Guest Blogger / MuseumMinute

Volunteer Engagement is Everyone’s Job

Today’s Museum Minute post on volunteer engagement is brought to you by Guest Blogger, Carolyn Noe. Carolyn started volunteering in museums 11 years ago and edits The Volunteer Management Daily. She holds a BS in Interdisciplinary Social Science from Florida State University and an MA in Museum Studies from the University of Missouri-St. Louis. She has worked with museum volunteers in a variety of capacities for the last three years. Carolyn is looking forward to moving back to St. Louis later this month with her dog, Marco Polo. Follow her on Twitter @cnoeone.

If you asked a group of museum volunteers “Why do you volunteer in a museum?,” you will get as wide a variety of answers as Jamie received in her question to museum professionals. Many of us currently working in museums at some point volunteered in museums, including unpaid internships.

Volunteers have many motivations for contributing in general. What separates museum volunteers from those that choose to volunteer for an animal shelter, nursing home or food pantry, is the desire for specific content knowledge. Similar to a museum studies student seeking experience, volunteers are searching for opportunities to learn more about science, history, art history, etc. Volunteers often have more access to the museum’s resources, such as informal chats with curators, than the general public.

Some museum employees have more of a chance to work with volunteers than others. You may only have volunteers work as docents at your museum or volunteers may have opportunities to work in nearly every aspect of your museum.

The buzz word in the volunteer management world is “engagement.” The idea of engaging volunteers is very similar to the museum world’s visitor engagement. The best definition I have found of volunteer engagement is from JFFixler Group: “Volunteer Engagement is a strategy that builds organizational capacity to create greater organizational influence and increased outcome for the organization.” Using principles from museum visitor engagement, we can create amazing opportunities for volunteers to engage in our museums:

      • Meet volunteer expectations: Volunteers will have pre-existing ideas of what it is like to work in a museum and existing volunteers will have expectations for how things “should” be. Though, we don’t live in a perfect world and we can’t meet everyone’s expectations at all times, volunteers can give us great ideas for improving their own experiences.
      • Exceed volunteer expectations: We spend a great deal of time coming up with unique and exciting opportunities for our visitors, but we could equally use similar ideas for engaging volunteers. I have heard of collection managers showing movies such as “Jaws” while working on fish collections. Creative themes appeal to volunteers’ interest in your museum.
      • Provide entry points to meet individual volunteers’ needs: Just as visitors come with different life experiences and learning styles, volunteers bring the same diversity to museums. Volunteer training should encompass multiple learning styles and access points to different areas of the museum, including collections, exhibits, education, etc.
      • Offer volunteers choices, control, feedback and success: Choice & Control – Allow volunteers to choose from multiple opportunities in their shifts, training and areas to contribute. Check out the Center for the Future of Museum’s post on using the concept of online badging to see a great example for volunteers to choose their own opportunities for learning. Feedback – Evaluation is a great tool to learn about volunteers’ needs and opinions of your program. Success – Recognize your volunteers for their achievements. Soliciting their opinions gives you an opportunity to recognize them for contributing new ideas.

You might be thinking “my museum has a volunteer coordinator to use these ideas.” That’s great, but volunteer engagement is everyone’s job. Volunteers interact with nearly every employee in a museum and it is important to be cognizant of the fact that they may only volunteer in your department, making that their only experience with the museum.

For great tips on volunteer management, I recommend checking out Volunteer Match’s learning center. They offer at least three webinars on volunteer engagement and their blog, Engaging Volunteers, offers a wide variety of advice.

Thanks, Carolyn!

And a BIG *THANK YOU* to all the museum volunteers out there! In the age of restricted funds and no shortage of things-to-do, volunteers help make the museum world go round. Do you have a volunteer story you’d like to share? Are you currently looking for a volunteer? Share your stories, and volunteer positions, in the comments below.

3 thoughts on “Volunteer Engagement is Everyone’s Job

  1. I also have a personal philosophy (which Jamie knows well) of giving volunteers bigger, thought-provoking tasks than just stuffing envelopes, answering the phones, or greeting guests.

    Garnering support through groups of like-minded -interested volunteers is critical to institutional success. Form affinity groups under a chair, give your volunteers an overall goal the chair shares & supports, be explicit about the resources (if there’s no money, say that), and get out of the way and let the volunteers blow you away with the ideas they come up with and execute.

    Remember…the difference between a nonprofit and for-profit organization isn’t money, it’s people.

  2. You make some excellent points. In my article, I wanted to focus on things that could be done at every level and were essentially easy to do. With something like starting affinity groups and other advisory type positions, you need quite a bit of buy-in from the institution. Depending on the organization, this could be accomplished, but it could be a challenge for many.

  3. Pingback: Democracy, Visitors, & Museum Practices « Archaeology, Museums & Outreach

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