Can you just say “no?”

I’m lucky!  For the first time in my career as a leader of a volunteer program, I do not have to recruit potential volunteers.  There are numerous reasons for this – the economy, the local foods movement, heck, even the Baby Boomers.  Gardening is more popular than ever.  Not only are our potential volunteers qualified, they’re full of excitement, wanting to learn more about gardening, but to then share their knowledge with the community.  And here lies the problem – there are too many qualified people out there.

Our program has always had more potential volunteers than were accepted into the program, but in 2010, applicants were outstanding.  We received 67 applications, interviewed 65 of those applicants, but could only bring in 28 new volunteers.  Our program has reached capacity – we’re unable bring in too many new individuals until we do some restructuring.  We want our new volunteers to have a good experience, thus the smaller numbers.  Most interesting for us this year – people we normally would have brought into the program, we had to turn away.  Applicants were just that good!

Saying “no” is not only tough on the job, but also in our “real” lives, and not just for Minnesotans.  Even Oprah has come up with 54 situations on how to say “no” effectively (  When saying “no” to applicants in the past, I’ve always encouraged people to apply again in the future. I refer them to other horticultural organizations utilizing volunteers, and refer them to Hands On Twin Cities ( to find other volunteer opportunities.  Most of the time, I don’t get a response from those rejected, or I get a “thanks for letting me know.”  And then there’s the occasional “I’d like to grow from this, what could I have done better?”  This year was quite different.  Not only did I hear from 5 applicants “demanding” to know why they were not allowed into our program, I heard from 7 of our current volunteers expressing “concern” that their friend (or friends) wasn’t allowed into the program.  WikiHow does have some nice tips on how to say “no” respectfully ( however no one has really come up with the solution to saying “no” multiple times effectively!

For the majority of programs I’ve worked with, saying “no” has been easy.  Most of us are protecting our clients or customers, many of us are working with youth and vulnerable adults.  We can say “no” with confidence, knowing that we’re saving our organizations from legal fees and heartaches.  There’s a nice article at on why we should say “no” to a potential volunteer:  However, when you’re saying “no” to someone you know could do the job, but you just can’t utilize them at the moment, no one feels good!

The good news is that we have started the process to see how we can continue to grow our program in a cost-effective way (read: we’re not going to ask anyone for more money or staff.)  Just as the number of potential volunteers has increased, so has the number of community partners and residents wanting answers to their horticultural questions.  We can easily find meaningful work and the qualified individuals to do it.  However, one of our biggest obstacles in growing the program is meeting space for our monthly educational sessions.  Believe it or not, there are not many spaces in Hennepin County that can seat 225 individuals, don’t cost much, and have free parking!  I do believe our current volunteers are motivated to continue to grow our program, taking on more responsibilities to insure an enjoyable volunteer experience for everyone.

And maybe I’m just too much of a nice guy (after all, I have lived in Minnesota all of my life.) Then again, maybe this gardening thing will just fall out of favor and I’ll go back to having a recruiting plan!

Terry Straub, Program Coordinator

University of Minnesota Extension Master Gardeners in Hennepin County


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