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COVID-19 and Museum Volunteers

Category: Center for the Future Of Museums Blog
A museum volunteer holding a hawk and wearing a badge reading "Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum Docent"
Photo credit: Jim Strasma on Unsplash

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As museums begin to reopen across the country, some of the most important decisions they face are about how to safeguard their staff—both paid and unpaid. The Alliance’s COVID-19 Resources and Information pages address issues about safety, telecommuting, and reopening generally. This post addresses some issues pertaining to museum volunteers in particular.

Staying Connected with Volunteers During the Pandemic

For many volunteers, working at a museum is an important source of social interaction and meaning in their lives—both of which may be much needed and sorely missed during COVID-19 lockdown. In addition, these members of your museum family may well be experiencing additional stress from the pandemic—isolation, financial stress, racism, unemployment, health issues. Museums can maintain a sense of community and connection with volunteers by finding effective ways to exchange information with volunteers while they can’t come to the museum and providing meaningful opportunities to help the museum respond to the pandemic.

An effective communications plan will need to take into account volunteers’ access to and familiarity with digital platforms. Closed platforms such as Slack or Confluence may not be accessible to volunteers, whereas free platforms like Microsoft Teams and Zoom are fairly intuitive and accessible to anyone with a computer and an internet connection. (This article relates how the Walters Art Museum has used Zoom to create a full schedule of digital enrichment activities for their docents.)

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With such platforms in place, volunteers can reengage with the museum and reconnect with each other. They can provide input on how the museum can serve the needs of the community, create a safe work environment, and how and when to reopen to the public. Many museums are surveying their volunteers (along with staff and members of the public) about what steps the museum would need to take in order for them to feel safe returning to work.

Modifying Volunteer Assignments

What can volunteers do during museum closures, or from afar after the museum reopens? During closure, many museums have pivoted to work that can be done online. Consider offering volunteers the opportunity to contribute to projects such as transcription and tagging of digital records and images. (If the museum can’t provide digital assignments itself, it can encourage museum volunteers to do online work for other organizations supporting people affected by the crisis, while they can’t come to the museum.)

Volunteers can play a vital role in digital fundraising efforts being deployed to compensate for the cancellation of in-person events. (The Milwaukee Public Museum credits the success of its recent virtual Giving Day campaign to the efforts of volunteer “ambassadors.”) Other timely volunteer opportunities might include contacting members and fellow volunteers to see how they are doing, alerting them to digital resources from the museum, and providing updates on the museum’s plans for reopening.

As the museum prepares to reopen, take volunteers into account as you make plans to modify workstations, install new equipment, purchase personal protective equipment, revise operating policies and procedures, and provide training on how to interact with the public in potential tense situations. You may want to review pre-pandemic volunteer assignments and modify or suspend some work to curtail risk. (Some activities might need to be put on hold in any case, given social distancing and safety measures required during phased reopenings.) It may also be prudent to research what legal liability the museum may incur by allowing volunteers to return to work.

Adapting to a Smaller Volunteer Workforce

The Minnesota Association for Volunteer Administration recommends surveying volunteers to determine their availability to continue volunteering under various conditions, and their willingness to increase their volunteerism temporarily to help fill gaps. However, as this article from Maryland Nonprofits points out, “Volunteers may choose to stay home rather than provide their usual level of support. What would happen if you lost participation by 10% of your volunteers? 25%? 75%?” You may want to inventory the work that was being done by your volunteers pre-pandemic and assess how critical each task is to the museum’s operations. What activities might you suspend or curtail if volunteers are not available? Will you need to assign some work usually performed by volunteers to employees, and would that require increasing the size of your paid staff?

Cultivating New Volunteers

As museums open, volunteers may not return right away. This article from the Harvard Business Review points out that while older people may choose to curtail their volunteer work (in light of their higher risk from COVID-19), many young people, with school, work, and normal summer activities disrupted, may be interested in becoming volunteers. Museums are already seeing a huge increase in the number of people interested in participating in digital projects, and typically these new volunteers skew younger than traditional volunteers.

Museums may want to reach out to their corporate partners, sponsors, and members to offer volunteer opportunities for their staff during lockdown. Companies may see these opportunities as a means of building togetherness and a sense of connection among staff while they are forced to work remotely.

The Elephant in the Room

As I’ve noted before, there has long been some tension around the interplay between volunteerism and museum labor and salaries. These tensions may be exacerbated by hard choices forces on museums by the pandemic. Some museums may increase their dependence on volunteers as they lay off or furlough staff due to the financial crisis. (And if unemployment remains in or near the double digits through 2021, as some government officials have projected, there may well be a larger pool of people interested in volunteering their time.) Conversely, some nonprofits anticipate increasing the size of their paid staff to support critical work until volunteers choose to return. I think that coping with those tensions will require the field to honor and acknowledge the concerns of all staff—paid and unpaid—and recognize their interdependence.

The nonprofit sector accounts for 1 in 10 jobs in the US private workforce—over 12 million jobs in 2016. But it is worth remembering that the nonprofit sector arose in large part from the fact that our country values nonprofit associations as a forum for civic participation, and volunteers continue to play an essential role in nonprofit operations. AAM’s data shows museums average about six volunteers for every paid staff member—and that number is far higher at smaller institutions. As the world navigates the profound disruptions caused by COVID-19, the mutually beneficial relationship between museums and their volunteers will be more important than ever. Museums can support the mental and physical wellbeing of their volunteers through this crisis, and volunteers may well play a critical role in helping museums survive the next few years.

Additional resources:

  • The American Association for Museum Volunteers maintains a list of resources addressing COVID-19 and Your Volunteer Program.
  • Points of Light offers the free PDF Considerations for Using In-Person Volunteers During COVID-19: Guidance for Nonprofit Organizations, designed to help nonprofit organizations make decisions regarding their use of in-person (not virtual) volunteers during the COVID-19 pandemic and, if they decide to engage them, how to do so as safely as possible.
  • AAM offers a Toolkit on Designing a Museum Volunteer Program, which covers key components in a museum volunteer program framework; why a museum needs volunteers; and the keys to structuring, developing, and supporting the museum volunteer program. It includes tools, tips, professional standards, systems, and worksheets to help museums construct well-run and sustainable volunteer programs.

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