Not long ago I received a very nice e-mail from a historical museum asking for volunteer help. Their site is short of volunteers because most of them have quit. They left because of the way they were being treated by the staff, and now the site has earned itself a bad reputation. It is an unfortunate outcome for everyone involved, especially when it could have easily been prevented.
Working with museums, both as a volunteer and as an independent service provider, has given me plenty of opportunity to experience firsthand the relationship between volunteers and staff. And while many, if not the the vast majority, of museums truly have both a need and a genuine appreciation for their volunteers, it has also been my observation that there seems to be a great deal of confusion as to how to best handle the conflicts that can arise. A popular school of thought is to treat volunteers just like staff, including maintaining the right to terminate volunteers at will. However this approach is unwise. It can create bitter misunderstandings and hard feelings which, in the long run, could be detrimental to your institution.
The dynamics of the relationship between a museum and its volunteers can be complex. And in my own experience I’ve found, more often than not, that staff does not always fully understand it. This is not to say most museum staff are deliberately callous or insensitive to their volunteers. Rather I believe it is because many have never been volunteers themselves, and therefore have never had the opportunity to experience this relationship from a volunteer’s perspective. And it is this lack of understanding that often leads to conflict.
I still vividly recall a lunch break at a museum association conference I attended a few years ago. A staff person sitting at my table overheard me tell someone that I was a docent. She immediately perked up and asked me what do volunteers want from the sites they work with. She came across as someone who sincerely wanted to have a good relationship with her volunteers, but was unsure of how to go about it. It was an open ended question and a difficult one for me to answer on the spot. In looking back on my own experience volunteering with historical museums, I believe that what volunteers want boils down to three very simple things which would apply to virtually any volunteer at any type of museum or organization. They are:
- Good training.
- To be treated with respect.
- To be appreciated.
How To Train a Guide
I once engaged in a lively debate with several museum staffers who were having problems with some of their docents. There were complaints of their docents being ‘bad guides,’ having ‘boring presentations,’ and giving ‘inaccurate information,’ to visitors. Their comments indicated to me that they were either unable to identify, or perhaps they had chosen to ignore, the underlying cause of their problem; BAD TRAINING for their docents! Instead they chose to place the blame entirely on their docents, which did not solve their problem. Finger pointing by staff only serves to undermines the morale of the volunteers, and such approach is guaranteed to result in hurt feelings at best – and a hostile work environment at worst.
Having been a museum docent myself, I can unequivocally state that docents are not mind readers. While most are there because they have an interest in, for example, history, they are not necessarily professional historians, nor will they always possess a degree in history. The same could be said for those who volunteer for art or science museums. Docents, as well as other volunteers, are totally dependent on the site they work with to give them the training needed to enable them do their jobs properly. When all is said and done, the docents and other volunteers are, in essence, a direct reflection of the staff who train them.
Suggestions For Volunteer Training
At least once a year have a thorough orientation or training workshop for your volunteers. Nothing can be more daunting to a new volunteer on his or her first day than to have a staff person hand them a manual and say, “Here you go. Call me if you have any questions.”
Experienced volunteers should be highly encouraged, if not required, to participate in orientation workshops as well. This is an opportune time to update them on new interpretive materials, as well as introduce them to any new volunteers or staff.
When training docents a clear, well written interpretive script can be one of the most effective tools to teach them the material needed to guide visitors through your site. With a little time and experience, and by observing staff or other volunteers work with tour groups, your guides will become more at ease and their presentations should improve. Storytelling workshops can also provide the tools your guides need to add their own unique interpretation. This can prevent their presentations from sounding canned, while at the same time maintaining the accuracy and integrity of the information to be presented to the public.
Don't muddy the waters. I once worked with a site whose staff had decided to cross train their volunteers; training all of them for all their departments and jobs. Their reasoning was that in the event they were short a volunteer in one department they could pull in a volunteer from another another department, and that volunteer would be ready to go. And while this approach may have sounded good in theory, it ultimately did not get the results they wanted. They failed to account for the fact that many, if not most, people who volunteer do so for a specific type of job, such as working in the gift shop. Most volunteers simply do not want to take on more than they bargained for, especially if they are expected to perform duties that make them feel uncomfortable. This attempt at cross training resulted in confusion and feelings of intimidation amongst many of the volunteers, and I only worked with this site for a short time.
Unfortunately, even at the best of museums, it can become all too easy for staff to take their volunteers for granted. Sadly, during my time as a volunteer I have either witnessed, or experienced myself, some real faux pas by museum staff, and, as a result, have seen good volunteers walk away feeling very embittered.
How To Avoid Conflict Between Volunteers and Staff
Conflicts may not always be completely avoidable. However, good staff policies, along with some common sense, can go a long way to dealing with problems should they arise. Some suggestions would include:
- Never draw a volunteer into staff squabbles. The less your volunteers know about your internal problems the better for all concerned.
- Never take credit, or give someone else the credit, for all the hard work your volunteer has done.
- Do not berate your volunteers if they are not able to come in on short notice. Always remember that unlike staff, your volunteers are donating their time. Paying jobs or other responsibilities take priority.
- Under no circumstances should a staff member ever make disparaging remarks about volunteers, either in general, or about a specific individual, in the presence of other volunteers.
- If your volunteer has a issue do not ignore it and pretend that it will go away. Take the time to listen and help find a resolution.
- Avoid the temptation to treat your volunteers like staff. While volunteers do need to follow basic procedural guidelines, too many rules and regulations and/or demands can quickly erode their desire to volunteer. Staff are compensated for their time, volunteers are not, and therein lies the fundamental difference.
- Only the most extreme of circumstances, such as a volunteer doing something that is illegal or that could endanger others, should be grounds for termination.
- Always remember the museum community is like a small town.
Volunteers will make friends with other volunteers, and oftentimes people will volunteer at more than one site. If a staff person is in any way abusive to your volunteers, or if your site decides to ‘fire’ volunteers at will, word will spread like wildfire. And once your site gains a reputation for mistreating or firing volunteers it can linger on and haunt it for many years to come.
And finally, it really doesn't take much to make volunteers feel appreciated. A site I once worked with hosted a little Christmas party for its volunteers. It wasn't anything fancy. It was a potluck dinner prepared by the staff, and each volunteer was given a little ornament to take home. But it was the fact that the staff had taken the time to prepare the meal themselves that meant more to me than if they had used the fanciest caterer in town.
Take good care of your volunteers. Let them know that you appreciate what they do. Cultivate a strong, positive relationship with them and they will be there for you for a long time to come.
Gayle Martin has been a speaker and living history Interpreter since 2002. She began her career as a museum docent, and still volunteers at her favorite site whenever she can. She is also the author of the Luke and Jenny series of historical novels for young readers.