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Do Volunteer Programs Need Reinventing for the Reopened Museum?

Category: Alliance Blog

Last year, AAM released a popular toolkit on structuring, developing, and supporting volunteer programs—whether starting from scratch or reimagining an existing program. Since the release of Designing a Museum Volunteer Program, many museums have found themselves in the latter category, as they regroup under new public health and financial realities. Questions linger about how to safely engage volunteers and match them with meaningful responsibilities that meet the pressing needs of the moment.

On a recent episode of the American Association of Museum Volunteers podcast Volunteer Voices, the toolkit’s author Susan Zwerling spoke with Marcie Keller about how its lessons apply in the current moment. How can volunteer managers use it to think ahead about the role of volunteers in the near-future museum? Listen to the episode or read the transcript below to find out.


Marcie Keller:

Welcome to Volunteer Voices, a podcast about volunteerism in the museum field produced by the American Association for Museum Volunteers. Today’s episode is the first in a series of three AAMV conversations about best practices and concerns relating to Designing a Museum Volunteer Program. These podcasts continue a project that began several years ago when Susan Zwerling, Museum Assessment Program Officer with the American Alliance of Museums, designed a survey to gather thoughts from the museum field about museum volunteerism and a potential toolkit to support that work. The survey was created as a Johns Hopkins University museum studies graduate internship project with AAM. The result was a robust dialogue, an AAM blog post, and a project that took on a life of its own. Zwerling created the Designing a Museum Volunteer Program toolkit to be aligned with core standards of both of these organizations. Since AAM published the toolkit in December 2019, hundreds of museum professionals have purchased it to help guide their volunteer program planning.

You can access the toolkit at, or via the resources tab on AAMV’s website. The toolkit is organized into three sections exploring key components of a successful museum volunteer program framework. Today’s podcast focuses on the first section, structuring a volunteer program. I am Marcie Keller, AAMV board member and manager of volunteer services at the Perot Museum of Nature and Science in Dallas, Texas. Joining me now is Susan Zwerling, author of the toolkit. Welcome, Susan.

Susan Zwerling:

Oh, Marcie, thank you. It is so good to be here and to continue the partnership between our two organizations. The toolkit was tons of fun to work on and explores key elements and components that are needed in each of those three phases of developing a volunteer program. There’s worksheets, checklists, tips, and resources to help either begin or to continue a volunteer program at your museum. And section one, as you said, focuses on structuring the volunteer program and the elements that are needed to create your basic framework, position descriptions, marketing and recruitment, hiring, policies and procedures, and getting staff prepared. What would you like to talk about first, Marcie?

Marcie Keller:

So I’ve read the toolkit and having worked with museum volunteers for about ten years now, I can tell you that you’ve really done your research. One of the first steps that you talk about is collaborating with museum staff to determine what your volunteer needs might be. Do you have any advice on who in your organization to first approach and who might be some key individuals you may want as allies when you develop your program?

Susan Zwerling:

Oh yeah. That is a smart strategy to think through who your potential allies might be, as you develop your program or expand your program. If you have any current volunteers that are operating in a more informal, unofficial way, they would be great folks to sit down with and to find out what their challenges have been, what their success stories are, and what recommendations they would have. And then talking with staff is going to be key, particularly in departments that typically use volunteers or that you anticipate will be using volunteers. Another person that you want to touch base with and develop a solid relationship with is whoever is doing your human resource function in your museum.

It’s really important to make sure that the components of your volunteer program are closely aligned and consistent with the different policies and procedures, the forms, the descriptions, and things like that, that are already being used for staff. The more consistent those are, the less confused people are going to be, and it actually can help as a reducing risk management of approach for your institution as well.

And then if you have a parent organization, those folks can often really help you avoid reinventing the wheel. They may have policies, procedures, and forms that you can tweak and use. They may have some great free resources and folks that have expertise that can help you. A friends group can often be a good potential ally, but the one key group that I think that museums often don’t think about that they probably should would be whoever’s doing your development and your fundraising function. They are a potential best friend of a volunteer program. For one thing, they really understand the true value and positive impact of volunteers on an institution. Have you had that experience, Marcie?

Marcie Keller:

Oh yeah, definitely. At the Perot Museum, we’ve worked really closely with our development department. And like you said, not only do they already kind of have a fundamental understanding of the value of volunteers, you can partner with them in lots of different ways that benefit both raising funds, as well as developing your volunteer relationships with organizations.

Another thing to keep in mind about the relationship with the development department is that the independent sector actually calculates a value of each volunteer hour. They release that annually. That is currently set at $25.43 cents per hour. So you can really easily calculate the financial savings of your volunteer service, which can be a really important figure for different grant applications, or maybe other means of financial support that your institution may be pursuing. So for example, we have a lot of local businesses and corporations that obviously are sponsors of the museum and who are always giving to the museum.

And whenever the development team has a new group that they’re working with, they often will loop us in on that so that we can talk to them about volunteer opportunities as well. And then in reverse, we as the volunteer team, whenever we have a corporate group or a civic group that might be interested in volunteering, we can then also have them meet with our development team and see if in addition to their donating hours they might also want to become donors of the institution. So it really can be kind of a partnership both ways, because a lot of times when somebody is wanting to donate funds, they would also be willing to donate time as well. And it’s a great way to get some of your donors involved on the ground floor and really seeing what good works are being done at your institution.

When they come in to volunteer, they can see how their funds are supporting the day to day operations of what you’re doing. And it really makes them feel more involved than just you’re giving a check and not knowing where that’s going. And so, getting involved as a volunteer can help them feel a lot more invested in what’s happening.

Susan Zwerling:

That makes a lot of sense.

Marcie Keller:

And then as volunteer managers and coordinators who are passionate about volunteerism, it can be really hard to understand why other members of staff may not approach volunteers from the same perspective that we do. A lot of staff may be hesitant to work with volunteers for a variety of reasons. Maybe they think they take too much time to train, they might need too much supervision, or they have fears that they may be used to replace staff.

What can volunteer management staff do to help alleviate some of those fears and inspire excitement about the partnership between staff and volunteers?

Susan Zwerling:

Well, you absolutely nailed an important issue and that popped up in the survey results. There were a lot of concerns expressed by the more than one hundred people that completed the survey about staff attitudes towards volunteers. And as you point out, some rely too much on volunteers and some don’t trust them enough. And I think it’s important to, first of all, involve the whole organization in determining what are the volunteer needs. It’s important to link those to the mission of the museum, the strategic plan of the museum, and the top priorities in the museum. You want to make sure that you really are using your volunteers to give added value to the organization overall and to the staff.

You want to probably be very transparent about identifying potential barriers and challenges and reassure staff on how you plan to address those. And collaborating and co-creating with all your stakeholders as much as possible, not only increases your chances of getting buy-in into your volunteer program, but also gives you really useful, accurate, in the trenches kind of information that is going to make your program more useful and more valuable to everyone.

I think it’s super important to include volunteer supervision and or volunteer training in the job descriptions of your staff. You make it an expectation upfront. This is something you guys are expected to do, but if you’re going to do that, it’s also only fair to make sure that you train your staff. You’ve got to give them to the tools, give them the skillsets to be able to do something that is challenging.

It’s often more challenging to supervise volunteers than it can be to supervise paid staff. And then who addresses what? So it can be so confusing to a staff person if they don’t know, “Oh my gosh. This person is coming in with a consistent body odor. Do I say something? Whose job is this? Where does my supervision or training begin and end?” So clarifying that and being really transparent and upfront about that is very reassuring to everyone involved, and it helps ensure that things are addressed consistently.

Another thing is evaluating the program’s progress and evaluating your volunteer performance, which is one of the many things that’s addressed in other sections of the toolkit. Feedback is necessary and important for all of us to grow and develop, develop professionally and personally. And that also gives you information to be able to share both the added value of your program and the positive impacts. And again, transparently address any challenges that are coming up.

And then finally, it can be really reassuring to staff if you consider starting with a small pilot group. Staff often really appreciate being able to make changes on a smaller scale initially, and this can also allow for making important adjustments and improvements before expanding it.

Marcie Keller:

Yeah, and I will say right now where a lot of our institutions maybe are not open yet, and we are considering doing phases of reopen, I think this is a perfect time for all of us to be trying out some new things, some new roles for volunteers. And we can kind of do that in these smaller pilot groups, just because of the limitations that we have with our different phases that may be coming. So this might actually be an ideal time to be trying some new things and getting that feedback from both staff and volunteers to see how things are going.

Susan Zwerling:


Marcie Keller:

So figuring out the specifics of which duties might be appropriate for a volunteer can be really tricky. Do you have any guidelines that you’ve come across that would help someone determine what types of work may be appropriate for a staff member versus a volunteer?

Susan Zwerling:

Yeah, that is a tricky one, isn’t it? And there are a lot of things that impact those kinds of decisions. Even your insurance coverage can have an impact on what that’s going to look like in your particular institution, but I think there are probably seven different categories or components of that you could use as a framework or a guide to take a look at. First of all, legal concerns. Next, you might want to look at what skills and competencies are involved in this particular job or task. What’s the authority level that is required for this is another question. What confidentiality might be required or not required for the job or the position that you’re thinking of? What level of judgment is going to be required for this? And how much of it is going to be independent work versus supervised work?

And then of course the all-important personality fit is something that we don’t want to forget about. But you mentioned COVID impacts on our decisions and another thing that pops into my head is that it’s going to be important for all of us to not make assumptions about our volunteers based on who they were before the pandemic. You won’t necessarily know, for example, who is at high risk.

Marcie Keller:

Yeah, definitely. A lot of our institutions, even those who previously had well-established programs, will be reevaluating our volunteer needs in the coming months. Is there anything volunteer management can be doing right now to help prepare for this reevaluation process? And how do we continue looking towards the future in changing and updating those policies?

Susan Zwerling:

Yeah, that is one of a million dollar questions because everything is so fluid right now and there’s so much that we don’t know. And so, I think it’s important to view everything as a work in progress and to have the attitude that things are not going to be the way they used to be, and that we need to be open to reevaluating, as you said, the community needs, the institutional needs, and the volunteer needs. Some institutions are going to decide that COVID concerns will mean that they’re going to be using volunteers less frequently than they used to. Other museums are going to decide that they need to depend more on volunteers because of their situation. But for everyone, of course, addressing safety is a number one concern. And a lot of museums are having success with surveying volunteers through something free, such as SurveyMonkey, to reach out to them ahead of time and find out what are their needs? What are their fears? What do they want to see happen? What do they not want to see happen? What are they willing to do? What are they not willing to do?

And so that information is going to be really, really important to figuring out how to meet their needs at the same time that you’re meeting the needs of your visitors and your institution overall. We need to be creative. We need to examine what tasks can be done remotely and dive in more deeply to finding out about skills and interests. And we’ve got great examples in the museum field of success stories with that. I mean, look at Cowboy Tim and the security guard who became the celebrity on social media. And the Blanton Museum of Art. There was an article a week or two ago about their ED who crafted a questionnaire to find out who had hidden talents in Photoshop or great handwriting for donor thank you notes.

And she was able to keep all staff on board through that kind of creativity. So that is a new mindset that I think is going to be one of the keys to success as museums move forward. And we need to think more broadly about how experiences and skills can translate to meet new organizational and community needs. Our current pandemic, for example, a museum might be shifting away from guided tours and thinking about offering outdoor walking tours, driving tours, or shifting to a cell phone app. Designing content, marketing, communications, all of those kinds of needs for new programming can be done remotely. And many of those activities can be done by volunteers.

And then another opportunity that could be one of those silver linings in the clouds is thinking creatively about, how can we collaborate with other cultural organizations in our community? Maybe the local library has more open physical space than your facility, and maybe they’re able to reopen on a bigger scale than your museum is able to do right now. How could your two institutions partner up and co-create together?

Marcie Keller:

Yeah. I love that. Thinking about bringing our institutions together to really help strengthen our communities I think is going to be really important going forward. We won’t really have that luxury of being as siloed as we were in the past. So awesome suggestion. I always remind people that volunteers really are representatives of our community. And so our staff currently may not represent the makeup of our communities the way that we would want them to, and so volunteers oftentimes represent the community in different ways that staff may not. And so, I think really tapping into that resource, getting that that community voice is going to be really important.

So don’t forget about using your volunteers to get ideas and to get their feedback on where they see the program going, where they see their roles going. And a lot of times also, we as museum staff, we’re thinking about this stuff all the time. There’s definitely burnout I think that is going on right now. So the volunteers, they may not be so burned out thinking about this stuff and they might really be able to bring some energy, some joy, a different perspective than some of us who are kind of doing the daily grind and thinking about this stuff every day. So yeah, definitely use that volunteer resource as you start to think about those new ways to use volunteers.

Susan Zwerling:

Those are great reminders.

Marcie Keller:

And finally, during this time, we will all have a unique opportunity to recruit volunteers with a focus on building back up our cities and our communities. With so many worthwhile endeavors happening right now, many of them even lifesaving, how do we as museums attract people to help out at our institutions?

Susan Zwerling:

Yeah, that’s always a challenge, but now more than ever, I think the first one, again, is addressing those safety concerns very transparently and letting potential volunteers know that you have a plan in place and that you’re going to accommodate special needs, and that you’re aware of high-risk situations, and that you have a game plan for addressing those and keeping everyone safe is going to be everybody’s top concern. And then clearly communicating the value and the impact of their volunteer work is also key. How is their work meaningful, is the question that somebody has every day when they’re trying to decide whether or not to roll out of bed.

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Marcie Keller:

Yeah. And I will add to this. I had a question recently. As our institution was trying to kind of figure out what these new roles might look like for volunteers, one of my coworkers said, “Well, what type of jobs do volunteers like to do?” And it made me think about, there’s definitely going to be some things that most people are going to find more fun or less fun or would be drawn to. But I think we, as museum staff, can really look at it from the perspective of, how is this work really speaking to the mission? What is it doing to accomplish our goals and relaying that back to the volunteers? Because that’s really why they’re volunteering, right? They want to give back to the community. They want to give back to an organization. So if you can put it in that framework, I think most volunteers are willing to do anything. Even menial jobs, if you can put it in, in the context of what it’s doing to support the overall mission.

Instead of just saying, “Go copy all of these letters,” really explaining to them what that is accomplishing. Maybe they’re letters that are going out to donors, maybe they’re letters that are going out to members, and explaining how that’s saving the time of X department so that they can focus on some bigger projects and really relay what that’s accomplishing.

Susan Zwerling:

Yeah. That positive impact is something that’s so easy to forget when you’re just trying to check off the things on the to-do list, but it’s so, so important, isn’t it?

Marcie Keller:


Susan Zwerling:

And you mentioned communities and that, in our current times, it’s especially important I think, as you’re trying to attract and keep and retain volunteers, is that we have to stay relevant to our audiences and to our communities. And that is changing at a much faster pace than it was a year ago. Every museum needs to really keep their finger on the pulse of the community, and what are the needs, and what other current events that are happening that are shaping our history as it’s being made? And if our museum is not staying relevant to all of that, then it’s going to be especially hard to attract both volunteers and visitors.

Marcie Keller:

Oh yeah. I completely agree. And I would add to that, when we’re thinking about all of the different places where people can be spending their time and how do we attract people back to museums? Obviously, there are lots of issues right now where people’s safety, people’s health is the number one concern. And we want to make sure that that stays a priority, but as we move back towards our cultural institutions, I think it’s really important to remind people that we help with our community’s mental health, with our emotional help, with our educational goals, and all of those things that really make a strong society.

And so, physical health, physical safety is paramount, but mental health is also important and museums, any kind of museums are going to play a big role in ensuring that our communities stay healthy in all of those ways.

Susan Zwerling:

It’s been pretty inspiring, hasn’t it? People have been depending on staying connected and engaged with the culture and the arts and the history organizations to make sense of all the challenges that our society is facing right now. We really are an important piece of people’s lives and people’s sanity.

Marcie Keller:

Yes. I would definitely agree with that. Do you have any final words before we go?

Susan Zwerling:

No, this has been tons of fun to explore some of these issues and concerns and reflect on the things that helped inform this toolkit, and I’m looking forward to our next conversation and talking about part two of the toolkit and the issues related to it. Thank you so much for inviting me, Marcie.

Marcie Keller:

Yes. Thank you, Susan. This has been super insightful. I’m so grateful that you’ve spent the time to come chat with us about this, and I will let everyone else know that if you have any questions or comments or would like some more information from anything that we talked about today, you can contact us at AAMV through the AAMV website under the contact tab. And we’re looking forward to hearing from everyone. Thank you, Susan.

Susan Zwerling:

Thank you.

Marcie Keller:

You can find the Designing a Volunteer Program toolkit at the online American Alliance of Museums bookstore, or through the resources tab of the American Association for Museum Volunteers website.

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