The Museum Sector’s Volunteer Economy

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January 29, 2016; The Guardian

Volunteers are a critical part of what makes the nonprofit sector hum, and most nonprofit organizations make use of volunteers in some way. Over the years, NPQ has reported on the benefits and challenges that come with this important part of the nonprofit workforce. We all know that volunteers aren’t free, and that it takes significant planning and management to make the most of donated time and talent. And if you don’t take that time, you’ve hit on one of the top ten ways to kill your nonprofit.

In “An Ode to Volunteers,” Rachel Barron paints a picture of how Tyne & Wear Archives & Museums (TWAM) has taken those tenets and best practices seriously, and has deeply integrated volunteers into their museums’ operations. Barron touts some of the organization’s best practices in engaging volunteers from understanding volunteer interests, to writing “job” descriptions, to an annual event recognizing volunteers. It’s a thorough list with nearly all the tricks of the trade in cultivating a strong volunteer base.

The UK-based TWAM is a regional museum, art gallery, and archives service, managing nine museums and heritage sites across northeast England. As with many of their peers in the museum sector, TWAM’s day-to-day operations and sustainability rely heavily on the use of volunteers.

It’s a model most of us have experienced during visits to museums or galleries – older or retired community members collecting tickets, leading tours, directing people traffic, and doing everything that needs to be done to keep business humming. Barron’s description of TWAM’s operations is fairly in line with that image, though she lifts up the diversity in the organization’s volunteers.

Our cohort varies greatly in age, as well as being a balanced mix of men and women. In 2014/15, 24 percent of TWAM volunteers were aged under 25 and the opportunities for young people are expanding all the time—as is their desire to volunteer.

In an accompanying article, one of those younger volunteers, Jack Walton, agrees, calling volunteers “a secret weapon of the museums sector” and notes his own pride and learning that comes from his work at TWAM.

Altruism is certainly a motivation for most volunteers, but it is rarely the only one. On the volunteering homepage for TWAM, for example, the “What’s in it for you?” section lists a range of benefits, none of which include the fundamental philanthropic motivation of giving back. The common benefits articulated—strengthening your CV, expanding your network, and discounts at the cafes and shops—all have measureable and financial value in today’s circular and sharing economy and are core reasons many volunteers engage.

While volunteerism always has been and always will be part of the fuel that makes the nonprofit sector run, we have to be thoughtful about the ways in which it can cloud the needs of unpaid workers and the organizations for which they work.—Danielle Holly

  • This article still strongly implies that volunteers are involved to save money. Volunteers are often the best people for the task to be done – people who are undertaking tasks for reasons OTHER than payment. If a museum had all the money in the world to hire all of the paid staff they need to get absolutely every task done, surely they would still reserve some tasks for volunteers – because they want the community to see first hand what they do, because they want advocates for the organization that have no financial interest in such, because they want people who are trained and experienced with the organization and its mission out talking about it in the community, because some people prefer to interact with volunteers than paid staff, and on and on.

  • Kayleena Pierce

    As a graduate of the last five years in museum studies, I will say it’s disheartening that most “entry level’ positions from 10 years ago have been made into volunteer positions by the time I entered the market. While I’m glad the roles are still there, it means I have to work in a different sector to pay the bills, thus cutting down significantly on my time to “volunteer”, in the hopes of ever getting my foot in the door of an institution. There is most definitely a need for volunteers, but there is definitely a need for entry level positions that, while they don’t have to pay much, need to pay something, to ensure the stability of the next generation of museum staff.