The Break-Up: How to Say No to Volunteers

Upon hearing her younger sister Primrose selected as tribute, Katniss Everdeen steps forward and volunteers to take her place. However, what if she was told no?  Effie Trinket tells her, “Thanks, but no thanks.” Katniss would have been devastated as she watched her sister escorted off to the Hunger Games and the book/movie series would have turned out drastically different.

Volunteers can also get a similar feeling of devastation when they receive a “Thanks, but no thanks” from an organization they are involved with. We know every volunteer’s time and energy is valuable and you truly appreciate the work they do to help fulfill your mission to improve the world. However, when you are a volunteer-based organization, “No” is one word that no one wants to hear, but one that is necessary.

And really, this is a blessing in disguise—if you have too many volunteers wanting to help, it’s a good problem, but one you can’t ignore. The power of saying “no” can make your events run more smoothly and provide a better experience for the participants. After all, it may look bad if people are just standing around looking bored and not helping with logistics at your event.

It can sting for the volunteers knowing that you don’t need their help with your projects, so it’s important to handle that situation in the correct manner. Because when people are told “no,” it is easy for them to shut down, blame themselves and question their involvement in the organization.

Here are a few lessons to help you better tell your volunteers “no” when the time comes:

1. Make it Clear That This isn’t Personal

If done improperly, a volunteer can take the ‘no’ as a complete rejection of them as a person. You should explain the reasons why you are turning them away from either a leadership opportunity or just helping out at your organization. Be fair and be clear, and also be respectful. Also, try to be objective with your rationale. Did they sign up too late? Do other people have more experience? A different skill set?

You can work on saying “no” to make it easier for the volunteers. Explain your reasons and work to maintain the relationship. Give them feedback on how they can better improve their odds to help out next time. Just because you said “no” this one time, doesn’t mean you will say “no” every time.

2. Be Prepared to Offer Alternatives

All volunteers are valuable and you want to keep them active and engaged in your nonprofit’s work. Often the chance to shine comes down to finding where to make contributions and it might take a few tries for a volunteer to find their niche. If you feel they are lacking a necessary skill or trait, offer them training or the mentoring they need to improve themselves.

Your organization likely does more than one event. Instruct your volunteers to direct their efforts in other ways. Offer them the chance to pitch in on a different project or another leadership position. When you do so, make sure you are offering them specific tasks or projects to help with. The volunteers will remain interested and more engaged if they had ownership of the project.

3. Follow-Up with the Volunteers You Denied

After you’ve told them no, don’t just let them drift away, even if you provide them with other options. Be sure to reach out and touch base with them, especially if you have more opportunities to step up. Also, be sure to let them know that your door (or inbox) is always open.

If you don’t see them after a while, reach out via email or phone to let them know that you still think they can help out. But don’t be afraid to learn that they’ve moved on—sometimes volunteers do. If they find a new passion in life, that’s OK. You still made the best decision for your organization when you told them “no.” And if your nonprofit is doing its job right, you will inspire them to spread your mission even if it isn’t through your nonprofit’s direct work.

Whether you are dealing with a Katniss or a Primrose volunteer, let your volunteers know that you appreciate their contributions. After all, the reason we’re here is to help everyone start “Catching Fire” and change the world. 


Lincoln Arneal

Lincoln Arneal was a Senior Editor at Nonprofit Hub who brought loads of real-world nonprofit experience to the team. He was the past executive director of a nonprofit that provided leadership development to junior high and high school students. He looked to bring the insights from his time forming, developing, and running a nonprofit to help others in their quest to do good. Lincoln also had a legal background and had written for various newspapers (covering high school sports) for the past 15 years. He could be followed on Twitter at @NPLNK.

July 10, 2014

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