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Supporting Your Volunteer Program through Risk Management and More

Category: Volunteers
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Since the release of the Designing a Museum Volunteer Program toolkit, museum professionals have faced many upheavals in the past year and a half, all while managing their museums day-to-day and preparing for the future. In the third and final episode of the Volunteer Voices podcast series, hear the toolkit author Susan Zwerling and AAMV board member and Intern Coordinator at the Chicago History Museum, Marne Bariso, discuss tips for sustaining a volunteer program over the long term that you can apply anytime.


 

Marne Bariso:

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 third and final podcast in a series of AAMV conversations about best practices and concerns related to designing a museum volunteer program. This podcast continues 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 originally 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 of 2019, hundreds of museum professionals have purchased it to help guide their volunteer program planning. You can access the toolkit at aam-us.org/toolkits or via AAMV’s website.

The toolkit is organized into three sections, exploring key components of a successful museum volunteer program framework. Our first podcast explored topics related to section one of the toolkit: structuring a volunteer program. And our second podcast dove into topics related to section two of the toolkit: developing a volunteer program. Current issues such as diversity, inclusion, and pandemic pivots are also woven into these discussions. You can listen to the podcast via our AAMV website or on the American Alliance of Museums’ website. Today’s podcast focuses on supporting a volunteer program, which is the third section of the toolkit. I am Marne Bariso, AAMV board member and Volunteer and Intern Program Manager at the Chicago History Museum. Joining me is Susan Zwerling, author of the toolkit. Welcome, Susan.

Susan Zwerling:

Oh, thanks very much, Marne. It’s great to be back and chat together as we continue the partnership between our two organizations. So yeah, the toolkit content was designed with lots of input from folks in the field, and it can guide you through assessing which of the key elements and components of a successful volunteer program you might already have in place and which ones you might need to include or expand on. It also contains some checklists, worksheets, tips, and resources to help either begin or strengthen a volunteer program at your museum and tackle this strategically. Section three, as you said, focuses on moving from what is needed to create a basic program structure and foundation to exploring what might be needed to support and sustain your program. And some of these, like record-keeping, don’t sound very intriguing, but today we are going to share some real-life examples, and we’re going to have some fun talking about creative ways to communicate and work with your volunteers. And we’ll also chat about money, right?

Marne Bariso:

Yes. It really would have been great to have had this type of resource way back in the 1900s when I was beginning my career in volunteer management. And I’m not just joking. It’s 1992. I was much, much younger. Okay, but-

Susan Zwerling:

We all were.

Marne Bariso:

Yeah. You’re right. One of our topics today is also risk management, and we’ll be mentioning examples of risk management throughout our conversation. What is risk management?

Susan Zwerling:

Yeah. Risk management covers much more than things that might typically pop into your head, like do you have insurance, or is there a disaster plan? Risk management means anticipating potential risks and taking steps to eliminate them or to reduce them. So actually, most of the components that you might put in place from the toolkit will reduce your risk in one area or another. If you create a well-coordinated and unified set of policies for your program, you will have proactively already identified and minimized potential risks. If you haven’t done this, you could be accidentally increasing exposure to certain risks for your museum.

And the toolkit has a self-assessment form to help you look at the five main categories of potential risk in a museum. As an example, a small museum that has a working board can accidentally create confusion because so many people wear different hats at different times. If you don’t take the time to clarify when someone is acting in their capacity as a governing board member or when they are acting in the capacity as a volunteer and how these are different, it can really muddy the waters in terms of communications. Who can make certain decisions can be at question. Who is supervising who can be confusing, and it can just get complicated.

So there’s some legal implications in this kind of scenario as well. If you ask a paid staff person to volunteer for big events and someone gets injured, for instance, are they covered by workers’ comp then? The Mill Museum up in Connecticut has a very transparent website with several core documents publicly posted, including their volunteer program policy and also their board of trustees’ responsibilities. And that relates to that first example that I mentioned. Their documents specifically ask trustees to be really aware of the potential dilemma of people not knowing in what capacity a board member is operating at a given moment in time or at a different event or for a certain project, and to be really transparent about everyone’s roles and levels of authority and limitations in different situations.

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Marne Bariso:

This is really important, Susan, and some really great tips here. I would say in my career, the area of risk management has been the one that really has evolved. I do background screenings now that I didn’t do at the beginning. I have an intern agreement that interns sign, a volunteer agreement that they sign, and it has things like social media policy and conflict-of-interest information and… Yeah, things have changed over the years, so this is really important.

Susan Zwerling:

Yeah, those are great examples. Sorry. Didn’t mean to butt in here, but those are just such great examples of how you are reducing risk, but you’re also just really setting your volunteers up for success.

Marne Bariso:

Right. Yeah. I just had a conversation with our human resources director, who is new, and she wants to refine and combine and just see how we can maybe update some of the processes to avoid risk. That was part of her message when we just chatted about this.

Susan Zwerling:

Mm-hmm (affirmative), mm-hmm (affirmative).

Marne Bariso:

Well, in the toolkit, Susan, within the section on communication, you recommend volunteer programs should employ more than one method of communicating with volunteers. What are some types of communication platforms, and do you have examples of how you or others have used them effectively?

Susan Zwerling:

Oh, yeah. I actually think there’s two main key points that I’d like to share about communication. One is to use more than one method of communicating something so that you are always supporting different styles of communication and learning and so that you’re also supporting different comfort levels with technology. And this, of course, is also a form of risk management because you’ll increase the odds that the important information you’re trying to share will really be received and understood.

The second key point is to deliberately create ways to have communication flowing in both directions. And by that, I mean up and down the organizational chart. Organizations, in general, tend to pay more attention to communications that flow from the top down. And we are very fortunate now that free technology tools are making it so much easier to share documents and information laterally, to be able to meet virtually, and just to increase accessibility in general. Private Facebook groups, Microsoft Teams, Google Docs, Zoom, all of these platforms and programs are helping us to stay connected and to have more access.

Asana is a task and project management tool that I’ve been using for about eight years now, and I think the free version is available for up to 15 people in a team. So that’s something that can be used very successfully to track different projects at one time, different events, assign tasks to people and be able to track who’s doing what. And everybody can have access simultaneously to that to know what a deadline is, who to go talk to about something, and that type of thing. Slack is a great tool for general internal communications for messaging and phone calling, and it has a basic free plan as well as paid plans with more services attached to it. So that’s one that I think works quite well.

And I’ve had great success with using Pinterest in an unusual way while working at a museum. In the early stages of planning our summer camps, for example, we created a private Pinterest board for each class that we were going to offer. The education staff and the volunteers involved in planning had full access to the board for their class or their program. And as people found cool activities, interesting potential experiments, supplies they wanted to consider buying, templates for forms or something else that they wanted to consider, they added all of these things into the Pinterest board for that class. As the team began to narrow down what would be used and what wouldn’t be used, they either deleted the Pinterest pins or they moved them into a maybe-for-next-year Pinterest board. So this was kind of a visual brainstorming method that became a creative and fun way to do strategic planning. And it supported everyone being equally involved and contributing to the project.

Marne Bariso:

What a wonderful idea. I enjoy the brainstorming phase of programming planning the best. That’s the most fun, right? So something like this would make it even more enjoyable.

Susan Zwerling:

Yes.

Marne Bariso:

That’s really great. So as you mentioned earlier, record-keeping is another one of our topics today. Keeping records of certain aspects of a volunteer program is essential to the success of the program. So please talk a little bit about the importance of record-keeping.

Susan Zwerling:

Yeah. And again, it is not the most exciting part of our job. Most of us really would rather be brainstorming the next fun program that we’re going to be doing. But solid records help with so much. They help you document the value that your program brings to the museum and to the volunteers. Documents and solid record-keeping creates institutional history that can help inform future decisions and reduce risk. And it can help prove your positive impact. Volunteer hours, of course, are probably the most common thing that we track in record-keeping, and that does help measure community commitment in a very tangible way. The volunteers’ hours are often used for grants that require in-kind contribution. So those numbers can really be important. Volunteer demographics, tracking that can support conversations about how to diversify volunteer recruitment or how to maybe increase volunteer opportunities in other departments of the museum.

One thing I’ve noticed, as museum people, is that we have a tendency to make decisions based on anecdotal stories rather than based on data, right? We’re all in a meeting together and someone says, “Oh, yeah, my neighbor is a museum member, and she brings her kids here all the time. She said they’d love to come to an XYZ program.” Or somebody will be talking with you about some different options and choices, and someone in the group will say, “Oh, yeah, I overheard a family in the gift shop, and they said ABC, so we really should do XYZ. I think the visitors want this.”

Now, those stories are important. They’re wonderful cues for us to dive in more deeply into exploring a certain option by gathering specific data about it. But what we sometimes end up doing is we swap stories together, and then we make decisions based on these anecdotes rather than based on actual data. So gathering data and then having a way to record it, to organize it, and then to analyze it really helps avoid this common pitfall.

Marne Bariso:

Some staff really respond quite well and even the best to data.

Susan Zwerling:

Yeah.

Marne Bariso:

And in response to your examples here, I tend to keep notes or almost a journaling sort of exercise after a program, especially if I’m going to be repeating the program next year or next month or whatever it is. So I’m picturing, as you hear the anecdotal conversation in the gift shop or on the museum floor or in your neighborhood, your neighbor who’s a member, as you described, what about making note of it, the date, even as much of the conversation as you can remember? And here’s what I’m picturing: at a meeting, you pull out your notebook and say, “Well, as a matter of fact, on January 10th, I did hear a visitor in the gift shop say XYZ.” So it’s still anecdotal, but at least you’ve got a little more credibility to it because you recorded it soon after the conversation. I don’t know. Just a thought, because we’re storytellers, right, so many of us, and we tell the stories of what we experience in our day-to-day work life.

Susan Zwerling:

Well, I love that idea. I also do a lot of journaling. And at the museum I last worked at, we always had debriefing meetings after events, especially, like you said, if it was going to be something we were going to do again. And it was sometimes hard to remember what we had discussed. We didn’t always do the best job of recording what our conclusions were and recording what do we want to do next. And one thing that we do in my department at AAM now is we’ve created a Word Doc called Parking Lot. And so we’ll have a name for an event or a program or something, and it’ll be Parking Lot for and then the name of the event. And we’ll just kind of do a brain dump of the ideas that we generate. Sometimes we’ll call it Lessons Learned and then the name of the program or the event. And that’s made it a little bit easier for us.

Marne Bariso:

That’s excellent. I’m going to journal about that idea right now because I want to remember that. We’ve used Parking Lots for meetings when we haven’t been able to respond to questions that people have had. So that Parking Lot idea, I think, is really useful and versatile.

Susan Zwerling:

Yeah. Yeah.

Marne Bariso:

Well, the very definition of the word volunteer might make us forget about budgetary concerns. What thoughts do you have about budgets and generating funds for volunteer programs?

Susan Zwerling:

Yeah, that is a great question, Marne. Budgets aren’t fun for most of us, but the reality is that it’s just as important to track the true cost of a volunteer program as it is to track the true value and the positive impact of your volunteer program. It’s also important to have a wishlist of things that you’d like to include in future budgets, and I learned this lesson the hard way some years ago. One day I was walking down the hallway of the museum and our director came up to me and said, “What would you ask for if you could upgrade the science lab? The friends group just told me they noticed it’s looking kind of shabby in there, and they want to fund some improvements.” Well, I mean, that just stopped me in my tracks. I mean, that never happens in a museum, right? I was completely unprepared for that question.

So I spent a really long night researching the price of new lab tables and equipment and all kinds of stuff to come up with a creditable wishlist to take advantage of that opportunity. So that taught me to always have a page in my notebook with a running list of how I would spend money if it ever dropped in my lap. And since then, it’s happened. I’d been ready for that amazing moment when a community officer at a local bank called me because they were almost at the end of their fiscal year and they had some leftover money that they wanted to give to our education department. And I was ready for that moment when the pandemic, that there’d been no travel, and those funds were going to be available for other uses. So it’s a really great strategy to have a wishlist ready. And speaking of money, you mentioned to me earlier an interesting way to fund the book club for your volunteer program. Tell us about it, Marne.

Marne Bariso:

Well, yes, in support of our museum’s DEAI strategic plan, we have begun a book club for interested volunteers, and the book selection is one that will help us have some discussions that will support the strategic plan. And it’s also a way to keep volunteers engaged since they’re not coming back into the building just yet. So this book club is being funded by a very generous donation made by a volunteer who died a few years ago, a long-time volunteer. So we’re able to buy books for the participants, which is a way of recognizing them and their continued commitment during the shutdown and during the quarantine. And also, we might be able to pay for a skilled professional discussion facilitator since there’ll be some sensitive issues that might be discussed.

So my point in my remarks here is not that, oh, that’s the reason why we need to be nice to our volunteers. I don’t want to be misunderstood, but sometimes it really can be about relationships and even the friendships that we form with our volunteers, appropriate ones, of course, because I think volunteers certainly volunteer because they love our mission. They love our collection, or we’re convenient. We’re in the neighborhood. But if they didn’t also appreciate the relationships of… If they didn’t like the staff that they were working alongside or encountering, I think they wouldn’t volunteer with us. I think they’d go someplace else. And I know that comes more naturally to some than others, but if a volunteer has a very enjoyable, meaningful experience at the museum, sure, they might decide to donate something in addition to their time.

Susan Zwerling:

Yeah. I think that that’s a wonderful example of how you never know the true depth of a relationship and the true positive impact you’ve had on somebody, be it a volunteer or a visitor or the parent of a child that’s come to your summer camp, until sometimes years later. And it’s pretty exciting that somebody could leave a bequest to your volunteer program, and that might be something that other museums should think about discussing with their development department, models to be able to… for funding. And one area of museum could also work for the volunteer program. In fact, it seems to me that I saw somewhere recently somewhere a mention of museum programs, museum volunteer programs that were actually thinking about looking for underwriters for their volunteer programs. And we typically think of that as being used for underwriting a new gallery or underwriting an event or something like that. So it’s a very intriguing idea to take that particular funding model and see if it could be applied to a volunteer program.

Marne Bariso:

I’ll say. I like the sound of that. So our final area of discussion here: expectations of museums are changing, expectations that staff have for volunteers and expectations visitors have for gallery engagement. Susan, how do you think this could affect our planning and, more specifically, museum docent programs?

Susan Zwerling:

Yeah, the world is really changing, and it seems to be changing more and more rapidly, and we don’t know yet what our new future, post-pandemic world is going to be. But as we look at the future trends, one that seems to be gaining some traction that I’ve noticed is the move towards no longer using volunteer docents for guided tours in some institutions and using paid education staff instead. This seems to be especially true in the museums that are offering school tours, because the expectations for curriculum-aligned content are so much higher than they were before.

Back in the day, a docent could count on doing a tour that was often just organized around what the docents’ favorite works of art were or favorite artifacts or their favorite number-one exhibit in the facility. And now they’re being expected to learn content and put it into their script or their talking points for their tour for eight grade levels, and it’s supposed to be aligned to all these different curriculums depending on what state and what region you’re in. And it’s getting to be a fairly high bar for someone who is a volunteer. Have you noticed any conversation about this issue, Marne?

Marne Bariso:

Yeah, I have. At the Chicago History Museum, we still rely solely on volunteers to lead our student workshops and our tours, but I definitely have… It seems like art museums… I believe one of the art museums in Chicago has moved more toward paid staff, and it is something I’ve heard over the last several years as the standards and expectations of teachers have grown, as you’ve pointed out.

Susan Zwerling:

Yeah. I think it’s something that I would think people would want to really keep a close eye on and to be thinking about what this might mean for your volunteer program and think about how you can tweak your program to still be supportive of and offer tours, perhaps maybe not the school tours, but maybe volunteer docents could still be in guide… excuse me, in-gallery guides on weekends and evenings or offer tours on the evenings and weekends that are more geared towards the edutainment type of focus. Or there might be some volunteers that have a special area of the collection that really makes their heart go pitter-patter, and they might want to do tours that are related to the area that brings them joy.

But I think another thing that I noticed that indicates a shift to me is that the National Docents Symposium Council, and you might be familiar with their annual conferences or their Docent Handbook that they publish. A couple of years ago, I noticed on their website one or two years ago that instead of just saying the word docent on their website, they started using the term docent/guides. So it seems like several people are noticing that, and I think it’s important to be strategic about it and think about how it might impact a volunteer program.

I mean, as we’ve discussed in our previous podcast together, it’s really crucial for a volunteer program to be aligned with the organizational mission and the overall strategic plan. So it’s equally important to amplify how your program supports those goals and make sure that everyone in the organization is aware of it. And that means, because our world is changing so quickly, that we need to be prepared for how the program might need to change and shift as the museum and its community changes around us. So I guess that’s one more example of risk management, isn’t it?

Marne Bariso:

Yeah, you’re right. Those are great suggestions, and you’re absolutely right that volunteers really enjoy engaging visitors, especially if it’s an area that they themselves, the volunteer, have learned a lot about or they just naturally are drawn to that subject matter. And to be very respectful and strategic is something you said, I agree, if you’re going to be making changes to the docent program, because it’s really probably a big part of their lives and something they love and maybe they helped create too. So that’s really important, too, as changes come along. Change is hard for everybody.

Susan Zwerling:

Yeah, it sure is.

Marne Bariso:

Well, I think we’re coming to a conclusion here. And what an enjoyable conversation, Susan! I learned a lot, and I know that the toolkit and the points that you’ve made are going to be so helpful for volunteer program managers in any stage of their careers. So, yeah.

Susan Zwerling:

Well, that’s great. I’m really glad you feel that way, and I also have learned a lot. These three podcasts that we’ve created together with our two organizations have just been really an enjoyable learning process for me as well. I’m kind of sorry to see it come to a close. But as you said, change is hard, right? But the next project I’ve got on my plate related to the volunteer program is circling back to the toolkit and looking at the possibility of revamping it and upgrading it and revising it. It’s already a year and a half old, and the world is changing so much. We just might do a second edition of it. You never know. But meanwhile, thank you so much for having me as your guest and including me in this. And we’ll look forward to working together in the future.

Marne Bariso:

Yes, we have a relationship now, you and AAMV. Thank you so much for sharing your skills and your wisdom and your work. It’s really great.

Susan Zwerling:

Yeah. It’s been my pleasure as well.

Marne Bariso:

Thank you, Susan.

Susan Zwerling:

And thank you, everybody, for listening.

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Comments

4 Comments

  1. Hi Marne,
    I have just been introduced to this podcast and am interested in hearing the first two parts. Is this possible? I am relatively new to heading the volunteer program at our Museum. All help is welcome.
    Ann

  2. I too was just introduced to this podcast and am interested in hearing the 2nd part. Is that possible? I have purchased the Toolkit and can’t wait to start using it.
    Thank you
    Terri Reed

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