Tools for nonprofit leaders: Dealing with objections

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Too often when we ask a member to volunteer his or her time and talent we are greeted with "objections": no time, no interest, maybe next year. This article offers suggestions on how to turn objections into YES.

1. Never ask a YES or NO question

Asking a yes or no question makes it very easy to say no. Always ask a question that relates to different choices. For example, "If you were to volunteer with us, would you prefer to serve on a committee or on a short-term taskforce?" If the answers comes back, "I haven't decided to volunteer yet," then ask, "Would you consider a single task project or perhaps something you could do from your home computer?" The idea is to get the respondent to think about the possibilities rather than shut you down with a no.

2. Pre-empt obvious objections

If you know in advance what objections a member will likely raise, pre-empt them by responding to the objection. For example, you could say, "A number of members feel they do not have time to serve on committees. Because we need their ideas and talents, we make special arrangements to take advantage of the limited time they can offer. In some cases, we involve them in small projects where they can work from home. In other cases, we ask them to serve on one-issue taskforces that deal with a question that requires as little as one meeting or teleconference. What level of involvement would work best for you?"

High performance organizations that need volunteers create special opportunities for those who have objections that need to be overcome. If you provide a brief volunteer opportunity that proves to be a positive experience, the likelihood that your member will accept a next task or eventually a volunteer position increases with every encouraging experience.

3. Tackle several objections as a group

If after approaching a member to get involved you get a trilogy of objections: "I don't have time since my job requires serious overtime; I volunteer with other associations and my children are in sports," you could respond by stating, "If we could overcome these barriers would you be open to considering a opportunity to volunteer that you could accommodate?"

4. Recognize an excuse versus a genuine objective

An excuse is an explanation that the member does not want you to find a solution for; an objection is a real circumstance that needs to be overcome with special considerations. For example, if your respondent gives you the excuse that, "My boss won't give me the time to volunteer," you could try asking, "Could you give us a few hours a month in the evenings from home?" That could generate a, "My family needs me the few hours I am home in the evening." My guess would be that this member does not want to be persuaded.

Objections look more like barriers that can be overcome. In the next section we explore some of the more popular objections.

5. Popular objections and how to respond to them

"I don't have the time."

We all are given the same amount of time: 24 hours each day. How we choose to spend those hours is our choice. So when someone presents the objection, "I don't have time," you need to address the issue of time directly. An effective retort is, "Would you be willing to explore contributing just a few hours monthly or would you prefer a one-time task that also would only take a few hours?" If they say they are not sure, ask "how many hours in a month would be reasonable for you - even if you can only give us one hour per month - our organization needs your talent and we depend on volunteer leadership to succeed."

Another approach is to inquire if someone else from that member's organization could volunteer.

"We tried that before."

When people give the "we've tried that before" answer, it is wise to ask about their experience. Listen attentively and then proceed to explain how circumstances are different now and why you believe it is viable to entertain the idea in light of this new set of circumstances. Ask them to help you explore the idea without committing to it.

"I'm too type A to tolerate the committee process."

Some people are just not natural team players, and yet they have something to contribute. Give your type A member a project that s/he can deliver solo. Writing or editing articles or web content are examples; so is doing research.

"I've never done anything like this before."

If you are asking a member to volunteer as part of a team to organize an event, ensure that a "buddy" will be assigned to work with him or her and help him or her learn what needs to be done. If you are asking someone to join a committee or your board, provide a detailed orientation with written documents that s/he can refer back to. And follow-up to see how the experience is going; don't wait until they quit because they didn't feel supported.

"I don't see how we can make a difference."

Many people do not appreciate the power of one. In the years that your organization has been in operation, you must have numerous examples of how members' efforts made a measurable difference. Be sure to have these examples on the tip of your tongue - or the tongue of the person doing the volunteer recruitment.

6. Listen for trust issues, bad experiences, or fear of change attitudes

When people give you objections, probe to find out what is behind their objections. It may be that the individual has had a bad experience with volunteering - not necessarily with your group. If you can persuade him or her to share the experience with you, ask what you could do to ensure circumstances will be positive in your new opportunity and then do it.

In some cases, members resist change. In such circumstances, it may assuage them to know that you have carefully weighed the impacts of change and how it seems likely that the new approach has a high chance of success. However, if they resist too much, let it go. You do not want to give them the impression that you would accept their contribution of a single focus on "why not" because of past experience. The "devil's advocate" is usually self-appointed and rarely constructive or morale-inspiring.

7. If you have to concede, leave a door opened

There are circumstances when the objections presented are real barriers - at least for now. When your efforts to overcome the objections prove unsuccessful, leave a door open for a next opportunity to try again. You could say, "I appreciate that now is not a good time for you to volunteer with us; could I contact you again in the futur - say in six months?"

8. Dealing with objections when you cannot respond to them

If your invitation to volunteer is in print or on your website, you will not be able to respond to the reader's objections. In that case, you want to anticipate them and respond in a positive light. For example, you could publish: "No time to volunteer with ACNE Association? We are looking for volunteers who can devote one hour per month. That's a promise." Then you must make it so.

In summary, acknowledge objections, present solutions, and remember to sell the benefits of accepting a volunteer opportunity.

If you know of other tips on how to handle objections, we would like to hear from you.

Paulette in President of Solution Studio Inc., a consulting practice that serves the not-for-profit association community. Paulette co-authored two manuscripts on risk management & not-for-profit organizations and regularly conducts risk management, strategic planning and board development workshops. She can be reached at 1-877-787-7714 or

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