What makes a good apology email for letting someone down?
October 2, 2023 10:27 AM   Subscribe

A few months ago, I committed to volunteering as part of a group that runs free game events. But I ended up questioning my ability to do a good job, and kept procrastinating on scheduling my first event. It's now been months, and I'm so embarrassed at having flaked out that I keep ignoring the volunteer coordinator's pings. When I try drafting a reply, I second-guess every sentence and end up not sending anything at all. I'd like an outside opinion on what a good "taking-responsibility" email looks like.

More background context:

- As part of the commitment, I got to jump the (months-long) queue to participate in a game. I feel especially embarrassed about this because I know it probably looks to the organizers that I'd made the commitment solely in order to get to participate in a game, without any intention of actually following through.
- I have (professionally diagnosed) social anxiety and generalized anxiety, which has gotten a lot better over the years, but which often manifests itself in avoidance.
- The group is affiliated with my employer, so there's the additional nuance that the email has to sound professional and workplace-appropriate, though I don't work with any of the volunteers or volunteer coordinators as part of my day-to-day work.

I feel it sounds awkward, unprofessional, and overly dramatic to cite mental health as the reason I've been AWOL, but it sounds even weirder not to include any reason at all. The only other excuse I can think of is having been particularly busy at work due to a time-critical project, which is true, though it's not the real reason, and it doesn't explain why I ignored the coordinator pings. What's the best way to contextualize my absence without sounding like I'm trying to make excuses or forsake responsibility?
posted by perplexion to Human Relations (12 answers total) 3 users marked this as a favorite
Hi Coordinator --

My deepest apologies for failing to reply to you over the past few months. As you may have surmised, I have been almost solely focused on a time-critical project for XYZ Corp. However, that project has now wrapped up/ will wrap up by 30 December, and I am available to honor my commitment to Game Co.

I am proposing to schedule Event 1 on 15 January and would love to hear your feedback, advice and guidance. Please let me know a time that will work for you to discuss and I will make myself available. Alternatively, I can suggest X date and Y date at 2 pm?

Best regards,

Most adults assume good faith on the part of other adults in professional work environments even when it all goes horribly wrong, and I genuinely don't think it needs to be more complicated than re-iterating your commitment and proposing the next step forward.
posted by DarlingBri at 10:42 AM on October 2 [6 favorites]

You can be even more vague in your note. “Sorry to have been out of touch, dealing with a health issue. I am feeling better and I can …”
posted by shock muppet at 11:27 AM on October 2 [2 favorites]

Do you want to reengage now or bow out entirely? Whatever it is, keep it succinct and unemotional. Don’t make the organizer feel like they need to comfort or reassure you.

If you want to reengage: “Sorry I’ve been remiss in responding to your emails. I overestimated my availability to volunteer the last three months. I am ready to get started now, can I do the shift on the 15th?”

If you want to bow out: “Sorry I’ve been remiss in responding to your emails. I overestimated my availability to take on this type of volunteering. I won’t be able to help in the future, can you take me off your email list?”
posted by scantee at 11:51 AM on October 2 [14 favorites]

When I've been on the other end of this, I'd much rather have heard about the mental health issues, because then I'd have known to check in more often, and maybe put a bit more structure around the whole thing. There's some risk that you'll continue to struggle with it, and it will be even less fun to have to send a second such email in that case :-/

If you'd rather not share your mental health situation with whoever this is (very understandably), then you could suggest that you'd like to walk them through your plan (with dates) and have a regular catch-up with them thereafter. Honestly that might be a good idea anyway.

It's also still possible to back out if you've realised you don't want to do it or won't be able to. Yes it's embarrassing, but volunteers flake ALL THE TIME due to the demands of their jobs, personal lives, mental health, biting off more than they can chew, etc. It's pretty unlikely that anyone will think you signed up in bad faith.

Whatever you decide to do, be kind to yourself! You're not the first and you won't be the last.
posted by quacks like a duck at 12:01 PM on October 2 [2 favorites]

I would use much simpler language and definitely not include mental health stuff.

"Hi Pontius, I wanted to check in because I owe you an apology for being incommunicado these past several months, after volunteering to help with the game scheduling. Some things came up that made it impossible for me to follow through as I'd wanted to. I'm so sorry, and I just wanted to let you know I didn't drop the ball on purpose."

Based on what you've said here about how much this has stressed you out, I wouldn't volunteer again.
posted by fingersandtoes at 12:22 PM on October 2 [10 favorites]

looks to the organizers that I'd made the commitment solely in order to get to participate in a game, without any intention of actually following through

Well maybe you did and maybe you didn't, but if you did that, would it be the end of the world? I don't understand exactly what kind of game this is, tied in with your work somehow, but I really suspect you think there's a catastrophe where there really isn't one.

Your diagnoses are things that you should keep in mind when you're deciding whether you can make certain kinds of commitments. They are not things that you should talk about as part of a non-apology when you've failed to meet a commitment you made. That's inappropriate and it could lead to all sorts of interactions you don't want, especially with coworkers. I think you just need to pick one of the two possible kinds of apology now:

1. I'm sorry I haven't answered your messages before now. I will be able to do [the thing] on [date] and I look forward to working with you then.

2. I'm sorry I haven't answered your messages before now. It turns out I was mistaken when I said that I would be able to do [the thing]. The reasons are complicated and I'm sorry I've caused inconvenience.

(I've found that "it's complicated" is a good shorthand for "I don't want to explain, please don't ask me to" and people generally understand and respect it.)
posted by fritley at 12:42 PM on October 2 [2 favorites]

I think all of these answers give you great flexibility to build a response that works for your exact scenario if you don't plan to provide more info re wanting to continue to volunteer NOW.
Even at work, people are used to volunteer attrition. I get how it feels like the spotlight is on you, but I doubt the other volunteers and coordinators feel this way.
(I just recently had family over and mentioned a "thing" I remember at night often. My husband's aunt had a birthday party we were all invited to potluck-ish style. We bought a yummy cake roll thing from a store. My kids were whining to eat cake so I cut them slices. I later realized we were using it as the aunt's birthday cake! Omg! Anyway the aunt barely remembered the birthday, everyone lovingly laughed at my anxiety dreams and told their own. I'll probably still think about it tonight. STUPID BRAINS)
posted by atomicstone at 12:56 PM on October 2 [1 favorite]

As someone who volunteers a lot and does a lot of corralling of other volunteers. Guess what? Volunteers, even the really good, dedicated ones, are often flaky and that's not going to be a shock to the volunteer coordinator. All you need to do is send a straightforward email with a brief apology (the reason really doesn't matter unless you want to plan an accommodation/plan B for any future issues) and your preferred next steps (scheduling something, dropping out, etc) with a note that you welcome their input on next steps if circumstances on their end have changed. Then actually do the next steps you collectively agreed on. If you're not sure you can, dial back your commitment until you're pretty confident you can do it, even if it's a much smaller scope than you originally envisioned.
posted by snaw at 1:02 PM on October 2 [1 favorite]

As much as you can, put aside your concerns that they'll think you signed up solely to jump ahead in line. You can't control what they think, and you likely won't know anyway. I think what's important here is that you were excited about that feature, but it wasn't the sole reason for your interest.

This is not an unforgiveable crime. You got in over your head, and now you're calling it. That's okay!

As for the apology, if you're letting them know you can't do it, here's some text that doesn't give reasons:
"Hello Coordinator! I owe you an apology. I vastly overestimated my capacity to commit to this [game volunteer project], and I have not been able to give it the time or attention it deserves. Unfortunately, I'm going to have to step down from this position. I'm very sorry for leaving you in the lurch. Is there anything you need me to do to assist with the transition?" (And then make sure to do whatever reasonable tasks they request.)

Or, if you truly able and eager to engage now, do this. But really think about it. Don't double down on the commitment if you can't manage it.
"Hello Coordinator! I owe you a big apology. I vastly overestimated my capacity to commit to this [game volunteer project] in the short term, and I have not been able to give it the time or attention it deserves. However, now that I've finished up a work project, I am eager to move forward in this role, if that will work for you. Again, I am very sorry for my lack of responsiveness. Is there a way to move forward at this point?"
posted by bluedaisy at 2:02 PM on October 2 [3 favorites]

I agree, as someone who works with volunteers a lot, this kind of thing is far from unusual and I highly doubt there will be hard feelings. Any of the good scripts here will work. The key is to be straightforward, clear and matter-of-fact.

Don't put them in a situation where they have to reassure or comfort you, or where they're having to wonder about or parse your intentions. If you want to start working on these things from now on, say so, and be specific about your dates and times. However, if you're not sure you can follow through, bow out clearly. People overestimate their availability/energy all the time, with the very best of intentions, and dealing with that is part of working with volunteers.
posted by rpfields at 2:57 PM on October 2 [1 favorite]

but it sounds even weirder not to include any reason at all.

There really is no way to include a reason without it sounding like an excuse. The important thing to communicate is that you feel badly about the way things went and that you either want to make it up to them now or make sure that it doesn’t happen again in the future.
posted by Tell Me No Lies at 12:04 AM on October 3

Sharing your anxiety issues with the crew doesn't seem appropriate.

Several suggestions up thread amounting to "I bit off more than I can chew. I won't be able to XYZ. I'm sorry for any inconvenience my offer may have caused" seem to cover the situation.
posted by mule98J at 8:03 AM on October 3 [1 favorite]

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