When it comes to buy-in, how do you handle a “no”?

The more I blog and train on how to achieve buy-in for our volunteer programs, the more I realize that leading a volunteer program is not much different than running a business.

In both cases, your first step is to manage the objections of the person you want to serve.

If you’ve taken my workshop (or attended the webinar version), you know that I cover six principles of buy-in help bring others around to agree on our goals. We talk about things like: understanding the other person’s point of view, identifying common goals, and leveraging our allies.

As motivating and effective as these principles are, many times participants get stuck around the reaction that they anticipate.

They can’t figure out a good response to “no.”

For volunteer managers, a “no” response might look like this –

  • “The program staff won’t engage more volunteers because it takes too much time to train and supervise them.”
  • “My boss doesn’t want to expand our summer breakfast program because it will strain the budget.”
  • “My volunteers don’t want to sign in and out with the new online system because it seems complicated.”

Getting a no can seem like a hard stop – like a roadblock that’s impassable. And when we hear no, we think we’ve reached the end of our negotiations. It’s often the moment when we give up or think our project has failed.

But here’s the thing to remember about “no.” It’s generally not a refusal – it’s simply an objection. And objections are great, because then we have the information we need to work around them.

As I said, managing objections is part of running a business– without that skill, it’s nearly impossible to gain the clients that you want to serve. And I get plenty of objections to my coaching or trainings – statements like “I can’t afford it” or “I’m not sure this will help.” Those comments tell me that the potential client is interested but can’t get past a certain fear or concern. It’s my job to address those objections and show them how their investment will produce the results they want.

The same thing goes for you as a Leader of Volunteers. When you hear a no, recognize it for what it isan expression of doubt or fear.

Your job is to demonstrate the value of subscribing to your idea or project.

Think of it this way –

Your job is to solve the problems of others – your boss, your co-workers, and your volunteers. When you hear a no, treat it like an invitation to continue the conversation and solve the problem.

The “no” is your signal that it’s time to ask more questions.

Your questions might look like:

  • “What can I do to make the training time less of a burden for you?”
  • “What do we need to raise to expand the lunch program? If I figure out how to do that, are you willing to do a pilot?”
  • “What’s difficult about the online system? How can I make the learning easier for you?”

My guess is that questions like this will lead to more information – the information you need to collaborate and find a solution that satisfies everyone.

There is a great book on negotiation called “Getting More” by Stuart Diamond. It’s one of those volumes that is packed with useful advice. I’m reading it now and see all kinds of applications for the work of volunteer managers – you’ll want to check it out. One of my favorite passages addresses persistence, which when you get right down to it, is all about getting beyond the “no.” Here’s the quote:

“A negotiation is over when you say it is, not before. It doesn’t matter how many times the other person says no or disagrees with you, or gives you a hard time. Keep asking, stay focused on your goals (without making yourself the issue). Persistence, after all, is a focused effort, over time, to meet your goals.


If the other party bridles at your persistence, say something like, ‘Well, I’m just trying to meet my goals. Is there some way I could do this better?”

Perhaps, all you need for greater buy-in is a willingness to ask more questions. And who can say no to that?

Here are more tools to get around the “no”: My Six Principles of Buy-In will boost your influence in any situation. Email me for the handout and worksheet.  – Elisa