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Yes, I’m a Real Person! Adapting Your Volunteer Program during Instability

Category: On-Demand Programs: Human Resources

This is a recorded session from the 2021 AAM Virtual Annual Meeting and MuseumExpo.

As it cautiously reopened after closing for COVID-19, the Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum reevaluated its volunteer program to ensure that volunteers could offer visitors a unique, safe, accessible, and inclusive on-site experience. Discover how a volunteer program tool kit that focuses on values and available resources can help museums plan for the future, whatever that may look like.

Presenters: Amanda Elliott-Ferrario, Docent Coordinator, National Air and Space Museum; Richard Weld, Visitor Services Supervisor, National Air and Space Museum; Michelle Welker, Visitor Services Coordinator, National Air and Space Museum; Rachel Owens, Visitor Services Coordinator, National Air and Space Museum


Amanda Elliott-Ferrario: Hello and welcome to our session “Yes, I’m a real person: Adopting your volunteer program during a time of instability.” My name is Amanda Elliott-Ferrario and I’m a docent coordinator at the Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum. I’m a white female with brown eyes and blonde hair and my pronouns are she and her. In today’s presentation you will hear from my colleagues Richard Weld, Michelle Welker, and Rachel Owens who will discuss the virtual volunteering program how we came up with it and how you can adopt a virtual program at your site. You will hear some of our tips and tricks as well as our lessons learned and where we plan to take this program next. Before we dive in I’m curious to see who’s joining us today. Please drop your name and organization into the chatbox. Also, please feel free to put your questions in the chatbox and converse amongst one another as we go as we love an open dialogue! We will have time for Q&A later and will draw questions from the chat. We hope you enjoy this session.

On this next slide we have a photo of a Joseon interacting with a visitor on a virtual volunteer monitor in our space hangar in front of the space shuttle Discovery. Virtual volunteering is an easy and impactful way to enhance both the visitor and the volunteer experience. When our doors closed in March of 2020 like many of yours our team was busy thinking of ways to get our volunteers involved and keep them engaged. When we finally got word of reopening to the public last July, we knew we needed to think outside of the box to find a creative and creative way to engage with the public. Using both software and hardware already on hand our virtual volunteering idea began to take shape. Utilizing Microsoft Teams and a television monitor we were able to broadcast our volunteers from the safety of their own homes onto our museum floor and actually have them interact with the public in real time. Volunteers are on hand to answer visitor questions, briefly discuss artifacts, and assist with wayfinding all virtually. And now let’s hear from one of our virtual volunteers, Mary Dominiak, to demonstrate what virtual volunteering is all about.

Mary Dominiak (recording): Welcome to Aaron’s face. Thank you. Is this your first time at Udvar Hazy Center? Actually, it is. I’ve never been here. I’ve been downtown but not here. Well you are in for a treat because we’ve got great stuff here. I actually have a favorite route in order not to miss things. It starts with the hallway right behind you the one that goes past the gift shop. Yeah, as you walk down that hall it’s going to bring you to a sky bridge that goes right across the aviation hangar. At a mid-height, you’re going to have airplanes above you next to you and below you on both sides and as you keep walking you’re going to come to a big glass wall and this is something a lot of our visitors miss. That wall looks down onto the floor of our restoration hangar and as you walk along that observation window you’re going to come out above the space hanger right by the space shuttle Discovery. One of my favorite pieces. Oh, then you can walk down those stairs, go all the way around the space hanger, and come out into the aviation hangar on the ground floor level. You get to walk around all those airplanes you saw from above starting with the SR-71 blackbird, fastest jet ever built. Well, thank you very much. That’s wonderful. You’re welcome. Have a great time and if you see if you have any questions while you’re going through you may see a couple of other monitors like the ones I’m on down on the main hanger floor. There are docents on those monitors. They have to study the whole collection so if you’ve got…

Amanda Elliott-Ferrario: Well, as you can see it isn’t perfect but it works pretty well . At this time I would like to hand it over to my colleague Richard Weld. Richard, the virtual floor is all yours.

Richard Weld: Thank you, Amanda. Hello my name is Richard Weld and I’m the visitor services supervisor at the National Air and Space Museum. I’m an LGBTQ white male with brown hair and brown eyes. My pronouns are he and him. So, the first thing that will come to mind for what do you need to do this kind of thing is you need visitors of the site with an interaction point where volunteers can either assist or educate these visitors in in order to have a program like this. That doesn’t mean there aren’t many great ways to utilize for volunteers virtually but this program is all about having virtual volunteers interacting with visitors at your site. We’re using our virtual volunteers for both our welcome center and for artifact interpretation stations. That’s our in to start the dialogue. Now the hardware and software demands are not as big as you might think and my colleague Michelle Welker will be talking about those soon. But the last thing you need to check off the requirements list is the bioware, by which I mean finding the volunteers and staff for this project. I hope you all have a wonderful volunteer cores but that’s not quite enough. For this, the volunteers will need to have the hardware, the software, and the capability to go virtual but there’s one other requirement using volunteers for this type of project. That’s will they find it fulfilling. After all, this is not what they signed on for. It’s not the same type of interaction with the visitors and many of them will feel that it is simply not enough for them. That’s definitely something we saw but for all the volunteers who have passed on this opportunity for us we’ve still trained over 150 volunteers. We’ve been able to deploy multiple welcome center and artifact stations. Now I’m not going to lie to you there’s also a staff time commitment for this. One we certainly thought it was going to be easier than it actually is back when we came up with this. We thought it would just be as simple as turning on the monitors in the morning and walking away until the end of the day. Well, it’s more than that. As with every volunteer program the volunteers are what gets called in other fields a force multiplier you get a lot of work out of them but you need to work put work into them first. So that’s what you need to know about whether or not you can undertake a project like this. The next question is should you. So, what are your goals to justify the effort and costs involved. You need to know what you’re going to do with this for your virtual volunteer program to be a success. Our first thought when we started was that this would be the best way to serve the visitors while we didn’t have volunteers in the building and it does that well. Visitors can ask questions at the welcome center. They can be educated at the artifact stations and just having volunteer voices in the museum helps it feel a little more alive.

Even more than that, though, we discovered that this really serves the volunteers who are involved as much as the visitors if not more. For all of the social disconnects during the pandemic has been wonderful for them to extend an opportunity to our volunteers to stay engaged not just with the museum not just with visitors but in some cases with the outside world. There’s been a lot of isolation and giving our volunteers, especially those who’ve been living in lockdown and senior centers, a chance to interact with fresh faces that’s been a real benefit to them. It certainly hasn’t hurt the staff either. Frankly, we miss our volunteers, and having the chance to see their smiling faces even on the big screen means a lot to us. And finally, like most of you I’m assing we have been very concerned about volunteer retention during the pandemic. Volunteers get into the habit of their association with their organization and if something breaks that habit sometimes they fall off. What we found with our virtual volunteer program was that it’s been a great tool to keep volunteers involved with our larger museum community.

Okay, so those are the goals we laid out. How did we do and more importantly how do we know how we did? So that brings us to our metrics. Measuring the nber of volunteer hours donated was certainly a common way to gauge the success of all of our programs. I’m sure in the in the before times but if you do that please be aware that you’re very likely to see a significant drop. You may also see a drop in the nber of volunteers donating hours. For our part we’ve had a die hard crew of virtual volunteers but compared to our total volunteer core size it’s only a moderate nber of them. This type of volunteer opportunity is not for everyone. That said, my colleague Rachel Owens, will talk about how we’re seeing some changes in who and how some of our volunteers are able to work with us. So as metrics go, the nber of interactions that your volunteers have with the public it’s a bit tricky to gauge. On our first day of testing this out at a staff only soft open we quickly realized there was a difference between casual interactions waving at kids as they walked by and getting a shy confused wave in return and more substantive interactions they’re very different. That the more substantive ones would be a conversation with someone who has a question. We’ve asked our volunteers to count those substantive interactions and not the casual ones. We still want them to wave at the kids, believe me we do, but what we’ve asked them to count is the nber of visitors served and not just those interacted with. If one member of a family of four comes to the welcome center station and asks some questions about what the family wants to see we ask the volunteer to count that as four visitors served. That’s how we always did it in the past. And what we’re finding is that even with visitation limited for safety measures volunteers are still able to serve significant nbers of people every hour.

Okay, so in smary, this is a program that we have found really works well for us because we had the hardware and the software. We were able to do it at very little cost. We had the staff and volunteers to support it as well as the visitors coming to a site with built-in interaction points. It fills the needs of the visitors, the volunteers, and it’s good for our program’s longevity. While we’re getting fewer volunteer hours logged by fewer volunteers than we did back in 2019 we’re tracking good nbers of visitor interactions and visitors serve works for us. But will it for you? That’s a good question. So now I’m going to hand things over to my colleague, Michelle Welker, who’s going to get into the nitty-gritty details about the physical setups for this type of program, Michelle?

Michelle Welker: Hi, thank you. My name is Michelle Welker. I’m a visitor services coordinator here at the National Air and Space Museum. I’m a white female with brown hair and brown eyes and my pronouns are she and her. So, in this section, we’re going to talk about how to gain the tools that you need to have a successful program and how you can adapt this and scale it to your needs.

So, first we’re gonna, I’m gonna talk about the considerations you need to make to make this a successful program. So, when we’re talking about this, I’m talking about the needs of the institution or the space, the places you will be occupying, the visitors, and the volunteers. I’m going to talk about resources that you hopefully already have and how to make that sustainable and adaptable for your program. And then lastly we’ll finish off with some of the strategies and techniques that we’ve learned over these past couple months that we’ve done that brings the most success of connecting the volunteers and the visitors together. So, when we consider the needs that we need to meet with this program I like to look at it in three different ways. The institution, the visitors, and the volunteers. I do have them ranked in that way for a reason because they kind of build on each other. So the institution the physical space you know is your space. A large airplane hanger that has millions of square feet it’s naturally cavernous, echoey, loud. Is that the space you’re working with? Or maybe it’s a smaller gallery? A space that’s used for quiet and reflection and then you can step out somewhere else to kind of process those feelings with one of your virtual volunteers. So, it’s important to consider what your actual space is and that’s. In that same vein, consider your high and low traffic areas you don’t want your volunteer station to cause a bottleneck, especially these days when we’re still trying to encourage social distancing we want to make sure that it’s a way that it’s not going to interrupt other visitor flow but at the same time, you don’t want to put it in a back corner or around somewhere where maybe people won’t see it. The volunteers are so excited to talk to the visitors so we want to give them the most success they can offer considerations of where to put your monitors or how to deploy them, is the noise level of other videos or activities that are going on and does it interfere with daily operations? So, you really should use these kind of considerations to decide what equipment, what places, and how many of these virtual volunteer stations would work for you in your specific situation. For us, we use a 65 inch monitor which doesn’t look that big next to a space shuttle. However next to the Hope diamond probably would overpower it a little bit.

So, next we want to look at visitors needs. So, who are the audiences that are coming to the museum, the adults, children, are they enthusiasts of your artifacts, they’re just casual passive buyers someone just popping into the museum to spend a few minutes and then what do they come to the museum for? Is it, are they just here not just what they come to the museum for but what they use the volunteers for in the museum? Is it for wayfinding? Are they asking contact questions? They want tours, programs, entertainment. Maybe they’re looking for piece of spot of reflection or just a space to hang out. These are all different things that you need to consider whenever you are deploying a virtual volunteer program.

We personally decided that basically the three things that our visitors want from our volunteers are wayfinding, specific questions, and also a way to find a special connection with the volunteers or excuse me with the artifacts. So, they have specific questions they want answered or they want to have that fun fact, that story, that personal connection that they can look up and say yeah all right that’s special to me. And also, with thinking about the visitors you want to try to make it accessible and as easy as possible for them to understand, to communicate, to really experience this virtual new opportunity we have. And again Rachel will be speaking a little bit more to that in just a few moments.

And last but certainly not least are the volunteers’ needs and we do want to consider this as Richard mentioned their volunteers are amazing and they’re so eager and really the reason we started this process is because we knew they missed the museum and talking to people. So, knowing your volunteer core, knowing their needs is really important. Then with the volunteers the hardware and software needs, again Richard mentioned it, but we did not provide any hardware for the volunteers during this, so we did really rely on them to provide that. Which, did you know, it does cause some problems and not everybody is accessible to it but as the world continues to change volunteers being back in the museum we could still find ways to help. Include volunteers and a different way with this hardware. Software as you know by now being this far into the pandemic there is a host of different kind of web conferencing softwares out there; Zoom, Microsoft Teams, Skype until apparently the end of July. From what I know Go To Meetings, Google Meets, even Facetime could be yours. They’re all free, we’re mostly you know can be free, so it’s a different tool that you can use that you want to explore and make sure that it works right for your program.

The other real thing that the volunteers need is support. As you can imagine them not being on site causes a lot of anxiety and a lot of uncertainty. They don’t sometimes their mics don’t work or they freeze on camera. Or a new artifact came in and they didn’t know so they really depend and need our support, as staff, to be their eyes and ears on the floor. And we do that by we are able to forward a line so they have a direct line to one of the coordinators on the floor. We also utilize the chat function in Microsoft Teams that we’re all able to get that immediately either on our computer or on our phone, whether we’re in the building or virtual to help the volunteer as quickly and as efficiently as we can so really the training, that comfort, that support is really what the volunteers are looking for us. All right, so now, we talked about the needs of the program and how it might fit in your world and so now the resources the hardware, the software, how to actually deploy this, and as Richard said, we’re looking at hardware, we’re looking at software and bioware. I love that that’s the volunteer. For the hardware, I really suggest upcycling any way you can with the enhanced telework that a lot of us are seeing. Or public programs being cut or delayed there are some tech out there that you could use. Maybe those are the big monitors, the computer stands that you are just tucked away in the corner waiting to be brought out again. Look through your supply closets. You may have done an upgrade of your tech recently and a couple of those webcams are still just hanging out in the corner because you don’t want to throw them away, but they might come in use. External speakers may be from your colleagues who are teleworking right now, you can borrow them and use it out. So, you really can look through your tools that your resources that you have and hopefully find something that works that’s what we did. And we were lucky enough to make it work and personal also just a point try not to make it too hard. We’ve noticed that if you try too hard and make it too difficult it might not work as well so keep it simple.

Like I said, for the software, so many great choices you know whatever works best for you but be willing to change and adapt and to be flexible with what you’re using. And software wise you may have noticed it seems like there’s a virtual arms race going on between Microsoft Teams and Zoom to who’s going to have the best features. Who’s going to have the most updated and the best quality. So, it’s important to keep your eye out and maybe a new feature would be better for your program. So, I know change can be hard but that’s what we’ve been doing for the past year. So, let’s just keep going with it and our bioware, our volunteers are so eager and so amazing so we didn’t need to recruit new volunteers for this we were able to use what we already had. They are trained they are, they know the building, and they know us so that personal connection was there already. They know what they’re talking about so why not use our greatest assets but of course that training, that support, and also being there. We did a lot of one-on-one sessions because the tech wasn’t, you know, they weren’t comfortable with it so we were willing to give that extra special touch to make sure that our bioware is, , just as well taken care of as our software, our hardware.

And then the strategies and techniques we will say you can have all the signage that you want but people don’t always read signs so it’s important to have a verbal communication and you may not realize but screens are everywhere, they have been for a while and it’s easy to tune them out. Advertisements movies going interactives so having someone real is very unexpected. So, one of the big things, the technique is really getting down that first interaction. There is a reason why we named this program, Yes, I’m a real person, you cannot imagine how many times we say that a day and I promise I just will never get over how cute and wonderful and surprising it is when the visitors realize there is a real person in that screen that can help them with whatever they need at that time. But also, we’ve to learn that to think that it’s not a video being very specific helps a lot. So, if the volunteer says “oh hello family four I see you’re all decked out and that’s gear are you going to the game today?” it’s a really good way to connect to the visitor. Show them that you are aware of them and that you’re a real person, in real time. However, be careful of your tone and vole of your voice, it definitely carries differently. Either the techniques you use or just virtually in general so keep an eye on that and as the coordinators on the floor sometimes a little extra coaching can help.

Another one technique is actually coined by Amanda our moderator today and it’s under five keeps you live, or otherwise a catch and release. We’ve learned that these stations are not meant to be long-term conversations they should be short interactions asking specific questions to keep people moving on. Now again that’s because we’re trying to keep social distance enhancing but we also want to make it equitable for all visitors to be able to answer their questions. Of course, when you connect with a visitor it’s hard not to stop talking you want to keep going and learning. But it’s really important to make sure you’re aware of the group and to try to get everybody involved as you can. So, catch and release.

There’s some polite ways to do that. Luckily we have more than one monitor so our volunteers can say, “hey why don’t you go check out our my other friend, my other docent volunteer and they’ll be able to tell you even more information about the space shuttle,” We can ask them to go look around and find that specific artifact, and ask any questions, and lastly sometimes it just can be polite and just say “hey thank you for your questions they’re amazing but let me ask another visitor they might have something interesting for you to tell as well.” And this seems very simple, but I think it’s really important is to listen to the visitor, especially because we’re keeping these as short specific interactions you need to answer the question that they’re asking. So, they may ask “when was the last time space shuttle Discovery flew?,” which was 2011 if you’re wondering, but instead of going into the whole story of the space shuttle program. Just answer that specific question. And if there’s a group please you know follow-up questions are always great but those follow-up questions are what continues the conversation, so you know, maybe just answer that question and then move on.

Really the last point is just to be adaptable and flexible. We are in an ever-changing situation with everything that’s going on so really just accept it and roll with the punches and you know be willing to make those changes to make your program better. So hopefully with these tools that I gave you that you’ll be able to adapt this program and scale it appropriately to your organization and your museum so you find that good natural and comfortable way to connect with the visitors in this kind of unnatural 2D world. And on that note, I’m going to hand it over to my colleague Rachel Owens who are going to who’s going to talk about how this program creates a more accessible environment and how we can use this to keep moving forward into a more inclusive and diverse future.

Rachel Owens: Thank you, Michelle. , hello folks my name is Rachel Owens and I am also a visitor services coordinator at the National Air and Space Museum. I am a cis, half Japanese, half-white woman, with brown eyes and medium-length brown hair and wearing a yellow t-shirt with small white flowers today. So, when we were in the developing stages of this program, we identified different opportunities. With something like this to increase our diversity and accessibility for both our volunteers and our visitors. We, in a very similar vein, recognized how we might see some inequalities and inaccessibility depending on the user, and for us, that was just as important to identify. However, we see the long-term benefits of a program like this. I saw a lot of questions in the chat so hopefully, I can touch on those and if I don’t we’ll definitely get to that in the q and a and I hope to engage you all to think about how a virtual program might open doors for you and your site. So, one of the things that we reflected on was how can a program like this create a more accessible experience. Like Michelle and Richard spoke to. A perk of using technology rather than just the one-on-one in-person interactions was that there are more opportunities for accessibility. We saw that a program like this could enhance the experience for volunteers. You know in a more traditional tour, we did implement more rigid expectations or we had a very specific set of expectations that we had for the visitors, or I’m sorry, the volunteers. The volunteers might have been limited by the physical limitations of say conducting an hour and a half tour which is very normal at our site. Sometimes the volunteers would go on for two/three hours. We also had the volunteers spending about four hours every day with us every week or every other week. So, volunteers who live further away would sometimes drive up to two hours both to the site and back. They were happy to do it but with this new opportunity, we were able to examine what was really necessary and how we can leverage different technologies to re-imagine what volunteering can look like and should look like at the National Air and Space Museum. We also saw an adjusted virtual opportunity to enhance the experience for the visitors who are on-site while still sitting, staying safe, especially right now. Our visitor services team knows the value of friendly volunteers on the museum floor and as we prepared for our first reopening back in July of last year, we recognized that for some of the visitors the experience just really wouldn’t be the same without those friendly faces.

Bringing volunteers back in the building like this just made sense to our team who are just so used to working with the volunteers and having them be a part of the visitor experience. And the technology provided a new level of accessibility. We were able to utilize the automatic closed captioning on when we used Microsoft Teams which was both helpful for the visitors who are on the floor. You know, Michelle talked about that cavernous hanger, and I think that’s a brilliant word because it can get quite echoey in there so it kind of was able to help our volunteer, I’m sorry, our visitors really hear what the volunteer was saying on their end. But it’s also beneficial for the volunteer who was back at home. We found it really helpful with the little voices on the museum floor are our very young visitors so additionally closed captioning really isn’t only for those who are deaf or hard of hearing or hearing impaired so many of us use open and closed captions on our day-to-day lives for any number of reasons, myself included. So, that was just an additional thing that we could provide that a traditional walking tour might not have been able to.

We, in analyzing what a program like this could look like at our site like I said, also wanted to identify what inequalities and inaccessibility might result from just using programs like this. You know it definitely isn’t the perfect solution, there are barriers to engaging as a visitor. There’s definitely still a really good cause for bringing volunteers back and conducting in-person tours when the time comes to the excitement of so many of our volunteers I’m sure this program doesn’t allow for volunteers to really have those really interpersonal connections or you know thinking about my welcome desk volunteers you know handing out the maps you know the opening and looking at it together really providing that personalized touch, it’s a little bit more difficult to simulate that with virtual stations. It, also the virtual stations also require someone on the museum floor to you know clearly vocalize for the volunteers to hear and like I said it makes communicating with children or visitors with accents or quieter voices a little bit more challenging…to our volunteers’ disappointment. It also makes asking about nearby artifacts not in view of the camera much more difficult and this happens often you know just kind of standing and looking at the Discovery and noticing all the satellites, unfortunately, the volunteers can’t peer out of the computer and literally turn their heads to see what artifact and what the artifact in question is so thinking about that you know we did have to compromise or think creatively about what those solutions could look like.

Oh, sorry there are also barriers to volunteering virtually. The tech definitely didn’t eliminate all the volunteers, all the barriers from the volunteers’ end they needed to have a computer with a camera, a microphone, and with good internet connection which often isn’t available in rural areas and we do have volunteers who do live out in say Fauquier County or even a little bit further. If you are local to the area and know those landmarks and you know we know that about a quarter of those living and those areas don’t have good access to broadband so while most of our volunteers do have their own personal devices quite a few lacked the technological proficiency or the technological confidence to con comfortably participate with the virtual stations. We did provide really robust training and like Michelle, so we did provide individual assistance when needed and that demand really depended on the group of volunteers that we were working with. But just kind of naturally whether it’s before the training or after some volunteers just self-selected out of this opportunity with the caveat that the moment, we could welcome volunteers back in person they would be the first in line to do so. And so we are really looking forward to that day. This opportunity also asks the volunteers to have a quiet space to fully focus on the museum floor. Which isn’t always possible as we’ve kind of seen during the pandemic. We saw or we are currently seeing all sorts of living situations that maybe we didn’t have before or maybe we do we did you know for example grandkids moving in or doing their schooling with grandparents or their parents or you know say I’m living in a situation now where my partner we’re both teleworking from home and so that can definitely be a challenging time when we both have meetings at the same time. I’m sure many of y’all can relate. So, you know thinking about each person’s lived experience and what’s going on their lives now. This might also not fully allow for all of our volunteers to participate, and we did recognize that and we, you know, are doing other things to keep them engaged with the museum. But thinking about that going forward there’s just another barrier that we saw with our core all that said though. We do really see a potential for this to gain a more diverse volunteer core in the future. And we have a really good case for why we should continue to have these presentations in the or, I’m sorry, these docent stations or volunteer stations in the future. Already we see the benefits of integrating this into our in-person operations rather than just ditching it once our distance and volunteers return to the museum. We’ve actually received quite a few requests from several of our volunteers asking that we consider maintaining these to some degree. Each for their own reasons. Some of our docents are unable to give a really long walking tour but they are able to just chat about an artifact and some of them haven’t been able to do so in a really long time. Because of that. And so just you know they usually, those volunteers, just sit behind the tours desk and provide really great information and wayfinding but the opportunity to talk about the artifacts has been really exciting for them. So, we also have volunteers who live farther out, like I said, we actually had one welcome dust volunteer at the beginning of the pandemic move out to Knoxville and he was just so gutted that he wouldn’t be able to be at his happy place, as he calls it, but now he’s one of our most active volunteers on the welcome desk monitor and he is just so thrilled to be there. So, removing these different barriers whether they be physical ability, the duration of a shift, or geographic location allows for different types of social interactions that benefit a group of volunteers that otherwise wouldn’t be able to engage fully or engage in the way that they desire.

We’ve also received several inquiries from visitors actually who interact with these stations and want to start volunteering at the museum which is really exciting. At the time we weren’t able to develop a new virtual volunteer orientation and onboarding process but looking forward we recognize that we could reach a whole new audience and use this opportunity to diversify our volunteer core at NASAM. With this you know we’ve talked about this as a team we could possibly have volunteers at the National Air and Space Museum from every part of the country which is a really exciting and thrilling prospect and I know that that’s something that we are really looking forward to. As you know we start to transition out of the current crisis. So, with that, we are actually moving on to our q and a portion of the presentation. I wanted to point out that we do have some tools in the handout tab that you’re welcome to download and take a look at but with that, I’ll be passing the virtual mic back over to Amanda.


Amanda Elliott-Ferrario: Thank you so much, Rachel. We do have a lot of questions in the chatbox and we’re going to try to get to as many of them as we possibly can. The first question comes through it says, “how do your visitors tactfully release the I’m sorry how do your volunteers tactfully release the visitors?”

Michelle Welker: Carefully, tactfully we do have some strategies about sending them to another virtual volunteer station that hopefully they can talk to them. We sometimes, the volunteers, send them on a scavenger hunt of sorts you know they were asking for the specific artifact tell them where it’s at and they’ll come back, and then sometimes it’s just as easy as saying hey those are some great questions. Thank you so much, can I get to the person behind you? and if you have any other questions come on back.

Amanda Elliott-Ferrario: Thanks, Michelle. Elizabeth asks do you think that you’ll keep having virtual distant volunteers when things open up further?

Rachel Owens: Yeah, absolutely it’s such a joy to see a new form of engagement. Really the question-answer type of interaction that Michelle talked a lot about it’s really just a new way of learning about the artifacts, too, rather than just kind of getting downloading the dissertation or the biography of each individual artifact. It, I think, it really benefits all sorts of learners and er the incorporation of this is really friendly to different types of learners.

Amanda Elliott-Ferrario: Thank you and another excellent question. We talked about this a little bit in the beginning but did you find crowding among the monitors to be a problem and how did you encourage social distancing with visitors while using the monitors?

Richard Weld: Signage lots and lots of signage what you don’t really see is that we have stickers on the floor that are spaced apart but also the volunteers have been helping with that for to an extent if they’ve been helping people move along and release catch and release and move folks along that under-five keeps you alive has been a really good thing to do. Thank you, Amanda, but the other thing we’ve noticed is that quite often the visitors will space themselves and folks will stand on that second-floor dot waiting for the groups over right in front of the monitor which again gives our volunteers a chance to say, “if you don’t mind I see there are some people right behind you. ” That keeps a moving thing.

Amanda Elliott-Ferrario: Excellent and then this is a question looking forward. From Abby, “do you have volunteers that do both virtual and in-person, and do you have separate teams?” or will we.

Rachel Owens: That is an excellent question. So we actually have other sorts of digital programming that we didn’t touch about during this presentation and we have, in short, we have docents who are willing and able to participate in different virtual programs. We’ve got the virtual volunteer artifact stations and then we hope to have virtual tours for reservation for school groups and other members of the public down the line and yeah we’ve got some superstar volunteers who are ready to embrace any type of programming that we throw at them. So it’s been really cool to see them kind of embrace the new virtual media in all sorts of ways.

Amanda Elliott-Ferrario: Excellent and speaking of the number of volunteers how many volunteers participate in this program and is this something a small museum could be successful with.

Michelle Welker: So, we officially trained about 150 people for this opportunity that’s a mix of our docents as well as our welcome desk volunteers who we call the blue crew. If you remember from Mary’s vest they were blue out of that 100 people or out of that 150 people about 100 people have actively logged hours in our volunteer management system Visas thanks, Todd.

And as Rachel said some have self-selected out so even of those 100 people who have logged hours only about 60 to 75 of them are active but some are very active. Our most active volunteer has logged 144 hours over the five months or so that we’ve been doing this.

Amanda Elliott-Ferrario: Excellent. Thank you and Ashley.

Richard Weld: Just to answer the second part of this question this is a very scalable program though a much smaller core could do it just as effectively.

Amanda Elliott-Ferrario: Absolutely and speaking of the volunteer core here. “What was there a volunteer at each station at all hours that you were open or just certain times?”

Richard Weld: So, we are currently staffing them from 10 to 3 at the three stations and we try to have a volunteer at each station for each of those hours each day. But this is my sign up so sometimes we have a gap hour. Although we do have volunteers who keep an eye out for those and see if they can sign up just the day off to get an extra some let’s get in some extra time.

Rachel Owens: Yeah, and if I could add to that as well we do have the volunteers do one-hour shifts and we do that for a very specific reason. I know that some volunteers would love to be at that station from ten to three. If we would let them and we tell them that we prefer them not to only because these sort of interactions as I’m sure many of us here are familiar but you know really kind of engaging in a zoo meeting or a team’s meeting or these sort of telecommunication settings it’s draining when we did this with staff at the beginning it was it took a lot out of us and we didn’t want to exhaust our volunteers and burn them out the way that maybe some of us are burnt out. Volunteering is supposed to be fun so we wouldn’t want to kind of drain them right as we get something like this going. So, we would have them do one hour just for that reason.

Amanda Elliott-Ferrario: And that actually answered another question that came through so I’ll move on to the next one. And this is a pretty interesting one Ashley and one that we ran into a lot. What did your volunteers do when there were no visitors in front of their monitors? Did they wait on standby and you called them when visitors were on site? How did you do this?

Michelle Welker: They were on camera the whole time. We did ask them to mute themselves if there were long its periods of interactions in between but otherwise, they were on camera for that full one-hour shift. Of course, they could take breaks we just asked them to let us know and turn their camera off but yep they were there the whole time just waiting for people, saying hi as Richard mentioned, waving at the little kids, letting the kids run and cross the monitor, and look at themselves.

Amanda Elliott-Ferrario: Thank you and before we get into a lot of the questions we have about training this is a good lesson learned that I think we have some intel on. “Did you ever have the issue of a volunteer who wasn’t a good fit for this role but really wanted to be engaged with the museum?”

Michelle Welker: Ah, oh go ahead Rachel.

Rachel Owens: I would say that I can’t think of a volunteer who was a bad fit for this. You know, we did have volunteers who really wanted to but their tech just wouldn’t allow them to support it so they, you know, just were unable to participate. We did end up doing some on-the-spot coaching with some of the volunteers as necessary. Usually, we have a staff member you know kind of checking in on all the stations and I’m just thinking about one incident or one very specific example. We had a volunteer who she’s so wonderful she’s a superstar at the welcome center she’s got a really high voice though and you know again thinking about how things translate on different media her very high voice may be errored closer on the side of shrill especially when our monitors are at the max vole and so she was trying to get folks attention and her voice kind of pierced through our cavernous hangers. I’m gonna keep using that Michelle and so you know we would just when there were no visitors around we would just be like, hey you know I maybe you know rather than shouting you know this is kind of how you’re coming across on our end let’s come up with a few different strategies to get folk’s attention, and so we would just kind of do on the spot touch-ups like that and our volunteers were really receptive to that and appreciated it.

Amanda Elliott-Ferrario: Thank you this last question is a pretty long one and I think a lot of people are very curious about our little training program for this. “What does your training look like? How long? How many at once?” Do we have a volunteer training outline that we can share and what our priority areas are that we cover in the training and I will be happy to repeat that after we’ve answered a few of that?

Michelle Welker: So, I will I’ll say what our training was we did a 90-minute PowerPoint training in Microsoft teams. So, I didn’t really touch on it but we used Zoom for all of our other enrichments but Teams was just more beneficial for us here so we capped it at about 25 people. Teams aren’t as great for big large meetings but we use Microsoft Teams. It was a 90-minute training we gave them updates about the museum because being away from when we first opened the when we first initiated the project in the end of July of 2020 we were going undergoing construction so we just updated about what was going on the museum how to make how to virtual volunteer. But we spent a lot of time just getting uncomfortable with the tech and with Microsoft Teams and also making sure they know how to sign up for shifts and log hours because that was a little bit different than they used to do and we ended up doing before we closed in November. We ended up doing four different trainings four or five different trainings for everybody.

And then we did a refresher training earlier this year when we reopened, and we let everybody to come in for that. So, we had about a hundred people which I don’t think we’ll do that again that wasn’t that was a lot of people so take it from there for the other parts of the question.

Amanda Elliott-Ferrario: Yep, so the other parts of the question is, “do we have training outline that we would be happy to share?”

Richard Weld: I don’t think we have it prepped but they have it lying around on their hard drive.

Michelle Welker: We have at least the actual PowerPoint that we use that we could upload to our handouts.

Richard Weld: I don’t think there’s anything top secret in it let’s see if we can drop it in.

Amanda Elliott-Ferrario: Nope, just know that it was based on our site and worked for our volunteers but just know that we’re also happy to connect with anyone offline if you do have questions about our trainings. We have been meeting with people all over the world for this program so we are more than happy to do that as well. And then one question that I really wanted to get back to is , ” how else have we been engaging our visitors I’m sorry volunteers always been closed?”

Richard Weld: Amanda do you want to start with that since you’ve been running a very successful program.

Amanda Elliott-Ferrario: Sure, so since we’ve been closed, we have been working on a lot of volunteer enrichments I’ve been hosting docent presentations which are appeared up here as well as getting other organizations involved. So, we have had guest presenters which we’ve called tarmac talks where we’re having outside presenters come and present to our docents and then our docents are actually presenting to other organizations as kind of a docent transfer kind of thing. We have been, we’ve been doing but that’s just the tip of the iceberg there’s been so many other things Michelle or Rachel?

Rachel Owens: Go ahead.

Oh, no, Michelle I think you’re muted.

Michelle Welker: I was trying to find the power flowing on my hard drive at the very beginning of this. We actually tried to call each one of our volunteers individually which was a heavy lift, but it was fun and we’ve done other things like just one-on-one zoom chat sessions with each person’s particular day because our volunteers tended to volunteer on a certain kind of day. We’ve done educational talks we started doing happy hours once a month which have included a create your own artifacts basically show and tell trivia bingo which was a lot of fun and most exciting we did a pet parade aka show and tell of your pet last month.

Rachel Owens: Yeah, and if I could also add to that you know that for me is another true benefit of or you know Michelle was talking a lot about the different types of ways of how we’ve been kind of checking in on the wellness of our volunteers and that’s something that has been really important to our team. Very specifically, you know at the beginning of the pandemic. You know we were kind of getting information overload about kind of all the negative consequences of things like this and you know of course something that our team really kind of honed in on was how this was affecting, in particular, our older communities in the country and in the world and how a lot were experiencing loneliness and you know we recognize that most of our volunteers especially our welcome desk volunteers and our docents are kind of in that demographic age range and so when we know you know we actually done a survey on our volunteers right before the world kind of closed down. But you know we heard a lot about how for them a lot of the purpose that they find in volunteering is of course interacting with the public but also having that sense of community with each other and so we wanted to make sure that we didn’t just drop off the face of the earth with them and that we were regularly checking in because we care about them so tremendously.

And so, another really great benefit of a virtual program like this you know no matter where you are and the world’s timeline is that this was kind of this for a lot of them is the highlight of their week, you know. They sign up we kind of do have limits to how many shifts they can sign up for otherwise some of them will sign up every single day every single hour but yeah we hear often like this is my happy place. I am just so excited to be here today but looking forward to this and it’s been really awesome to still be able to check in on our volunteers and interact with them. Not just on the monitors but you know like the tarmac talks that Amanda was talking about or the happy hours that Michelle spoke to it’s we it’s part of the job for me where I remember how much I love working with volunteers and being a volunteer coordinator and what service they give to not only the mu the museum and the community but my own life. If I could get a little sappy there.

Amanda Elliott-Ferrario: Of course, that’s what we’re here for, and to come back from the sappiness a little bit Megan asked a very great question, “Have pets ever accidentally jumped onto the virtual volunteer conversations with your guests and how do you have your volunteers handle that?”

Rachel Owens: Yeah, we have had a few cats have made appearances and particularly cats because they are just so agile and prone to climbing I would say you know they would just hop on in the back and you know they have the volunteers just have fun with it and the visitors are very understanding because maybe they’ve had unexpected pets and maybe some of their work meetings so yeah they just play it off and you know I’ve heard you know one volunteer just kind of say oh and you know Todd is you know really into the blackbird or whatever and just have a lot of fun with it.

Amanda Elliott-Ferrario: Absolutely and this is another great question “Have you done trainings on object-based learning best practices in preparation for virtual engagement with audiences? Has that been different than being in person? Any outcomes to share and future impact?” and I’m happy to take this one from the docent perspective. Friends’ so one of the things that we’ve switched our training for our docents since we’ve traditionally had monthly docent trainings for both our national mall building and our Udvar-Hazy Center. Again we are two sites and one museum so we have always had these trainings this year we decided to transition a little bit and have a content part of the training and then a facilitation portion of the training and that facilitation is really fed well into how they’re looking on camera so we actually had our folks from stem 30, Marty and Beth, they are part of our education staff at Air and Space Museum and they actually did an entire presentation on how to look on camera, how to position yourself, where to put your lighting. You know not using your hands as much and talking you know about you know the content that way but we’ve really been working on you know using the objects that are around them. And our docent guides as well which are docent created to really spruce up the artifacts around them. Again, this is a lot more question and answer this isn’t a five minute or less spotlight presentation it’s very quick and one of the biggest thing learning the learning points for our docents has actually been to really brush up on knowledge of everything in the building. It seems a little far-fetched but there actually have been visitors that come up like tell me about that engine on the north side of the hangar and you know they know it they absolutely know it but it’s definitely you know stretched. You know their knowledge as well and they’re still learning and growing. I mean they’re learning what’s in our restoration hanger they’re talking about objects that they’ve never had the opportunity to really talk about on a traditional tour so definitely new learning practices and facilitation techniques. But they’ve been wonderful sports about it and they’ve also been teaching us as we go along too because what they hear on camera is definitely driving our trainings.

And then one last question that came through here and I’m trying to find it. We have a lot of them in here, is do we think that this will change how we recruit volunteers? Do we think that perhaps more people will be able to volunteer with us remotely and from other parts of the world?

Richard Weld: I think we definitely like it too we have used for this so far are pre-existing volunteers, but this gives us an opportunity to have an entirely new type of volunteering post-pandemic alongside our pre-existing programs. And for that, we can you know recruit new people from a much broader pool and that’s going to be very exciting to allow us to have greater diversity.

Amanda Elliott-Ferrario: Excellent and I think we are just about out of time team. So, I hope that everyone found this session both informative and inspiring. At the National Air and Space Museum we strive to ignite tomorrow and for us that starts with our volunteers and how they interact with our visitors. They truly are our pipeline to the public and we cannot thank them enough for their flexibility as we develop this program and as we learn so many lessons. And we hope that us being here today allowed you to learn some lessons and to think about how you could you know adopt this at your own site. And if you do have any additional questions or concerns please feel free to reach out to us and do check out our fabulous attachment that covers the program and our hardware specifics and feel free to connect with us offline. And Rachel has put our team’s email address into the chat box so thank you all for joining us and i hope you have a wonderful rest of your day.

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