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Revisiting Volunteers and Museum Labor

Category: Center for the Future Of Museums Blog
Volunteers at the Morikami Museum and Japanese Gardens, Delray Beach, Florida
Volunteers at the Morikami Museum and Japanese Gardens, Delray Beach, Florida

I’m working on an essay about museum volunteers and diversity, exploring how this issue intertwines with efforts to diversify our staff, boards, and audiences. What are the barriers to volunteering? Is the opportunity and ability to volunteer an asset that is inequitably distributed? As I polish these thoughts, I invite you to revisit a post I published in 2016, looking at volunteerism and the economics of museum labor.
–Yours from the future, Elizabeth Merritt, VP Strategic Foresight and Founding Director, Center for the Future of Museums

As I untangle the strange economics that shape our field, I’ve written several posts exploring the causes and consequences of the generally low salaries attached to museum work. In The Museum Sacrifice Measure I asked how poor people are willing to be in order to work in a museum; in What is the Fair Market Value of a Museum Job I explore the dysfunctions that arise from people feeling trapped in their current professions.

Today I’m sharing some thoughts about a third factor shaping wages in our sector—the fact that so many people are willing and eager to do this work for free.

In fact, the majority of people working in museums are volunteers. The last national financial survey AAM conducted (published as 2009 Museum Financial Information) reported a median figure of about 6 volunteers for every paid staff member for museums overall. That ratio soared to 18:1 in museums with budgets under $250,000, but even in the largest museums, volunteers generally outnumber paid FT staff two to one.

As a museum person, this figure surprises me not at all. I started out (at age 12) as a museum volunteer. The first museum where I held a paid job—a small children’s museum-cum-nature center—couldn’t have existed without volunteers. And Cincinnati Museum Center (my last museum job before defecting to the association world) had a whole army of volunteers, with a full-time staff person dedicated to providing them with training and support.

Because museum volunteers are ubiquitous, it took me a long time to realize that free labor has its problematic aspects. For one thing, it’s ripe for abuse. For example, the Fair Labor Standards Act is crafted to prevent employers from pressuring staff to “volunteer” their time (in lieu of counting these as work hours, triggering time-and-a-half pay). The need to guard against this kind of exploitation put the Department of Labor in the position of defining what constitutes legitimate volunteerism, to wit: “Individuals who volunteer or donate their services, usually on a part-time basis, for public service, religious or humanitarian objectives, not as employees and without contemplation of pay, are not considered employees of the religious, charitable or similar non-profit organizations that receive their service.” Such activities are characterized as “ordinary volunteerism,” and DOL considers a number of factors when called upon to determine whether a given set of activities are “ordinary,” including “whether full time employees are displaced.”

Except except except. As someone who has worked in museums of various types and sizes, and combed through the financial statements, org charts and policies of literally hundreds of museums of all types, I’d be unable to hazard an opinion on whether any given volunteer, or set of volunteers, is “displacing” a full time, paid employee. Does the volunteer director of a tiny, all-volunteer historic house museum “displace” a (theoretical) paid director the governing authority would otherwise have to fund? Would a large museum employ more (paid) interpreters if they didn’t have a dedicated and passionate core of docents?

I worked in a natural history museum that relied on volunteer (aka “adjunct”) curators and collections managers to care for collections that would otherwise wither from neglect. I know for a fact we weren’t in a financial position to create paid positions to do that work. Does that mean we should have deaccessioned the collections, rather than maintain them with volunteer labor for the present, with the potential for paid staff in the future?

As I talk to museum people about labor and wages, I often sense an undercurrent of resentment about volunteers. Some people come right out and say that museums should hire a “real” (i.e., paid) staff person rather than allowing someone to do the work for free. This troubles me in part because I’m pretty certain that museums can’t afford to support six times the people they currently employ (see ratios from the MFI, above). And I would hate for us to scale back our work to only that we can accomplish through paid staff.

But this also bothers me for a much more fundamental reason: volunteerism isn’t just a stop gap measure; it is a good in and of itself. The US is unusual among nations in the size and strength of its third sector—the nonprofits that complement the work of private business and government. I believe (from my admittedly imperfect knowledge of political and economic history) that nonprofits are embedded so deeply in US culture because from our inception we valued nonprofit associations as a forum for civic participation. When Alexis de Tocqueville visited the United States in the early 1800s, he noted that our new nation was strengthened by public participation in a wide range of civic associations, including clubs, churches, community groups and nonprofits of all types. Volunteering isn’t just a way for nonprofits to make their dollars stretch as far as possible. One of the benefits nonprofits provide to society is the opportunity to volunteer.

Volunteers are a necessary and desirable part of the museum workforce. They are a distinct class of people who benefit from museums in deep and meaningful ways. And they expand our ability to do good work that reaches others. With due respect to DoL, I think it’s impossible to draw a bright line between work that is enhanced by volunteers and work that is displaced by unpaid staff. And I think it’s inevitable that museum salaries are influenced by free labor. That makes the job of setting fair and equitable wages more difficult, but not impossible. And so the conversation continues…

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1 Comment

  1. I agree that volunteers provide enormous benefits to U.S. museums. That said, assuming that a volunteer position is equal to a staff position might be misleading. For example, if a museum had 60 unpaid docents, it’s unlikely they would need 60 staff to cover the same number of tours. While an active docent gives, say, 15 to 30 tours a year, a part-time paid educator might give that number in a month or two.

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