When “Yes” Means “No”

IMG_5181My son Jonathan (co-author of The New Breed) and I just spent nine days in Kampala, Uganda, training leaders from the university, youth organizations and churches on how to engage volunteers. These leaders were full of hope and passion, and they had great questions.

One of the questions stumped me at first, but then it turned out to be a valuable learning experience for me as well as the class. I had just talked about how one of the seven deadly sins of recruiting is to assume that “no” means “no.”  I had asked what “no” often means and expected answers such as “not now,” or “not this position,” or “not with the present leadership.”  But I wasn’t expecting this answer.  One of the leaders said,

“Tom, in Uganda, people don’t say no when you ask them to volunteer.  They say “yes” out of respect for you, and then they just don’t show up.  How do you handle that?”

 My immediate response was, “Tell me how you are handling it.”  The person asking the question was too smart for that response. He answered, “We are struggling with that problem.  We want to hear from you how to deal with this ‘Yes means No’ volunteer.” I was caught—I had to have an answer.

Before you read on—think about how you would respond to that question.

As I regrouped, I asked the class to talk about the people who do say yes and actually show up. I inquired why they show up, and then we began to form a strategy to get a yes that means, “Yes, I’ll be there.”

The leaders in the class pointed out that most people volunteer because they want to be a part of something big that has significant impact. They love big events and love to be with all of their friends to help out in an event. One of the leaders shared that the week before our workshop he had organized a medical clinic.  Doctors from the U.K. and U.S. had spent ten days volunteering their time helping thousands of people with medical needs. He had recruited hundreds of volunteers from his church for the 10-day event, and it was a huge success.  Then he said, “I have no problem getting huge groups of people to show up for an event like this.  But when I am looking for someone to volunteer on a regular basis for some of our weekly needs, I have a difficult time getting volunteers.”

As I listened, I was reminded of the U.S. episodic volunteers who love the event but don’t want to volunteer weekly as a tutor, serve at a food bank or attend a monthly board meeting.

Uganda leaders are facing some of the same episodic trends that we are facing in the U.S., but they have a different cultural situation.  In the U.S. we aren’t afraid to say, “No!”  U.S. volunteers are blunt—especially on the two coasts.  My experience is that in the southern states they are more courteous and will politely still say, “I’m so sorry.  I just can’t do that now.”  But that is still a no.  But the wonderful, respectful people in Uganda will say “yes” in order to not offend us to our face, but then not show up.

We began to focus our discussion on the people who would commit to long-term volunteering.  And it was obvious in a few moments they were the people who had a passion for the mission of the organization and felt that they could help in some way.

As I listened I was able to give them several tips to get a yes to mean yes, and also help U.S. directors of volunteer turn episodic volunteers into highly committed, regular volunteers.

First, when you ask a person for a very specific role that they can fulfill, you value that person.

We all like to be valued.  And when you recruit a person because you value their skills and their time, you increase the probability that their “yes” will mean “yes.”

Second, if I use a professional title I am more likely to get a yes that means yes.

I use the title of the position without the adjective “volunteer” before the title.  Instead of asking a graphic artist to be a “volunteer graphic artist,” I seek a talented professional to be our “Graphic Artist.”  If I’m looking for a project manager, I title the position “Project Manager,” not “Volunteer Project Manager.” In Kampala a huge percentage of people are out of work, and they respond to a title that will add to their resume such as “Project Manger,” “Translator,” or “Trainer.”

And third, I encouraged them to look at their huge event as a “first date.”

The Uganda leaders loved the dating concept of recruiting.  When we use one of our big events to work along side the volunteers, we are in a position to observe which ones would be good long-term volunteers.  And remember that when we ask that person for a second date, we are saying to that person, “I liked the first date and want to work along side you in a future partnership.”  We all like that.

We had a great discussion.  I’ll be back in Uganda in February, and I am eager to hear if “yes” is beginning to mean “yes.”

This entry was posted in Leadership, Recruiting, Volunteer Engagement. Bookmark the permalink.

One Response to When “Yes” Means “No”

  1. Cherie Redden says:

    Loved this blog!! Somewhere, somehow the concept of making the volunteer position important and valuable got through to me…and it worked in staffing a Children’s Ministry over the years. I’d love to hear how the ‘yes really meaning yes’ turns out. Please continue to blog.

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