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Helping Hands

Category: Community Engagement & Impact
Five drawn hands in different colors overlap on top of a black background.

This article originally appeared in the July/August 2010 edition of Museum magazine.

There are more volunteers than ever before—and museums need every one of them.

As museums soldier on through the recession, their dependence on volunteers—in steady supply during good economic times, downright heavy in turbulent ones—has only grown. While a reduction in opening hours and programming may have curbed reliance on certain types of volunteers, organizations say they are asking more of their unpaid workers—urging a greater time commitment and soliciting specific skills.

An unexpected silver lining to the recession is that many museums can be choosy, with some institutions thinking hard about new ways to put a glut of willing volunteers to work and others simply out of space to accommodate more. Inboxes containing applications for volunteer positions are overflowing at many institutions, and that may be driven in part by the nation’s higher-than-normal unemployment rate (9.7 percent at press time, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics), among other factors.

Lesleigh Gilmour, volunteer services manager at Houston’s Museum of Fine Arts, reports a spike in unpaid workers. From December 2008 to December 2009, more than 700 new volunteers gave time to the museum—some once, some repeatedly.

The Smithsonian Institution also has seen a surge of interest in volunteering. “I know when there is a recession
because applications go through the roof,” says Amy Lemon, coordinator of the Behind the Scenes volunteer program at the Smithsonian in Washington, D.C. (and a volunteer herself before she was hired a decade ago). In 2009, she had more applications—about 540—than ever before. By contrast, 2008 saw 352 applications, and there were only 297 in 2007.

Lemon fills volunteer jobs throughout most of the Smithsonian’s museums, research facilities, and other sites. Though she typically aims to have three-quarters of the roughly 800 jobs in her database filled, these days her placement rate has hovered around the 90 percent mark—an all-time high for Lemon. To accommodate the surplus, she’s been reaching out across the Smithsonian in search of volunteer positions that might need filling.

The story is the same at San Francisco’s Contemporary Jewish Museum (CJM). “We’ve been in the unique position of not having to do much recruitment,” says Jen Morris, director of marketing and communications at CJM, which has about 180 volunteers, a third of whom Morris says are very active. “They are seeking out opportunities to work here,” she says. (CJM has enjoyed a recent surge in publicity because of an article in a local newspaper that said it was one of the best places to volunteer in the city, Morris notes. What’s more, the buzz around its 2008 reopening has helped boost interest.)

One dedicated C]M volunteer is Luis Roberto Yaquian, a bank vice president who relishes several opportunities
offered by C]M’s volunteer program: a means to explore his Jewish identity, a way to work in Daniel Libeskind’s landmark building (Yaquian is a self-proclaimed architecture buff) and a chance to expose his young children to the joy of giving.

“It’s been wonderful to give back to the community,” he says. ”I’ve worked at receptions, I’ve ushered, and at Hanukkah, I got dressed up like a character in Where the Wild Things Are for the menorah lighting in Union Square. It’s very rewarding for me professionally and personally.”

Not only has the number of folks seeking volunteer opportunities in museums steadily ticked upward through the recession but the qualifications of these prospective volunteers—from their advanced academic degrees to relevant work experience—are ever more impressive.

“There are more professionals coming in, more people who have been recently laid off and also more recent graduates,” Gilmour says. Lemon and Morris confirm that many of their volunteers have master’s degrees and doctorates.

There’s good and bad in this trend, museum people say. On the one hand, more skilled people serving as volunteers
means museums can launch long-postponed projects that require specialized knowledge, such as building a database, repairing cabinetry or making use of the Internet’s vast marketing potential. They can also fill the gaps left by their own budget shortfalls.

Charles Aymond, director of the Ella Sharp Museum in Jackson, Mich., says volunteers have always run the gift shop and served as docents, but they have recently moved into work that has been the province of paid staff in the past.

“With shrinking staff and continuing budget issues, we are calling on volunteers to do more,” he says. “We need assistance in inputting accessioning data, in grant-writing and in performing tasks that staff used to perform.” Some 160 volunteers give the museum about 7,400 hours of time annually, he says.

“The Ella Sharp Museum could not exist without volunteers,” Aymond adds, echoing the gratitude of many museum professionals.

Whether your ideal volunteers are those who commit a few hours a year or a few hours a day, gone are the days when a blanket solicitation for volunteers who can do “anything” will suffice. More than ever, skills to perform specific tasks are being sought by volunteer coordinators.

“What we have learned we have to do is specifically recruit for what we need,” says Erica Garcia, director of education
at the New Mexico History Museum. “We make a call for specific job roles we need so people know what they are signing on for.”

Want a fix-it person to build an exhibit case? A graphic designer to dream up a new logo? A group of teenagers to work on art projects with little kids? Ask, and you may receive. The key is to be clear, detailed and narrow in your descriptions of the volunteer positions you wish to fill.

Lemon describes the incredible variety of volunteer jobs within an organization as vast as the Smithsonian. “There is a job description in my database that says ‘envelope stuffer and conversationalist,”‘ she says. Other positions could require a Ph.D. in fracture mechanics or the ability to speak fluent Chinese.

Sometimes volunteers’ hobbies guide their placement into the right position, Lemon says. Even if there are no open volunteer jobs that would make use of someone’s degree in chemical engineering, there might be one that calls upon what a volunteer knows about stamp collecting or carpentry.

The New Mexico History Museum/Palace of the Governors in Santa Fe, which is in the process of writing and posting detailed volunteer job descriptions in a bid to attract more talent, is yet another institution that relies heavily on volunteers. A statewide hiring freeze means the prospect of gaining paid staff at the museum is slim, at best.

In addition, a recent expansion of the museum—approved by state authorities during more financially flush times—has contributed to a surge in visitors, including more school groups whose visits are led by volunteer guides. That’s one reason Director Frances Levine and her staff are seeking more people willing to work for free, using vehicles such as the service program network AmeriCorps and reaching out to the University of New Mexico and other nearby colleges.

Another coveted group? “I call them ‘my friends’ kids,”‘ says Levine with a laugh. “These are the ones who have finished their undergraduate degrees and are trying to figure out what they want to do. They’re usually really computer-savvy, too. We’re definitely trying to draw them in.”

Even when the economy perks up, Levine and others don’t believe much will change. “I don’t assume that when the
freeze is lifted we will be able to hire more paid staff,” she says. “I can always hire guards and admission staff,” she says, but notes she’d have to “cry and wail” to hire, say, another museum educator. For the foreseeable future, volunteers will likely perform many education programming-related tasks with guidance from the museum’s education staff.

Nonetheless, there’s an important caveat to keep in mind: Volunteers’ tenure may last only as long as their job search, and museums can’t always recoup the value of time spent on training.

Tom Goehner, curator of education at the Textile Museum in Washington, D.C., tends to view everyone under the museum’s roof as staff. “I always say that volunteers are not free labor,” he explains. After all, pretty much everyone
requires resources: training, space to work, a computer and other investments of time and dollars. It’s just that some of the people receiving these things happen to be paid and some are not. When the unpaid staff members go—and there are about 100 volunteers at the Textile Museum—the investment of time and training made in them is gone, too.

Those charged with bringing volunteers onboard have always asked questions designed to determine why someone wants to volunteer, but now their ears are attuned to another level of employment-related reasons: the pain and frustration of being let go from a paid job or struggling to find a different one.

“When I interview [some prospective volunteers], their main motivation for getting started is because they have recently been laid off from a job or they are having a lot of difficulty getting that first job,” says Cecile Puretz, coordinator of guides and volunteers and an education associate at CJM. She and Morris are two of about 40 paid staffers there.

Interviewing candidates over the past 18 months or so, the Smithsonian’s Lemon has heard the same story time and again: “‘I just got laid off,’ ‘I was downsized,’ ‘I took an early buyout.'”

By and large, museum officials say they’re sanguine about not only the quality of volunteers they’re getting but also their ability to cover tasks when a volunteer leaves abruptly for a paid job. It’s just the nature of volunteering in uncertain times, they say.

In recent months, some volunteers have had to return to paying jobs, says Goehner, but he adds that he hardly begrudges people their desire to find paying work, especially in this recession.

That’s also been the case at the Figge Art Museum in Davenport, Iowa. “We’ve lost five or six really great docents, and some of them went back to paid work,” says Ann Marie Hayes-Hawkinson, curator of education at the Figge. “I don’t think this is new, but I do think it has impacted the program.” And while some have had a surplus thanks to the economy, Hayes-Hawkinson conjectures that a shrinking number of volunteer docents applying to work at the Figge
could be attributed to people needing to work more hours in paid jobs.

At the Andy Warhol Museum in Pittsburgh, school and studio programs coordinator Joan McGarry lost a treasured docent who needed more time to look for a job that pays. McGarry’s overall volunteer count hovers around 15, she says, adding that, for the size of the museum and the programs it offers, she’s found that to be “the ideal number.”

Finding and maintaining a corps of 15 volunteers is one thing. But larger institutions say there’s no ceiling on their ideal number of volunteers.

“We accept everybody,” says the Houston MFA’s Gilmour, adding that most volunteers assist with family activities and educational programs. “We are always looking for folks to help out. We love them, and we are so thankful that they come.” On average, volunteers give about 50,000 hours of time per year to the museum, she says.

Lemon has viewed recent calls from existing volunteers bowing out of their unpaid work as anecdotal evidence that the economy is improving. “We’re starting to get those calls now,” she says. While some may let go of volunteer work to focus all their attention on getting—or keeping!—a paid position, not all who seek volunteer work will walk away from it when they land a job.

No savvy museum is a fair-weather friend to its volunteers. Many say that volunteers who believe their efforts are
appreciated by the museums where they work will find a way to keep volunteering—even if it means juggling work, school and other commitments. Indeed, those who cultivate their unpaid staff carefully will be supporting a chorus of voices that amplify a museum’s mission.

Take it from a volunteer whom the Warhol’s McGarry describes as “a superstar.”

“Volunteering at the Warhol gives me a chance to still be in the art world,” says Ashley Beckner, who worked in art galleries in the past and began volunteering at the museum when her hours were cut last fall.

Now back to full-time paid employment, she works one or two Saturdays per month on family-friendly museum activities, she says. Beckner will start graduate school in September, but she plans to continue devoting a day a month to help run family activities at the museum—projects that help bring one of Pittsburgh’s most famous native sons to life in a more tactile way, like helping visitors interpret his art or create a silkscreened T-shirt to take home.

“Being part of someone’s museum experience has made the quality of my life better,” she says.

Smart museums will make sure all volunteers feel that way.

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