to that day when you have to say to the donor, “Listen, here’s what Ulman does, and we do it very well. Thanks for your generosity, but here’s how we can do it better, and so we’d love for you to continue as a supporter, but this is where we need to focus.”

The lesson is that the two-letter word 'no' is not a bad word.

The Lesson:

The lesson is that the two-letter word “no” is not a bad word. It’s actually one we should probably use more often in business because it enables you to stay focused on what you’re really good at. For the best service to your clients and to your customers, businesses have got to understand what they’re really good at and focus on that. I’ve learned over the years saying no sometimes can be the most important thing for you and your organization in achieving goals.

We have to do what’s aligned with our mission. We don’t do research. We leave that to medical institutions and the doctors. We don’t do clinical care. We help step in as an adviser when the cancer diagnosis comes and when people get back on their feet and prepare to live beyond cancer. So it’s emotional support, it’s financial support. It’s survivorship programming.

What we do is improve lives by helping young adults with cancer and improve survivorship. That’s what our core mission is, and everything that we do needs to fall within that.

The Ulman Cancer Fund for Young Adults is on Twitter at @UlmanCancerFnd.

Photo courtesy of Brock Yetso.

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