What makes a museum successful? As museum lovers, we know there are tons of factors that contribute to a museum’s success; fascinating exhibits, engaged visitors, and adequate resources probably top any museum professional’s list. But like with any organization, passionate people are a huge factor in fueling success.
More than 400,000 Americans are employed in the museum sector, which directly contributes over $21 billion to the American economy each year. Curators, archivists, educational programmers, and conservators are just a small selection of the people who ensure museums remain top cultural and educational destinations. This figure, however, doesn’t account for an essential segment of people who make museums as awesome as they are — volunteers!
The AAM’s Museum Financial Information Survey found that volunteers contribute over a million hours of service every week in American museums. That number doesn’t even take into account the passion and skills that volunteers bring. Museums of any size can benefit from enthusiastic and committed volunteers.
Let’s explore a few ways to get the most from your volunteers — and, in turn, have volunteers get the most valuable experience possible with your museum.
While it’s satisfying to have an eager pool of volunteers who want to donate their time to your institution, it’s key to have proper policies and plans in place to get the most out of your volunteer team and ensure volunteers have a positive and rewarding experience.
First, a formal volunteer policy is essential. This will provide a foundation you can tailor to your institution based on mission, goals, and resources. National museum associations, such as the AAM, Canadian Museums Association, and the UK’s Museums Association, have a wealth of resources on policy-making and are a useful guide if you’re just implementing a new volunteer program.
With a policy in place, you can now identify areas where your museum would benefit from volunteer help and create positions that support these areas. Just as you would with a paid employee, outline clear objectives and roles for the position to ensure that expectations and duties are clear, and your volunteers aren’t left scrambling to make an impact.
Put Together a Diverse Team
Just as your institution has a diverse array of needs, it’s important to focus on hiring volunteers with diverse backgrounds and experience. Diversifying museums, in terms of visitors, employees, and volunteers, is a top concern across the industry sector.
Focus on hiring volunteers with unique and varying skills, abilities, academic and professional backgrounds. We value this in our own hiring practices at Museum Hack. Our tour guides come from diverse backgrounds, ranging from educators, actors, scientists, and comedians, and our behind-the-scenes team employs people across the world. This variety of perspectives is important for reaching different audiences, innovating with fresh ideas, and, most importantly, ensuring people are passionate about their work.
Placing volunteers in roles that fit their skills and allowing them the freedom to let their passion and interests shine through helps ensure their volunteer experience is a positive one. As volunteers also act as ambassadors for the museum in interactions with visitors, enthusiastic, passionate volunteers will create an atmosphere that visitors are likely to remember.
Invest in Your Museum Volunteers
Most employers know that it’s essential to invest in employees and the same is true for volunteers. While training sessions are vital to starting out your volunteer team on the right foot, learning opportunities don’t have to end there. Invite volunteers to staff events and meetings, ensure supervisors are available to field concerns and give and receive feedback, and foster a sense of community within the volunteer team.
Volunteering is also a valuable learning opportunity and one of the big draws for people who seek out these opportunities. Organize ways to maximize this learning experience. If resources allow, invite volunteers to participate in professional development sessions with the staff. This is a great way to show your volunteers that they are valued members of the team and that you’re committed to providing a fulfilling experience.
Also, it’s important to remember that professional development doesn’t have to be costly or time-consuming. Consider alternatives to traditional professional development activities. It could be something as simple as having regular meetings with the volunteer team or sending out volunteer team newsletters with upcoming events or museum-related content and links (like these TED Talks about museums).
While volunteers are compensated in the form of museum memberships, educational enrichment, access to special events, or museum merch, the most rewarding aspect of volunteering can simply be recognition for a job well-done. Embrace the passion that volunteers bring to their work through acknowledgement and find a way to encourage volunteer contributions.
Volunteer recognition is so important, and in turn, some museum associations and museums offer volunteer award programs, including the CMA’s Museum Volunteer Award and the British Museum’s Marsh Trust Award. If you’re interested in recognizing an exceptional member of your volunteer team, don’t hesitate to research relevant awards offered in your area – or maybe create your own!
Museum volunteers are a passionate group who make vital contributions to museums of all sizes. Engage volunteers in the mission and goals of your museum and provide opportunities to let their enthusiasm and skills shine. Treating volunteers with respect and recognition while providing support and guidance will ensure a positive and beneficial experience for both the museum and its legion of volunteers.
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