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How Can We Create an Excellent Volunteer Program?

Category: Museum Magazine

This article originally appeared in the March/April 2013 issue of Museum magazinea benefit of AAM membership.

Museum volunteers are critical resources in supporting visitor services, program functions and other aspects of museum work. As with any other department, a volunteer program’s ability to succeed rests upon best practices and a solid infrastructure.

Where do we begin?

Create a statement of purpose and value for your volunteer program, and put it in writing to legitimize it. Why do volunteers exist at the museum? Why are they part of the museum? The statement should connect the volunteer program to the museum’s mission, explain why the museum has volunteers, and establish a relationship between volunteers and staff. Post this statement in the volunteer area and in the staff area so that everybody is reminded about why they’re there.

How do we create a long-range volunteer plan?

A SWOT (Strengths, Weaknesses, Opportunities and Threats) analysis is a fabulous way to analyze your program and create a long-range plan. Participants in the analysis should include anyone who helps administer, mentor or supervise your volunteers. They should identify internal strengths—attributes that help the museum succeed by adding value and experience for visitors—and weaknesses such as constantly recurring problems. Opportunities are unfulfilled external areas. For example, could you be using social media to recruit younger volunteers? Threats are also external, and could include competing volunteer opportunities in the community, an aging volunteer base or negative word-of-mouth about volunteering at your institution.

How can staff and volunteers work together?

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Without staff involved, volunteer coordinators may feel like they’re rowing the boat alone. But with staff involvement, volunteers will have buy-in. Based on the museum’s strategic plan, staff should make a to-do list and involve volunteers in fulfilling departmental needs. In addition, any time there is a staff event, make sure to include volunteers and interns. Remember that the social aspect of volunteering is very important; look for chances to offer fellowship and ways to get to know each other. It’s also important to provide opportunities and meaningful ways for staff to thank volunteers for their hard work.

How do we find the right match between volunteers and their jobs?

Your success in this area will determine whether a volunteer stays with your museum or moves elsewhere. Taking everybody who applies for volunteer positions will create problems. Make sure you know what you need and that you’re not just creating jobs. Your recruitment efforts might need to be targeted towards specific groups of people or skills sets. Interviewing volunteers is a two-way street. Volunteer coordinators can explain to candidates what they’re getting into, and the candidates can ask questions. It’s important to have steps in place for bringing people into the program and providing a way for them to transition out.

What should job descriptions include?

Descriptions should be specific and include titles. Volunteers should be able to get answers to questions easily: What do I need to know? Am I strong enough? Will I be sitting, or on my knees with preschool kids? Do I need good listening skills? What will my schedule be? What are the qualifications and age requirements? (In the context of youth volunteers, such criteria are not necessarily discriminatory and can limit liability; museums need to specifically state, for example, that a 10-year-old can only volunteer for a certain position when accompanied by an adult family member.) For recruiting purposes, it’s also important to mention benefits such as restaurant discounts, invitations to exhibit openings and opportunities to go on trips.

How do we establish policies and procedures?

It’s crucial to create a foundation document that addresses a variety of scenarios and details the museum’s response to each. For example, does worker’s compensation or the museum insurance policy cover a volunteer who has fallen while on the job? Do volunteers know how to get out of the building if there’s a fire, and do they understand they should not speak to the press about museum issues? Policies provide overall guidance and create procedures for volunteers to follow. For example, the document could stipulate that all volunteers must park in the staff parking lot, use the staff and volunteer entrance, always use their badge for en-try and exit, and log in at the volunteer office.

What information systems should we use?

The volunteer coordinator should provide a handbook for volunteers and should manage data collected from them, such as forms that they have signed. For examples of volunteer manuals and application forms, ask other museums with established programs or cruise the Internet. The Alliance’s Information Center also offers access to sample documents to tier 3 museums.

How do we tactfully dismiss a volunteer who has done something wrong?

Conduct a one-on-one conversation with the volunteer and try to be positive. Give her every opportunity to change; divert her to positive behavior if you can. Your goal is to make volunteers successful. If that fails, having job descriptions, policies and procedures established can help you dismiss someone. Once you have those in place, people know the rules and you can apply them–just as in any other office.

This transcript of a December 2012 Alliance webinar, “Planning or Transforming Your Museum Volunteer Program Infrastructure,” part of a series created in collaboration with the American Association for Museum Volunteers (AAMV), and produced and sponsored by LearningTimes. This webinar addressed key elements of a volunteer program infrastructure, including purpose and planning, job design for managers and volunteers, policies and procedures, and assessment of volunteers and the program. Presenters included Robbin Davis, director of visitor services, Oklahoma History Center, Oklahoma City; Debbie Young, director of volunteer services, The Children’s Museum of Indianapolis; and Lois Kuter, volunteer coordinator, Academy of Natural Sciences, Drexel University, Philadelphia.Learn more about AAMV at

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