How to Turn Away Volunteers and Still Have an OK Day

Turning Away VolunteersWhat’s the absolute, no doubt about it, worst part of managing volunteers? For me, it’s turning away the ones that are just not a good fit – the ones that won’t work out in any of the roles that your program offers. After all, volunteers are donating their time and talents to support your cause. It’s hard to reject something given so freely.

I have had to reject hundreds of volunteers over the years. At first, the process was wrenching. I could feel my blood pressure rising every time I picked up the phone, knowing I was about to share news that was sure to disappoint. A conversation with an upset rejected volunteer had the potential to ruin my day.

I’ve got some guidelines

Over time and through trial and error, though, I came up with some guidelines for turning away volunteers that bolstered my confidence and allowed the applicant some space to process the bad news.

If turning away volunteers gives you heart palpitations, here are my basics for making the experience manageable.

  1. Don’t avoid: Putting off the phone call will probably heighten your anxiety and make it more difficult to deliver your message.
  2. CALL the volunteer: Your applicants deserve the consideration of a phone call. Don’t shirk your responsibility by resorting to an email or letter.
  3. Frame the conversation from the applicant’s point of view: Explain that, from your experience, the applicant will feel frustrated or unfulfilled in this position rather than rewarded.
  4. Don’t give reasons: Don’t share all the reasons why the applicant was turned away. Once you give a reason, the applicant has the opportunity to refute your assessment, leaving you in the position of defending yourself. You will leave the call feeling flustered and the applicant will feel more upset than ever.
  5. Show compassion: It is possible to deliver bad news in a caring way. Let the applicant know that you are sorry to share this information.
  6. Give your boss a heads up: Some applicants are going to take their displeasure up the chain of command. Make sure your supervisor is aware of the situation so that she can back you up.
  7. Vent after the call: These calls are difficult. Find a trusted co-worker and debrief after a tough conversation. You need the validation that you did something tough but essential.

Not fun – but important

Turning away volunteers is never fun. But turning away unqualified volunteers is the flip side of the management coin. It’s a signal that you are clear on who works for your program and who doesn’t. It means you see how an unqualified volunteer strains capacity when you are committed to keeping your program strong.

Volunteer managers – ramp up your influencing skills and ease those difficult conversations. My Six Principles of Buy-In will help you boost your influencing skills. Email me for the handout and worksheet, and I’ll add you to the Twenty Hats mailing list.  – Eli


  • Great suggestions!

    I’d like to add one to the list. Give the volunteer an assortment of organizations that might be a good fit for them. That way they don’t feel completely shut out, but now have some leads to follow for a more fulfilling gig.

    • Great suggestion, Nikki! It’s all about finding the right fit for a volunteer – even if that role is with another organization.

  • I recently had to turn away a volunteer who had been with our organization for almost 20 years. We had seen a decline in her ability to perform at the required level, which is continually increasing, but no one wants to be the one to “fire” a 20-year veteran. I was reminded in an entirely different venue that the work we do is too important not to do every piece of it exceptionally well. At that realization, it became impossible to ignore what needed to be done. We had a face-to-face conversation in which I was able to tell her how much she has meant to us for so many years, how much we love her, and why it is time for her to be released to share her gifts elsewhere. It was difficult, but less so that I imagined, and the relief from the concern about her performance made the decision to direct her elsewhere worthwhile. Doing the right thing pays off in the end.

    • It sounds like you handled the conversation with a lot of respect and compassion. Thanks for sharing your experience, Julie.

  • Yes, we learned the hard way that saying no is very important. Giving them leads for other places to look is great but don’t send them on a wild goose chase. You really don’t need to say more than that they were not the best match for the position and that you had a lot of great applications, but just could not take everyone. Getting into the “why” you did not think they were a great candidate is dangerous and they will come up with compelling arguments to counter your assessment.

    Having a clear position description which clearly states the qualifications you are looking for is obviously essential. We often need to turn down great candidates because they cannot make the commitment we need or match our scheduling needs.

    It is much more heart-wrenching to have to ask a badly matched volunteer to leave once they start.


    • I’m with you, Lois. It’s best not to get into the “why” in this type of conversation. And much better to turn away a volunteer at the start, before they become engaged with the program.

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