A Closer Look into Museum Volunteers and Volunteer Programs

Added to Medium, January 25, 2018

Museum workers are valuable to museums, especially those who volunteer their time to help the museums run. During my experience as a museum educator, I have worked with volunteers as well as participated in professional development programs about volunteers and volunteer programs.

As I am in the middle of helping rewrite the Three Village Historical Society’s docent manual, I thought about my previous experiences and professional development I participated in. In one of my previous blog posts, “Professional Development Programs: Managing Your Museum’s Online Reputation and Evaluating Volunteers and Volunteer Programs”, I wrote about my previous experiences working with volunteers and working as a volunteer in my early career. A couple of my most recent experiences working with volunteers were previously managing volunteers for school programs at the Long Island Museum, and writing down records of sailing tour hours at the Long Island Maritime Museum.

At the Long Island Museum, I oversaw scheduling volunteers to assist with larger school programs based on their availability and discussed with them what the students got from the lessons. Then at the Long Island Maritime Museum, I volunteered for a school tour, collected admission for a Boat Burning event, Past Perfect data entry and preserving books by scanning pages, and working at the visitor services desk. Based on my perspective, I can understand what volunteers need to complete their goals as well as making sure their work accomplishes work museums’ need to accomplish their mission.

To make sure we understand what we should expect from our volunteer programs, it is important to learn from colleagues through professional development programs and written information such as books and articles.

One of the professional development programs I attended was the American Alliance of Museums’ EdComVersation. The EdComVersation I attended was called “Evaluating Volunteers and Volunteer Programs” with several presenters giving case studies of how volunteer programs are run at different museums or organizations. Each case study provide advice on how we can run our volunteer programs and make sure we utilize volunteers’ time to everyone’s advantage. Museums should evaluate the volunteers and the volunteer programs since evaluations can help give volunteers information they need to do better work and can help museums nab problems early (problems with program or problem volunteers). Also, by evaluating volunteers and volunteer programs it conveys appreciation and reinforce value of volunteers; motivates volunteers to do both their personal best and give positive impact on the museums; and it allows museum to improve volunteer program.

Another resource that is good to learn about managing volunteer programs and working with volunteers is a book Recruiting and Managing Volunteers in Museums: A Handbook for Volunteer Management by Kristy Van Hoven and Loni Wellman. In their book, Van Hoven and Wellman discussed what museum volunteers are and the importance of museum volunteers especially today. Van Hoven and Wellman gave solid advice on volunteer recruitment, communication, and retention strategies. They answered various questions about volunteers including: What are new volunteers looking for? How can you develop a successful relationship with potential volunteers? How can your museum support a robust and active volunteer program? How do you reward volunteers and keep them for the long term? How can you meet volunteers’ needs and still benefit from their work?

Their book also provided sample documents for managing volunteer programs. It has a sample of a volunteer job description and a volunteer application. There are also samples of volunteer interview questionnaire, volunteer evaluation forms, recognition letters, and certificate of recognition. I have also found another resource that is helpful with museum volunteer programs.

The resource I found is a technical bulletin called Building a successful museum volunteer services program written by Robbin Davis who is a Volunteer and Marketing Manager at the Oklahoma Museum of History. According to Davis, the questions that volunteers think about when considering volunteering at a museum are: how do they fit into the picture, how can they be useful and how much time will it take? Can they give tours? Can they work with artifacts? Can they interact with the public? Are there social activities? Does it cost?

Davis also went into specific details about how to build volunteer programs. For instance, Robbin discussed incorporating the mission statement in the volunteer program. In the bulletin, it stated that

A mission specific to the Volunteer program should frame the program within the context of the overall museum mission. Make sure it is attainable and a staff decision. If the volunteer program is already established, let the volunteers help create the mission or “freshen” up an existing one.

By incorporating the museum’s mission, potential volunteers will be able to see how they would be able to contribute to the museum and what the museum stands for.

The technical bulletin also discussed the importance of having a volunteer reference manual, marketing materials to promote the volunteer program, and forms for volunteers to fill out. Also, it stated that there are important questions that need to be asked as a volunteer program is being developed such as

Who does your museum serve? What is the volunteer history of the museum? Have there been volunteers before? How were they utilized? What kind of program was it? Was it effective? Why? Why not?

When museum staff figure out the answers to the previously stated questions, they will be able to have an effective and successful volunteer program that will generate dedicated volunteers to help museums fulfill their missions.

Museum volunteers are significant in helping museums function. Volunteers have skills that can be useful in various aspects within the museums’ departments. By focusing on establishing a successful volunteer program, museums are able to not only provide opportunities for positive experiences for volunteers but they will be able to promote your organizations.

What is your relationship with your volunteers like? What ways does your organization recognize its volunteers?

Resources:
Van Hoven, Kristy and Loni Wellman, Recruiting and Managing Volunteers in Museums: A Handbook for Volunteer Management, Lanham, Maryland: Rowman & Littlefield, 2016.
“Professional Development Programs: Managing Your Museum’s Online Reputation and Evaluating Volunteers and Volunteer Programs”
Building a successful museum volunteer services program

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