The Myth of Volunteers as Free Labor

I would like to take a bit of personal privilege in this post and get on my soapbox and preach a moment.  I came across an article in the Chronicle of Philanthropy that noted the increase in volunteerism over the past several years.  Coupled with other materials such as a recent report from the Center for the Future of Museums, even from a pragmatic perspective, volunteers will be integral to both Archaeology and Museums in the future.  At the C.H. Nash Museum, we are at the start of a process to revamp the very nature and approach to our volunteer program.

Here are a few practices we are addressing in our revision.  First, we are careful not to solicit volunteers in the abstract without a specific plan to follow-up and engage the individual. Over the years, I cannot begin to count the number of sign-up sheets I have signed to be a volunteer, never to receive any follow-up.  In a focus group I led several years ago, the “no follow up” factor was the most common complaint about the “volunteer fair” held by the organization.  In essence, I learned that one should not have a volunteer fair or put out a call for volunteers unless there is also a commitment to the follow-up.

Second, at Chucalissa we are mindful to engage with volunteers while on site and not treat them as anonymous cogs in an artifact sorting, counting, and weighing assembly line.  As an undergraduate years ago, despite hearing the steady drone from graduate students complaining about their overworked lives, after many attempts I finally found one who agreed to allow me to volunteer to help process artifacts from their excavation.  I remember being particularly irritated when the grad student turned out to be a no-show for the first session, apologizing later that they had forgotten about the event.  It seemed a daunting task just to find someone who wanted a volunteer!   Perhaps one of the most successful volunteer programs I encountered to date is at the Cincinnati Museum of Natural History with their archaeology collections.  Every Tuesday morning for at least the last 20 years a regular group of volunteers meet to process artifacts.  I was impressed those 20 years ago that even as a newcomer, I too was welcomed and integrated into the group.  The Cincinnati experience is a good example of a third place type experience ala Ray Oldenberg that takes place in a museum.

At Chucalissa, we now write each volunteer a thank you note upon completion of their project.  The volunteer response is interesting.  Our thank you notes have generated volunteer thank you notes in thanks for us thanking the volunteer.  Last year we held a volunteer appreciation dinner where we reviewed museum accomplishments of the past year, plans for the coming year, and specifically detailed how volunteer support made it all possible.

This all leads me to the title of this post – the myth of volunteers as free labor is no more valid than the myth that funded grant proposals as free money.  This recognition goes to the very heart of a successful volunteer program.  The average number of employees in a museum in the US today is 7 and the average number of volunteers is 59.  (The reference here escapes me at this time – something put out by the AAM)  As paid staff decrease, these numbers speak to the valuable role that volunteers can and will play in archaeology and museums in the future.  Realizing that potential will take a considerable investment of time and effort in itself.

What steps do you take to assure a meaningful experience for your volunteers?

  5 comments for “The Myth of Volunteers as Free Labor

  1. June 21, 2010 at 11:12 pm

    Fascinating stuff.

    I’m on the Board of Directors at a small Civil War museum. One of our board members forwarded this in an email and I am encouraging everyone on our board to read this.

    Do you mind if I print this article off in a Word document for us to read and discuss at a meeting? I really think you make some outstanding points and would like to borrow your philosophy to help improve the “volunteer experience” at our museum.


  2. June 22, 2010 at 1:33 am


    Thanks for your kind words – feel free to distribute the posting.



  3. June 25, 2010 at 3:00 pm

    As an archaeological project currently seeking to develop a community volunteer programme, this post has been very helpful indeed. As a volunteer myself, I found myself agreeing with the points you make, while being rather surprised that this is the first time I know of that these points have been written down somewhere!

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