Who are the most excited and engaged people in your museum?
Not the answer you expected? It might be time to reboot your museum’s volunteer program.
Why are happy volunteers important?
Because volunteers are your museum’s biggest fans and advocates.
Volunteers believe in your museum so much that visiting alone isn’t enough: they want to be part of the team even without a financial reward for their time.
Don’t let this enthusiasm go to waste – treat your volunteers well and give them plenty of opportunities to spread the word about your museum (after all, it’s their museum too). According to a U.S. survey, two-thirds of volunteers also donate money to their place of volunteering. So there are many compelling reasons to keep your volunteers happy.
There’s no quick fix to building a great volunteer program, but we think following these tips will help supercharge your team!
Don’t bite off more than you can chew.
A bigger volunteer team doesn’t always equal a better volunteer team. Taking on more volunteers than your organization can handle is a common mistake. And yet so many museum professionals believe, the bigger your team means a better museum, right?
Not necessarily. Each volunteer requires a significant time and resource investment, from initial training, to supervision, to recognition, and those important day-to-day details like workspaces, shift schedules, record-keeping, and name tags.
Before you start recruiting volunteers, you need to make sure everything they will need is already in place, and that you’ve planned out engaging, relevant tasks to fill every shift. The American Association for Museum Volunteers has a great overview of best practices for volunteer programs.
It’s a great sign if lots of people want to volunteer at your museum, but taking on too many people will only lead to a negative experience and fewer volunteers in the long run. It’s all about baby steps.
Treat volunteer interviews like job interviews.
Some museums feel they need to accept everyone who applies for a volunteer role, even if the person isn’t a good fit. It’s important to be inclusive and open-minded, but don’t set someone up for failure by giving them a position they are unable to perform. If an applicant is unsuitable for the role they want, be upfront about it and try to find them another role at your museum that highlights their strengths.
Trust us, it’s better for everyone to be a bit picky.
Develop a top-notch training program.
First impressions are important, and the first real experience your new volunteers will have at your museum is their orientation and training. You can make sure they don’t regret their decision by offering training sessions that are well-planned, relevant, thorough, and most importantly – fun!
Ideally this training will also be an opportunity for your new volunteers to socialize with each other and the rest of the team. Engaging, comprehensive training will ensure your volunteers feel confident and valued in their roles.
Be a nosy volunteer manager.
So now that you’ve already recruited and trained up a badass volunteer team, is it time to put your feet up? No way!
The best volunteer managers are a bit nosy, but also know when to take a step back.
These managers have informal chats and catch-up meetings with their volunteers to see how things are going, address any concerns, and exchange feedback. Good managers also check up on their volunteers’ work from time to time to address any issues or training needs before problems arise. Your volunteers’ circumstances and goals will eventually change, so an open line of communication will keep them happy and motivated.
Also, be nosy with volunteer managers at other museums so you can pick up tips and tricks from them too.
Don’t just smile and nod – volunteers have great ideas.
Good communication with volunteers isn’t enough on its own – you need to act on the feedback your team provides. This doesn’t mean incorporating every request (although an espresso machine in the break room would be nice), but it’s worth trying to implement suggestions that come up regularly. This practice not only leads to new ideas, but also demonstrates to your volunteers that they are valuable contributors to the museum.
Volunteers are your secret recruiting weapon.
There are obvious benefits for treating your volunteers well: they stay longer, they perform better, and it’s just the right thing to do. But an added bonus is that volunteers spread the word to other potential volunteers you haven’t found yet. A personal testimonial about your museum’s volunteer opportunities is the most powerful recruiting tool we know. Most volunteers love to talk about their experience, so be sure to involve them in your next recruitment drive.
Expect amazing results.
Just because someone isn’t being paid doesn’t mean they aren’t great at what they do. Volunteer roles don’t have to be “easy,” and most volunteers take pride in working hard and tackling challenges. Volunteers shouldn’t replace paid staff (more on this below), but they do bring skills and perspectives you didn’t know you needed.
Most volunteers appreciate being held to a high standard – and they’ll have high expectations of you as well.
Volunteers should never replace paid staff.
This point is really important. There is growing anxiety in the museum industry about paid jobs being replaced by unpaid interns and volunteers.
Volunteer roles should never replace paid labor – instead, they should be used to enhance and extend the work of museum staff.
This contribution could be anything from helping with cataloguing or labelling, research, greeting and assisting visitors, helping with events, providing extra support for tour groups, and much more. Volunteers should never be relied upon to make up for staff shortages – it’s unfair to everyone involved.
Remind your volunteers how awesome they are.
Volunteers don’t get paid, but they still need to be rewarded both formally and informally. Refreshments, discounts, recognition of achievements, social events, thank-you cards, mentoring, further training opportunities, and award ceremonies are just some of hundreds ways to reward your volunteers. Many museums choose to participate in their country’s National Volunteer Week (April in the U.S./Canada, May in Australia, and June in the U.K.), which helps organizations to celebrate their volunteers’ achievements every year.
Volunteers bring dedication, enthusiasm, and talents to your museum, but they can’t reach their full potential alone. Make sure you’re supercharging their impact by making your volunteer program as f*cking awesome as the rest of your museum.
Do you have any other tips for building an amazing volunteer team? Share them with us!