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Questions an Organization Should Ask When Transitioning a Volunteer Program

Category: On-Demand Programs

This is a recorded session from the 2023 AAM Annual Meeting & MuseumExpo. Transitioning a volunteer program—whether it involves changes to roles, recruitment strategy, or supervision—impacts the entire organization. In this workshop, develop the framework necessary for these momentous adjustments. From identifying stakeholders, boosting buy-in, and identifying potential barriers to creating a timeline and preparing a communications strategy, a thoughtful transition plan will help organizations avoid dissatisfaction, stalled actions, and bad press.

Download a list of resources.


Susan Zwerling:

This workshop is Questions an Organization Should Ask When Transitioning a Volunteer Program. I’m Susan Zwerling and I’m the moderator for today’s workshop. I’m one of the two program officers for AAM’s Museum Assessment Program, also known as MAP. You might be wondering, “Why is she here?” Well, the reason why I’m here is because volunteer management has been a keen interest of mine in previous positions.

I authored the AAM toolkit called Designing a Museum Volunteer Program a couple of years ago. That led me into a partnership with the American Association for Museum Volunteers, also known as AAMV. That’s a great organization we’ll tell you a little bit more about when we’re talking about resources later on.

We explored together, me and AAMV folks, a lot of issues related to museum volunteerism through several joint podcasts. We are continuing that partnership today with this workshop, to do a deeper dive in some of the issues that we thought were really important topics that we knew that many museums across the country were grappling with. It wasn’t just us.

We’re going to begin today by first talking about some recent shifts in our field that have impacted and influenced museum volunteerism. We’re going to then explore three case studies from our subject matter experts. After their presentations, you all are going to do some small group work with some scenarios and some worksheets that we’ve created just for you.

We’re going to be sharing a couple of tools that you can get to use and apply to those scenarios today. That’ll guide you through the process of planning for change and avoiding some common pitfalls. The last portion of our time together here today will be a chance to share out from your groups and also some time for question and answers.

Now joining me today are four subject matter experts who have done a lot of successful pivoting in response to changes and challenges in their institution. So we have joining me Justine Gregory Dodson, Associate Director of Volunteer Services at the Denver Art Museum. Justine, you want to raise your hand. And Mary Fernandez, Program Outreach Coordinator at the National Trust for Historic Preservation. She is also serving on the AAMV board.

Then we have Brandi Shawn-Chaparro, Associate Director of Volunteer and Visitor Engagement at The Huntington Library, Art Museum, and Botanical Garden and an AAMV board member. Then finally joining us is Jenny Woods, the president of AAMV. I’m going to hand things over to Jenny right now.

Jenny Woods:

So for our conversation today, I want to give a little context to what we’re talking about. Now you may have read some newspaper articles in the past few years, national news, museums getting rid of their docents. That may be one type of change, but that’s not the only type of change we’re talking about today. We want to talk about changes, big and small, within your volunteer program and help provide some structure for that, because things always are going to change.

So some of the types of changes we might talk about or you might be interested in talking about today may be volunteer leadership changes. Maybe your volunteers have been running themselves and you’d like to maybe take the reins back. Maybe there’s organizational leadership that you’re dealing with. A new director comes in, they’ve got some fresh ideas, they’re going to tell you what you’re going to do next, and that may impact your volunteer program.

We’re hearing a lot about organizational capacity these days, particularly as we’re coming back from the pandemic and maybe recruiting volunteers. I’m not going to lie, I think we all know, a lot of volunteer managers got laid off in the pandemic, and not all of those folks have been hired back. So your organization may have different capacity for volunteers.

It may be a change in volunteer roles, whether you are getting rid of your docent program or you are just transitioning the way that your front desk volunteers who previously just sat there and read their book, and now you’d like them to actually engage with people as they come in, or maybe there’s a new policy with your risk management. The volunteers can’t handle cash, and your gift shop is run entirely by volunteers.

So things like this come up. So it might be a change in the volunteer role. Maybe the change in your program is the new focus on DEAI initiatives and the impact that that might have on your volunteer program and how you launch those initiatives.

So why? Why are we changing things? Well, the old model maybe isn’t working any longer. An institution I formally was the volunteer manager of had had a volunteer program since the 1930s. That’s a 90-year-old volunteer program. It had changed a lot of times over the years. But maybe what you’ve got currently might not be 90 years old, but if your volunteer program is not serving your museum’s needs, a change needs to happen. So that might be part of the change.

The pandemic pause and restart, we’re seeing a lot of change coming out of that. Sometimes it was we had a moment to pause and say, like, “Hey, when we come back, should we keep doing this thing that hasn’t been working and has been really frustrating and everyone hates?” Maybe let’s not do that when we come back. So maybe that’s the restart.

Then there are changes in volunteerism, the way people want to volunteer, the way organizations are utilizing volunteers. This preceded the pandemic definitely, but I think the pandemic brought it more fully in the spotlight of … Like I say, the longevity that people want to volunteer with, the types of volunteer roles they want to do. There is some data out there.

2022, my organization, AAMV, we did a survey of specifically museum volunteer managers. Half of those people said their current volunteer numbers were less than 60% of their pre-pandemic numbers and recruitment was cited as a top challenge. In 2023, VolunteerPro did a survey. Now this is not just museum volunteers, this is the wider volunteer world, but 65% of respondents said they have decreased capacity for volunteers post-COVID and a third reported retaining volunteers for 10 months or less.

I know a lot of museums that their training program for volunteers is like 10 months. So that could be a problem for sure. So just a little bit of context. Up next, we’re going to do our case studies. First up, we’re going to hear from Justine.

Justine Gregory Dodson:

Hi. Well, the first thing I thought I would show you is a logo that we made a lot of changes at the Denver Art Museum before COVID, and then even more after organizationally, but also in our volunteer program. And so, I felt like a logo could be really helpful just to unite everyone. And so, we really tried to highlight the most important vision that we have, which is we value volunteer perspective. We value the variety of perspectives that they bring, and backgrounds and skills that are unique. And so, the colors and the shapes all reflect that vibrancy of our volunteer program.

Something that really helped us with making change was having a strategic plan for volunteer engagement. I think maybe other organizations do this. But we were able to do a survey of volunteers, staff, and trustees. And so, we had a lot of data to use in developing a strategic plan.

The strategic plan was developed by staff, volunteers, and trustees. So whenever we were going to make change, we said this was a document that we all created together. Then we did have support from an outside consultant, VQ Volunteer Strategies, to help us move this forward.

There were three critical issues, sort of three buckets, that comprised our strategic plan for volunteer engagement. One is to nurture a collaborative and unified workforce of volunteers and staff.

We found in our survey that there were huge gaps between volunteers and staff, volunteers over here and staff over here, and that came out in the survey. And so, we really wanted to unify us in our work together, because if we’re not working well together, we’re not going to have impact.

To broaden the diversity of volunteers and improve our ability to leverage their skills, talents, and uniqueness. We have a real racial equity focus at the Denver Art Museum. And so, this bucket really fit in well with that work.

Lastly, empower volunteers and staff for maximum effectiveness. This really related to our systems and processes and how we are all working together.

So I’m going to share with you today a little bit about looking at our leadership model. So we had a volunteer executive board that had been in existence since 1960s or ’70s, and was formed by Junior League. Our volunteer executive board did a lot of everything about the museum before we had staff. In fact, our museum was formed by volunteers in 1893. So we have a long history of volunteerism at the museum.

But the goal from the strategic plan that really supported us looking at our leadership structure was evaluate, redefine or define, and communicate the role of volunteer councils and the volunteer executive board.

The other reason for this change was really about how the DAM was really an evolving organization and that we as an organization are looking at ourselves all the time and assessing, is this working or is this not working and what can we do? And so, really fitting into that.

As I mentioned, the equity, diversity, and inclusion is a real priority at the museum. And so, that involves a diversity of perspectives, flexibility, collaboration, inclusivity, and diversity, of course.

Then really looking at impact. Volunteers at the museum had run the museum at one point. And so, now and through time that’s really changed. And so, we had to take time to reinforce that volunteers are supporting our work at the museum, and that would allow us for greater capacity in our work.

So I mentioned the volunteer executive board had a president, a vice president, a treasurer, secretary. It had rules of procedure. But what we found from the research and our survey, explained that it was rather exclusive and it was a big commitment, of a lot of volunteers didn’t know exactly what the volunteer executive board did, and staff felt that they didn’t have a voice at the table. And so, we obviously want voices from everyone at the table. The meetings were scheduled during the day, Monday through Friday, which really excluded working volunteers. Then, as I mentioned, the role of the group was unclear to most people.

So what we did is we formed a task force of staff members and volunteers, and we were careful in selecting who those people were. But we wanted to make sure that they represented different areas of volunteer work, because we have volunteers who work in education, but all different areas of the museum. And so, we needed all those perspectives.

In this task force, we presented three different working models. We came up with three different models. One of them was very much like what we already had. Then we had a couple of others that were more about a working model, working group model. What was interesting is we ended up morphing all of those models into one, so that … And everybody came out feeling like their voice was heard.

But we walked through a scenario with each of the models to see, okay, if we use this model, what’s going to happen? What will it look like? We also took polls to narrow down what the model, the final model, might look like. We presented the new model to the volunteer executive board at large to get their feedback.

We also had outcomes. When this task force came together, we wanted to make sure that we had clear outcomes of what we would end up with. And so, we wanted to make sure there was an inclusive and efficient system for staff and volunteers to share ideas about issues that we’re addressing together, that there was an inclusive and efficient system for communicating museum news and priorities from staff to volunteers. When we had the volunteer executive board, they were the only ones hearing some of this museum news. So we wanted to make sure that was broader.

We had to make sure there was a point person for reporting volunteer impact to the board. So we have a seat on our board of trustees for a volunteer. Don’t want to lose that, so we want to make sure that we have that addressed. Then a strategy for conducting regular social and learning opportunities for volunteers. That’s the main reason our volunteers are at the Denver Art Museum is because they want to learn more about art and they want to have connection and community and friendships.

Then we also have volunteer funds that … There are three different volunteer funds. So we wanted to make sure we had some system for tracking those funds and making decisions about how they’re spent.

So what we were careful about doing is introducing this change, first to a smaller group of volunteers and before we introduced it to a larger group. So we introduced it to the volunteer executive board, then we took it to the larger volunteer group. We used the Art of Alignment, which is a book, A Practical Guide to Inclusive Leadership, to walk people through understanding the change. So we looked at clarifying questions, sharing compliments for this new model. What concerns do people have? Then incorporating any changes that they have.

Then, finally, we weren’t looking for them to vote whether yes or no. We wanted a commitment. And so, we asked them to rate their level of commitment and being involved. Then really thinking about how we communicate the change. This was mentioned in the last session, but communicate the change, the why the change, as often as possible over and over again and in as many different communication formats that you have.

We have newsletters. We have Zoom updates with our volunteers. We also have a learning management system. So we put all of the information in all of those places.

Then identifying stakeholders is so important in change. So we had past presidents we needed to reach out to. We had the current VEB. We also looked for who would be a champion for the change and then who are those challengers that we want to really change and get to think about things differently. And so, I made a lot of phone calls, phone calls with people who I thought were having trouble understanding the change.

Then, lastly, I just want to say that honoring the past is really important, and particularly for the Denver Art Museum. Volunteers at the museum have been running the museum, as I said, for tens of twenties of years. And so, we created a space at the museum in the Hamilton Building. We were hoping it would be done in time for AAM, but it wasn’t.

But basically we have described all the different areas where volunteers work. We have photos of them in action. Then we also have plaques where we’re listing all of the volunteer leaders and award recipients. And so, we will be able to really highlight that and how volunteers are so important to our story and to where we are today. So thank you.

Mary Fernandez:

Hi, you all. I’m Mary Fernandez. I’m with the National Trust for Historic Preservation. Thank you so much for joining us today. I’m really excited to talk to you all about the training and retraining process for volunteers within different initiatives related to diversity, equity, inclusion, and access.

First and foremost, in this process, I think it’s really critical to have a shared language for that process. These definitions that are up on the screen came from the American Alliance of Museums. There’s a lot of resources there, absolutely. But really everyone getting to the same point of understanding as part of that training and retraining process as well.

So DEIA initiatives really have to be an organizational-wide process for them to have any measurable success. one of the things that we always tried to emphasize with our volunteers that I’ve worked with in the past is that training volunteers and coordination with staff and also board members is a statement of the volunteers’ value to the organization. It says, “we want to take you along with us in this process.”

A lot of volunteer managers are put in the position where as part of the DEIA training, they’re said, “Hey, diversify your volunteer corps,” and that’s where the conversation ends. No further resources, no further conversations about what needs to happen to get to that point or to create a sense of inclusion and inclusivity among your volunteer corps.

Now when you approach your volunteers with the idea of them being trained within either a larger DEIA initiative or as part of the continuing education of their program, there are going to be a lot of reactions, some of them positive, some of them negative. But what’s essential for this to work is for your volunteers to have shared values.

If you’re volunteers don’t line up with the values of your organization as it moves forward, you’re going to run into a lot of issues that lead to conflict and really make it so your volunteer program doesn’t work for your organization anymore. So negotiating those reactions and also trying to call folks in to the process is going to be really critical for that to be successful.

Training and retraining volunteers around this focus takes into consideration your visitors’ consideration of volunteers, and it really is a reframing of liability within the museum field. I understand why some museums move to a paid docent model. I know how hard it is to maintain content control, but it’s not always a realistic option for every museum, particularly small ones. I truly think that there are viable alternatives to eliminating programs if you’re committed to approaching it thoughtfully and intentionally.

I personally believe that continuing, as in not one-off, DEIA training with your volunteers cannot only benefit your volunteer program, your relationship with the public, but it can also have real residual benefits, both in your volunteers’ personal lives and within your community at large, which allows your site to become a place where these importance of civic dialogues can happen and take place, when everyone is prepared and given the tools to be able to do so.

Holding these trainings takes into account your visitors and their experience on their site in a plethora of ways. But, for instance, it helps prepare your volunteers so they can better accommodate and serve visitors with accessibility needs. It takes in account the culture of your volunteer corps and its inclusivity, which especially impacts future recruitment and the experience of your volunteers on the day-to-day.

I also mentioned that reframing liability. I like to talk about how they’re shifting liabilities in the museum field, which is also a great way to approach getting leadership buy-in for funding for these trainings and retrainings, particularly in interpretation. There has long been this expectation of avoiding darker areas of our history out of a desire to not upset the public, with the implication that the public is the white public.

But there has been a reckoning in museum spaces, and the greater liability is to fail to address history and tell a history as it deserves to be told, more fully and completely. There we go.

Now some strategies for success. I really want to bring in the idea of voices of authority, because I think a lot of the times our relationship with our volunteers is very personable. I joke that being a volunteer manager can sometimes be like being the HR manager for the most unhinged company on the face of the earth.

Oftentimes I may communicate something to my volunteers, especially with existing volunteer corps, and they like, “Oh, yeah, yeah, Mary. I get it,” or they may have been there longer than I have, and they actually consider themselves to be the voice of authority. That certainly happened to me in an instance where I was at an institution that had 400 active volunteers and I was a brand new volunteer manager. Some of these volunteers have been around for decades. You have to build trust with them, but you also have to know the limitations of your own role.

As the volunteer manager, I really recommend bringing in an outside consultant. My volunteers responded a lot better to hearing it from someone they perceived. We all like to be an expert for our volunteers, but from someone they perceived to be a specific to the subject area expert, it’s nice to hear an outside voice. It really helps that process along. I know a few great people to recommend you to if you need some recommendations for some outside consultants.

I really want to emphasize with that, though, that your volunteers of color should not be put into the position of doing the emotional labor of being your voice of authority and making this change happen within your volunteer corps. It’s not their job. Growing and learning can be uncomfortable, should be uncomfortable. As a white presenting woman of color, I’ve absolutely heard things that made me very uncomfortable in this learning process. But I fully consented to my role in that process, and I was paid to be there. That’s not the job of your volunteers of color.

Now, as I mentioned, you have to accept and expect discomfort if you’re making measurable, good, healthy change within your volunteer corps. If they’re growing and understanding different concepts, that’s going to be uncomfortable. There’s going to be conversations that aren’t always pleasant to be a part of, but you have to commit to listening and learning and sharing and growing together and allowing people the space to understand more complex concepts.

I was really happy that I got to the point with some of my volunteers where, of course, they text you after hours sometimes. My volunteer would text me in the evening and be like, “Wow, I was watching this television show and they were talking about cisgender versus trans. I don’t really understand it. Would you mind talking to me further about it?” I’d be like, “Sure, I’ll call you tomorrow during work hours.”

But they were able to come to me and use me as a resource to help that growing process along, and I was really happy to be able to play that role for that person. Oftentimes, people’s reactions don’t come from a place of outright hatred or disliking of other groups. It’s not understanding and being really nervous to move forward and nervous to ask the questions they need to ask in order to exist a little bit more empathetically … Empathetic. That’s right. That’s right, that’s right. It’s been a long conference.

But along with this, you also have to be willing to make hard decisions. Not every volunteer was ever going to be on board with DEIA training and retraining, continuing education, and we had to fire a few volunteers. Ultimately, it was to the benefit of the volunteer organization. It was a healthier environment, a much less toxic environment, that people felt more welcoming. They felt that they could belong to the group and they felt they weren’t being excluded to that extent.

We have this assumption that every volunteer needs to be hung onto with every amount of strength that you have, but sometimes they’re just not serving the direction that your organization is heading. You have to be able to make that call and be committed to making that call when it needs to happen.

You also need to prioritize, as I said, organizational values and critically set expectations at every stage. Set expectations at every stage. I will say that 10 times. Not only for your volunteers to understand this is where we’re going, we want to bring you with us, this is where we’re heading, and to reinforce these concepts so that they’re continuing to engage with them throughout their time with your organization, but also it’s going to be really critical in the recruitment process, as you bring new volunteers into your volunteer corps. It provides a filter for people who aren’t going to match your organizational values if you come out loud and strong at the beginning of their training about what you expect from them and what the expectations are of your museum.

As I said, continuing education is really critical, not only for your volunteers but yourself as the volunteer manager. If you’re going to continue to be a resource for your volunteers and also be able to have them come to you with questions, it’s really critical that you go through this process in your own training, look at your own biases, and find ways that you can learn together.

This work is an ongoing journey. It’s one without a destination. Everyone’s on different parts of their journey and you have to meet people where they are. But there can be incredible benefits from moving forward. With that.

Brandi Shawn-Chaparro:

I’m going to walk you through the case study that I’m here to share, which is at The Huntington Library, Art Museum, in Botanical Gardens, we received an IMLS grant in 2019 to revamp our docent training program to create a RAD program, and RAD standing for relevance, access, and diversity.

And so, we were really looking to both diversify our volunteer corps, as so many institutions are being tasked with doing, to better reflect the community that we sit within and also the changing demographics of our visitors, which, in the pandemic, because we were one of the very few institutions open. We were classed as an outdoor museum, so we were able to stay open. We saw a huge influx of first-time visitors, and they came from much more diverse backgrounds than those that were visiting before.

So we were really looking for, and this has … I’ve been at The Huntington for 10 years now. It’s been something that’s been on my mind for a really long time. The model for training docents across many institutions is very similar in many cases where there’s a legacy docent program, and it often is a factor in who actually becomes a volunteer at your institution.

So we were looking for finding a way to change training, and the way we started with that was looking at some of the visitor data that we had already. Then we were able to continue to collect more visitor data as the grant went on. We’re still in the grant. We have about a month left.

There’s still lots of work to do, but in collecting visitor data, I’ve got one of the examples of some of the data we collected, and it’s something that I really make a point of sharing with our volunteers, that of the people surveyed, which it’s a representative number, only 3% of visitors come to our institution with the express purpose of learning something.

Many of the docents are shocked by this. They are so interested and passionate about the collections that they think, well, of course everybody wants to come and they want to learn everything about our founder and everything that we have. When I share with them that the number one reason that people come is to relax, and the vast majority of patrons come and only go to the gardens, or mostly go to the gardens that we have. They’re really going there to recenter themselves, for wellness, and it’s not to necessarily interact with anyone. And so, I don’t share this with them as a way to show them that they’re obsolete, but rather as a justification for building different engagement opportunities for visitors that they can participate in.

So we wanted to change those more traditional docent tour opportunities where you show up, your docent’s there and they’re ready to provide you a lecture for an hour or 90 minutes, and you just passively let them lead you around. We really tried to shift to providing opportunities, visitor engagements that were focused on greater interaction or even just simply reducing the time commitment that we were asking visitors to make to participate in these opportunities, because we find that people do have questions as they’re coming into the galleries or out in the gardens, but they may not necessarily feel comfortable going on an hour-long tour, especially at our institution. We’re open from 10:00 to 5:00, and lots of people show up at 3:00. There’s 207 acres to see, and it’s going to be really hard to do that if you only have a couple of hours.

So we’ve really tried to shift the focus of our docents to think about how we’re creating visitor-centered experiences. In doing that, it’s allowed us to revamp our training, because we’re trying to make the visitor engagement opportunity be reflected in the training that we’re providing to those docents.

So in many cases, as I mentioned earlier, that very traditional training that looks like a university-style lecture for 10 or 12 months, if you train in a lecture format, odds are you’re going to get a lecture tour out of that docent because you have not shown them in the way that you want them to do it. You’ve downloaded all of this information to them, and then you may be able to engage them in how to work with visitors.

But creating a training that is shorter is also something that is a big part of our IMLS grant goal, which is to create more opportunity for people who are … As my colleagues have talked about, who are working adults, people with families, students, people who are not retired. So, for instance, the trainings that we created were between three and six weeks. I have some examples here of what the different assignments that we created using that visitor data, which were really based on the amount of time that we were asking docents to engage with visitors.

So it goes from ask me, which is a docent who is really having short engagements with visitors as questions arise, spotlight docents who are focusing on a single object for 15 to 20 minutes, and then some of the longer opportunities still for those who want that kind of thing.

So a big part of creating a more accessible and inclusive docent program, as I’ve talked about already a little bit, is the training itself. And so, we did a few things to try to create a training that a more diverse pool of docents would be available for. So we scheduled sessions on a weekday and a weekend. We acknowledged that there were certain elements to these assignments which were more conducive to self-study over having to have people come to campus for so many weeks.

So, for instance, with the ask me assignment that I mentioned earlier, the training is three weeks long, but they have access to many resources that are delivered to them in an online environment, so that they can access that. It’s a great fit. It’s been a great fit for some of our college students and working adults so that they can really get through that training at their own pace.

Then the in-person sessions, when we ask them to come to campus, are really more focused on the practical components of engaging visitors and how to approach people, how to notice body language if somebody maybe doesn’t want to engage. I mean I think many of us may have experiences with docents not being able to read those cues from people of, “I don’t really want to engage. I just want to, again, be at peace in this space.”

But really being able to focus on scheduling and the way that we were offering our materials, and then keeping being respectful of people’s time so that we are making sure that we’re prioritizing building of community when they’re on campus together in person is something that I think has really contributed to us being able to begin to build a more diverse docent corps.

We’re also building in DEI training throughout the training program instead of standalones, as Mary talked about. And so, I think that the delivery of training is something really important to keep in mind if you are thinking about how to change your program and being able to split things up … That’s me. To split things up so that you can break off pieces for people, and not just the docents who are training but thinking about how visitors are breaking off time of their day where they may have lots to see and how they may not want to make a time commitment of an hour.

I mean I’ve seen people not participate in a docent experience because they weren’t sure if they’d get stuck, or how long they were going to be on that experience. And so, being able to message to visitors and in turn the volunteers who we were training that this thing is 10 minutes long, this thing is 15 minutes long, so that people could really make informed decisions and hopefully lead to a better experience for visitors and volunteers.

I’ll end by saying we also have taken time to really message to our volunteers and remind them that they, as much as we as staff, are in service to the institution. And so, the work that we’re doing is towards making good on our mission and making sure that the things we’re doing are in alignment with our strategic plan.

Susan Zwerling:

We’re really excited about unveiling our tools and giving you the opportunity to start playing around with those. But we have set aside about five minutes now to do some questions and answers with our … Does somebody have a question? That hand went up so fast.

There’s going to be another chance after we finish the workshop portion to also ask some additional questions that may pop into your mind as you’re processing this and working together with each other. We’ll be sharing our contact information at the end as well. So you can always reach out to us later on. So before we move on to the workshop portion, we have a question right here.

Speaker 1:

Hi there. Thank you. I have two questions.

Susan Zwerling:


Speaker 1:

First, Brandi, you mentioned some of your training materials online. Can we access it and maybe steal or glean from some of what you’ve already … Instead of reinventing the wheel, we could look at it, or would we need a login?

Brandi Shawn-Chaparro:

You do need a login to access those materials. But if you’re interested, you are welcome to contact me personally and we can figure out which of those … There’s a lot of resources because we have a lot of different assignments. But we could figure out what would be most helpful for you, and I’m happy to share those resources.

Speaker 1:

Okay, that’d be great. Second question, a few of you mentioned hiring consultants. I’m at a small museum. We have zero to nothing budget. So how much are consultants? If that’s too much, what are some other alternatives if you can’t hire a consultant?

Mary Fernandez:

Yeah. Actually I should also mention that AAMV has a DEIA toolkit that’s free and available to the public, not behind a paywall. We have other group resources, but they are behind the membership paywall. But the DEIA toolkit is something that I absolutely encourage you all to check out. I included it on one of the slides. Great. If you go to our website, you can find it.

We tried to create a resource that was for folks of varying levels of resources, and also with an emphasis on what’s within your sphere of influence as a volunteer manager. So I’ll just put a plug for that.

But also my institution wrote a grant specifically to fund a DEIA consultant. This was not something that was in our regular operating budget, but something we were able to get grant funding to do. That’s certainly an option.

I’ve heard of a lot of organizations that … There’s this saying, like, show me your budget and I’ll show you your values. That’s another part of the equation as well. Sometimes it does take a matter of just putting funds over. But I know that’s always inevitably, especially for our smaller museums, going to be a huge barrier. So grant writing, I’d say, is usually the best bet. Do you want to [inaudible 00:41:03]?

Brandi Shawn-Chaparro:

[inaudible 00:41:03].

Susan Zwerling:

We have another question over here.

Speaker 2:

Thank you. That was an incredibly helpful presentation and great work that you all are doing. One thing I’m thinking about actually from a previous role, but that I know has come up and probably will come up again, is the challenge of when volunteers are also donors or board members or otherwise and maybe do need to transition out of the volunteer role. If you have any examples or strategies or recommendations for how to maybe rebalance that issue of authority.

Justine Gregory Dodson:

I was going to say that something we’re trying is an emeritus volunteer program, because we do have a lot of volunteers who are so dedicated to the museum and they don’t want to say goodbye. They have a lot of friends.

So the emeritus program is designed for volunteers who serve 15 or more years in any area at the museum. They get a special pin, an emeritus pin. They have an opportunity to still participate in learning and social opportunities with their volunteer colleagues. They’re just not active volunteers any longer. They’re required to maintain a museum membership. So they will have opportunities there for learning and social in that sense as well.

But I will say that I think it’s really important to have a graceful way for people to move on, and it’s really tricky for them to make those decisions. So a program like an emeritus program, while it can be … I think we’ve set ours up so that it won’t be too cumbersome, because I think you have to be careful about that. Is it sustainable? Can you maintain it?

We’ve wrapped ours into our membership program, so they’ll be tracked that way. So I don’t have to find out if they’ve moved or anything like that. The member program will track that for me. But I will send invitations to particular events. But it’s really manageable, I feel like.

I forgot to mention in my presentation that our strategic plan for volunteer engagement is on the Denver Art Museum’s website. So if you wanted to look at that, it’s on our volunteer page. It’s also listed in the resources.

Mary Fernandez:

[inaudible 00:43:26]. One second.

Susan Zwerling:

We’ve got one question over here.

Mary Fernandez:

One second.

Susan Zwerling:

And then … Oh, I’m so sorry.

Brandi Shawn-Chaparro:

I’m just going to add-

Susan Zwerling:

Brandi has a comment.

Brandi Shawn-Chaparro:

I’m going to add briefly to that. To your question about donor docents, having a no-conflict policy is a great way to prevent that. That’s not always possible. I am a strong promoter of that, but have to admit that I have not been able to implement that at my institution. But it’s something that in lieu of.

If you have the ability to set that up, do it. Do it now. But if you don’t, I think one thing that you can do is to make sure that you have really strong relationships with your development team and that you are communicating changes to them very early on throughout the process, asking for their feedback, and not just meeting with …

If you have a large development team, let’s say, not just with the head of it, but the people who are fielding phone calls on a day-to-day basis to make sure that everybody understands how to message the change and how to encourage them that it’s not personal, it’s not something vindictive against docents, that if it’s a real need and it’s something that you have to do, to be able to be prepared with evidence for that too I think is always a good way to get the donor docents on your side. But leverage development teams, absolutely.

Susan Zwerling:

Okay. Thank you for that. We’ve got our last question.

Speaker 3:

Hi. It seems like a common theme for why some institutions are eliminating their docent programs is to better support DEAI initiatives through exerting more control over the content of educational programs and making sure that whoever’s presenting that content doesn’t go off script. For institutions that have not eliminated their volunteer programs but have simply redesigned them, can you speak to how you manage or prevent the volunteers from going off script and avoid that problem?

Mary Fernandez:

Yeah, absolutely. I’ve worked with that a lot. So, first and foremost, you have to take the approach of being brutal. You have to be brutal about what you will and will not allow said on tours. There is just a hard cutoff for me, and if I hear or hear of anything happening that is not okay, not acceptable, makes other volunteers uncomfortable, makes the visitors uncomfortable, is not according to how we approach the interpretation of the site, that’s it. We’re done. With leading tours at least.

You can gently redirect people into other roles. But as far as the level of severity, I have a zero-tolerance policy for inappropriate content on my tour. You have to be that way in order to really maintain those standards.

That being said, there are a lot of different strategies to work with people. You really have to, again, front load set expectations and have these conversations quite thoroughly before you have docents that are even at the point of leading tours.

If it’s someone who’s an established guide, I really recommend secret shoppers. So we’ve worked with different emerging museum professionals and offered a stipend or small amount of money to be able to listen in on some of these tours. I did a lot of listening in on tours.

When you create an environment of accountability among your volunteers, where they each feel like they are accountable to each other as well, it really goes a long way towards ensuring that we stick to the program.

Brandi Shawn-Chaparro:

[inaudible 00:47:44] quickly add to that too, I think, yeah, absolutely being willing to have conversations with people immediately following something like that occurring is really important. But also I’ve encountered with an older demographic, let’s say, of docents, we’re really coming down to a difference in language that’s generational and being able to acknowledge that and help them figure out through your DEI training, through just ongoing learning what the appropriate terminology is. I think we all, as we get older, get further and further away from knowing exactly the right thing to say.

So just as a quick example, I was doing an evaluation on a tour with an older docent, and she used … She was … In describing the narrative of a painting that there was a slave in that painting. Afterwards, I pulled her aside and I asked her, “Can I give you some feedback about your tour today and some of the language that you used?” and explained to her the nuance of using the word enslaved as opposed to slave.

I mean it’s that nuanced, and I don’t think we necessarily realize how difficult it is to navigate that as we get older, or maybe we’re experiencing it. I know I am. But that’s another way is to just really … I think, again, as Mary mentioned earlier, that it’s not necessarily coming from a place of animosity or hate, but it’s really about not having the appropriate tools or terminology.

I think we spoke earlier, Jenny mentioned it of … And Justine, of reiterating over and over again these concepts of being able to just repeat over and over in all the ways that you can how to keep doing this work.

Susan Zwerling:

Okay, thank you. Thank you all for such insightful and engaging questions. We’re going to move on to our small group work now. And so, this is your time to get active and engaged with each other.

Okay. We’ve got the mic going around, and it looks like we have a group that is hot to trot and ready to share out. So if you can please give them your attention.



Susan Zwerling:

Do you want to stand up?


Okay. Yes. So my name is Carolyn and I’m from the Missoula Butterfly House in Missoula, Montana. We talked about our volunteer program is about to explode in numbers in a big way. Right now we’ve got maybe a dozen that help me with small things, and we’re about to open a big new facility. And so, we’re trying to figure out volunteer roles. We’re trying to figure out how we do ongoing training. And so, that’s the thing that we talked about is how do you go from 12 to 40 maybe, and how do you train them and make them feel supported and then organize them all? So that’s what we talked about.

Susan Zwerling:

Were there any particular questions that helped guide what you were doing as you were working through that scenario? Anything that was especially relevant or resonated with you?


We talked about using hybrid training opportunities to manage the larger size and to help bridge the gaps between formal trainings. That was helpful.

Susan Zwerling:

Okay, great. All right. Thanks for sharing that. Is there another group that wants to share out?

Mary Fernandez:

Can I share something I overheard? I want to give a shout out to the group over in this corner. I saw that you all did scenario number one, and I overheard one of you say, “Well, what is the worst-case scenario from this situation?” and someone said, “Well, someone’s been hurt. This already is the worst-case scenario.” I really appreciated that approach to thinking about this scenario. You all can talk about it further if you’d like.

Susan Zwerling:

Going once, going twice.

Mary Fernandez:

[inaudible 00:52:11] … Okay, we’ve got a taker.

Susan Zwerling:



I’m Pat from the Desert Botanical Garden, and I’m a volunteer they sent here. So props on them. But one of the gals in the group had brought up that they have a peer review with all their volunteers on a yearly basis, which would really help to manage it. I thought that was an excellent idea.

Susan Zwerling:

Thank you.

Speaker 4:

I can speak a little more.


Here you go.

Susan Zwerling:

All right.

Speaker 4:

[inaudible 00:52:46]. So we call them mutual experience reviews rather than just peer reviews. We do them once a year, and we do it with every single volunteer within our department. Within the mutual experience review, what I was telling my group is it gives the opportunity to volunteers to talk very openly and honestly with us, give us suggestions, give us feedback, tell us what they’re looking more for from us. It allows us to do the same with them, and then it gives us an opportunity to resign and look over the volunteer contract every single year. It has definitely opened up a lot of avenues for communication, trust, and also just complete and open visibility for people. So, yeah, that’s just a suggestion. Yeah, it works well.


Thank you.

Susan Zwerling:

Thank you. Anybody else? Okay. Why don’t we open this up to question and answer for our subject matter experts here that did their presentations earlier, because we moved on from that pretty quickly to make sure we had time for workshopping. Any questions that people have for Mary or Brandi or Justine? There’s a question right over here, and the mic is coming over to you.

Mary Fernandez:

Subject matter expert’s a lot of pressure. We’re all learning together.

Speaker 12:

This is mainly for, I think, Mary. You had talked about doing like DEI trainings and things like that. How did you get your entire staff and board behind that to make sure you had the culture that was necessary for that to be successful?

Mary Fernandez:

Yeah. I have to be honest, sometimes it’s a matter of luck. I happened to work at an organization where I had leadership buy-in, I had a lot of support. The staff was on board. Even then, that did not make the conversations any easier. There was a lot of soul searching in the process, not only in the training with volunteers but absolutely in the training with staff as well.

I hate that that is sometimes the answer. One of the groups that was over on this side of the room, there was a conversation about how critical leadership buy-in is. Unfortunately, as much as sometimes we want to have the answer to how to achieve these results, sometimes we run into barriers, and that’s an unpleasant truth about approaching this kind of work.

That being said, there are some tools that you can use to start bringing about leadership buy-in. As I mentioned before, reframing liability is a really big one that I’ve used with a lot of success, that even if someone doesn’t necessarily come from … Even if the leadership in your organization doesn’t come from the expectation that they’re personally passionate about DEIA.

If you reframe this as there are expectations, we might get called out. If you can frame this as a financial liability, as a liability as far as how visitors will interact with the site. There absolutely are real liabilities that can come from not evaluating where your organization stands as it relates to diversity, equity, inclusion, and access. So that can go a long way too, but that that’s one of those things.

Susan Zwerling:

Okay. I think there was a question over here in the corner.

Jenny Woods:


Susan Zwerling:


Speaker 6:

So this is somewhat related to the question right before. It’s been through my experience that I see that we expect our volunteers to really hold our mission and values, and they’re one of the most front-facing value portions of the work that we do. When I hear values being centered in the way that we want volunteers to adhere to these expectations, I wonder if we have those expectations institution-wide, not only from the staff that you mentioned there but even from the donors that we choose to take on.If any of you have run into that, how are you navigating possibly people not being the shining examples for your volunteers?

Mary Fernandez:

Yes. Yeah, I mean that’s one of the things. Everything falls apart if you don’t look at your organization holistically, and it happens that everything falls apart if you don’t look at things holistically. You can’t do anything related to DEIA piecemeal.

But something that all of us have is a sphere of influence. Sometimes no matter what we hope for for our organization, whatever direction we want to go in, that may or may not happen depending on our sphere of influence. We can try to expand our sphere of influence, we can try to make other people’s sphere of influence aligned with yours, but a small change is still a win. You take your wins where you can make them happen. Brandi, did you have anything?

Brandi Shawn-Chaparro:

Oh, yeah, [inaudible 00:58:31].

Mary Fernandez:

Brandi is so eloquent. I love how she phrases things. I think the world of Brandi.

Brandi Shawn-Chaparro:

Thank you, Mary. I mean it’s a great question. I think at the institution where I am, the board of governors, because we have our board of trustees and then another group, a governing body kind of thing that’s made up of donors, that they have also had to go through training as well to help them understand the landscape.

We implemented in 2019 a DEI strategic plan just before going into the process of creating an institutional strategic plan. So we made sure that they factored heavily in both the DEI strategic plan and our regular strategic plan, and that those two documents were really supporting the work that we wanted to be doing it.

It’s very much being in it for the long game, which I think can be really frustrating for us who want to see change happen more quickly. But it’s about strategy and knowing where you want to be and almost working backwards from that. But it will take time for sure if it didn’t … I mean if you already had the people who were bought into it, we would’ve all just done it by now.

But, yeah, it can be really challenging when you have people at different levels of acceptance of DEI work and people at different levels of understanding of what true DEI work means and is and that it’s not performative. I think that’s the hardest thing is to get out of the tokenism and the surface-level change in the institution that celebrates itself for those surface-level things when there’s still so much left to do.

We’re all going to be doing this work forever, I think. I mean I hope not forever, but for a long time, and it’s going to feel like forever.

Susan Zwerling:

Yeah. Okay. We have a question over here, and the mic is coming your way.

Speaker 7:

Actually it’s more of a comment. So I’m also a volunteer. I’m a trust … Thank you. I’m a trustee and I’m also … I do school programs as a facilitator. We’re not called docents.

So one of the keys to me … And I’ve been thinking about this for the last three years. It’s been my focus. One of the key things … In talking about increasing the docent program a lot, that made me think about this. If staff doesn’t know what docents and volunteers are doing, then you have no idea that you’re actually succeeding.

So I would suggest that if you are increasing your docent program, that you build in staff oversight of what those volunteers are doing. To me, that’s really key, because you can talk the talk, but if you’re not walking the walk as a volunteer, then your institution is failing and you might not even know it. It’s really important.

Susan Zwerling:

Okay. Thank you.

Mary Fernandez:


Susan Zwerling:


Mary Fernandez:

Also, I want to say, as far as our board members are concerned, find your allies. Find your allies on every part of the organizational chart, because they’re going to be the people that can help expand that sphere of influence. There’s probably people that have buy-in, or if you approached it empathetically and with an interest in having a conversation, that they’ll be willing to work with you.

Susan Zwerling:

Okay. Well, thank you again for such engaging questions. The next thing and last thing that we want to share with you are some resources. There’s a long list on a hard copy that’s coming around.

Jenny Woods:

I just wanted to take a quick moment to let you know about an organization that three of us on this panel are involved in, the American Association for Museum Volunteers. We are a networking organization for people who work with volunteers in museums.

I think I might be talking to my people here. But if you’re not aware of what we are, please check us out, This is going to be a very short pitch here. We are a membership-based organization. We do have some resources available to absolutely everyone. Feel free to use those.

But in order for us to exist, we also have some resources that are behind the paywall and for members only. But we know that you work in museums. Your budget sucks. Our membership is only $35 a year. So almost everybody can afford that. We do have a waiver if you can’t do the $35. Let us know.

But please check us out. There’s a resource list that has a bunch of other stuff on there. If you didn’t get a copy of the worksheet today, email any one of us and we will send that to you. Let us know how we can help you. That’s what AAMV is here to do. Thank you so much for your time today.

Mary Fernandez:

[inaudible 01:04:06].

Jenny Woods:

All right.

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