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Carlos took a deep breath and regarded Marty, a long term volunteer who stood before him. “Mr. Jansen really wants to visit his son in Philadelphia.” Marty said. “It’s only a four hour trip from here and I don’t mind taking him. We can do it in a day.”

Carlos thought about the organizational policies, trying to recall one that forbid volunteers from driving clients on long trips. “I’m not sure that’s such a good idea, Marty,” he said. “I really don’t know if we should do this.”

Leadership is about doing the right thing, even if it is the hardest thing to do personally and even if it puts you on the spot. As leaders of volunteers, we are faced with doing the right thing every day. We must weigh the right thing for our organizations, for our volunteers, for our vulnerable clients, for our communities and for us.

Being able to say no is sometimes the right thing to do. While our jobs pretty much paint us as the folks who always say “yes,” we must take into consideration the times we are obligated to say “no.” Some obvious examples are:

  • when a volunteer wants to break policy and jeopardize the safety of himself or a client
  • when a request for a volunteer puts the volunteer at risk
  • when a community service volunteer wants you to sign off on hours not spent volunteering
  • when anyone asks you to embellish volunteer hours

It’s easier to say no when strict policies back you up, or risk factors are obvious. But sometimes we have to say no, when policy is not a factor and the area is gray. Examples might include:

  • When someone requests a volunteer for a task that volunteers have strongly objected to
  • When a volunteer wants to initiate a project that will take precious time from mission related work
  • When you are asked to fill in for a volunteer on your day off and you already have plans

How do we artfully say ‘no?’ If we feel pressured to say ‘yes,’ or are backed into a corner, we might stutter and say something like, “I’m not sure.” A weak ‘no’ is really just a soft ‘yes.’ When saying no, you have to actually say no and not want to immediately take it back.

If you need to, ask for time to think on it. Say, “Let me get back with you on that,” so that you can formulate your response. Getting caught off guard seldom gives you the advantage of putting together a well thought out answer. Remember though, if you don’t get back to the person in a timely matter, they will assume your answer is yes.

Think of all the reasons you have to say no. It’s not because you just feel like being oppositional, it’s because you know there is a better alternative, or you have information the person asking the question does not have. Listen to your intuition and find all the whys that force you to say no, then explain the whys in decisive terms.

Present a suitable alternative. Explain why you are saying no, and offer an alternative. If say, a volunteer wants to bring a friend with them on assignment into a client’s home, you can say, “I’m sorry, but that is against our policy. The reason it is against our policy is because no one who has not been background checked and officially entered into our organization can enter the home of our client. (the why you’re saying no) This applies to staff and volunteers alike. I can offer your friend a path to becoming a volunteer so that he can accompany you on assignments. (the alternative) Let’s talk about how to make that happen.”

Steer the person towards the alternative. If a staff member wants you to find a volunteer for a task the volunteers have repeatedly said no to, you can say, “I will try, but our volunteers have said no in the past so I’m not likely to be able to fill this request. But, we do have volunteers willing to help you in other ways. Let’s discuss the ways they want to be of service and how they can support you.”

Be clear that a no is not personal. Leadership is about the mission and the team. Point out the mission centric reasons you must say no. “I understand that things change rapidly and that now you are asking for five additional volunteers for tomorrow. I will ask one of our experienced volunteers to make last minute calls and I know that every one of our volunteers who can commit, will commit, so you are in good hands. I however, must continue to work on the annual gala which is next week because volunteers are heavily involved and the gala is extremely important to our organization’s outreach.”

There’s a reason these responses sound an awful lot like “professional speak.” It’s because they are. Using professional speak is the way to stop others from viewing you as a lightweight, a yes person, a go-fer. Using professional speak forces others to communicate with you on a mission-related level and not on emotional or personal terms.

Feeling like you can never say no resides on emotional levels. Being able to say no in a professional way resides on logical, thoughtful levels. In order to take control of the conversation, use professional speak that centers on mission centric goals and steer the person away from trying to emotionally manipulate you.

You can put off a conversation until later when you have the time and energy to discuss it with focus. Take the volunteer who wants to initiate a program that takes time from mission related goals. You can say to that volunteer, “that sounds like an interesting proposal and one that you’ve given considerable thought to. I really want to give you my full attention, so can we set aside a time to discuss it when we can really focus on what you are offering?” Then set aside a time when you are not being bombarded from all directions and can thoughtfully discuss any ideas.

Saying no is not a failure on our part. It is actually an opportunity to control the direction of our programs and a chance to steer people towards a better way of engaging volunteers by offering more viable alternatives. When done with tact and professionalism, saying “no” can open doors to a better “yes.

A strong leader is able to say no in a way that assures everyone that the no means listening carefully, then a negotiation, or a revamping or an alternative.  Above all, it indicates a striving for excellence. And that already describes every volunteer manager.