More on the Volunteer’s Lament: Best Way to Say No Thanks, How to Follow Up, and Lessons from Our Volunteer Community

In a recent post here at Engaging Volunteers, I reported on the tribulations of volunteer James S., who couldn’t understand why he wasn’t getting calls back from his volunteer referrals at VolunteerMatch.

While I encouraged him to be patient and keep searching for the perfect opportunity, I also shined the light on volunteer managers who were failing to follow up in a timely fashion with each and every referral that comes their way.

Why is a prompt “No thanks” better than nothing? Well, it keeps the bruise a rejected volunteer might feel from becoming a gaping wound that might turn someone off from service completely. More importantly, getting into the habit of saying “No thanks” is important because it conditions you as a nonprofit to becoming comfortable with the idea that the goal shouldn’t be finding any volunteer – it should be finding the right volunteer.

Turns out that while the idea that a timely response is good, many readers weren’t sure about the best way of turning down a prospect, and we got some great feedback:

Wrote reader Marissa, “It’s hard to do that when a nonprofit is afraid of leaving a bad taste in someone’s mouth…  when people are unsatisfied customers, they tell approximately 8 people.” But she added: “I’ve gotten feedback from people who’ve been impressed with the fact that I have followed up with their interest, due to other nonprofits ignoring their interest or not utilizing them.”

Rachel Eldridge wrote, “They may be frustrated but hopefully they won’t take it so personally. Also I find it helps if I have some other suggestions, agencies that I know take a wider group of volunteers.”

Reader Kathy Campbell, who has managed volunteers in a hospice setting for more than a decade, reminded us getting to “No” is really the path to finding someone who is the right fit: “When you use the valuable assessment skills that got you the job in the first place to point the volunteer in the right direction, everyone wins… If the person has skills and talents which are better suited elsewhere, I’m not shy to offer an alternative volunteer site.” she wrote.

Volunteer program consultant Jill Friedman Fixler had some good tips about timing on rejection. If you feel a candidate isn’t going to work out, the screening meeting or call may not be the best time to share that:

It isn’t a good idea to reject them in the moment as it can be stressful for them and potentially unsafe for you if you are doing a face to face and you don’t know how they will react. Send a letter thanking them for their time and tell them that you did not determine that there was a match. You can always refer them to to find another option…. This will satisfy most applicants. In 22 years as a volunteer director, only three asked for feedback as to why they were not placed. I reiterated that there was not a match. As for older adults; frankly, I don’t think they should be treated any differently. This is a process that shows respect and dignity, honoring the time the volunteer wants to give.

Finally, lots of readers point out common courtesy goes both ways: volunteers need to be reminded about the importance of getting back to nonprofits that have followed up, as well as following through on their commitment as volunteers.

James’ Story, Continued

So what about James S., our volunteer? Sadly, this isn’t a story that ends well.

After encouraging James to give his search another chance, I searched on VolunteerMatch and found what I thought was the perfect match for him based on his skills and interest. I sent him the link to the opportunity. He agreed it looked good. A few days later I received this reply:

I suppose this isn’t what you want to read, but here it is. Last Friday, at your suggestion, I utilized VolunteerMatch to contact the organization. As of this evening I have not heard back from them…. Little did I know that trying to be nice was so discouraging.

Let this be a lesson to all of us!

Learn More in a VolunteerMatch Webinar

You can learn more about best practices in follow-up and saying no (among other things) in VolunteerMatch’s free Web training, “Skilled Volunteers: How to Maximize their Potential.” Jennifer Bennett, our Volunteer Program Manager, leads the session. The next one takes place on October 20, at 11 AM PT/2 PM ET.

Sign up here to register your spot in this free training.

You can also check out our Learning Center for other great trainings for volunteer recruiters and managers.