I have thought a good bit about volunteering lately, in part because of the evolution in how this process works at the C.H. Nash Museum at Chucalissa. I posted before about our Museum’s irregular staff that includes a range of volunteers, student interns, and community service participants. In the past year we saw a stagnation in our traditional once-a-month type volunteer program but a radical growth in the other components of our “irregular staff” category. For example, our traditional Volunteer Saturdays now have a more modest attendance than two years ago. At the same time, in 2012 the real hours contributed at Chucalissa by the total of these irregular staff continued to increase (@8500) and exceeded that of the regular staff (@8000).
The entry for volunteering at Wikipedia provides some insights on the shift we are seeing. The entry notes that volunteering:
is generally considered an altruistic activity and is intended to promote good or improve human quality of life. In return, this activity produces a feeling of self-worth and respect; however, there is no financial gain. Volunteering is also renowned for skill development, socialization, and fun. It is also intended to make contacts for possible employment. Many volunteers are specifically trained in the areas they work . . .
What I like about this entry is that the very essence of the action is focused on the volunteer and not the agency. That is, in the case of museums the institution is meeting the need and providing a service for the volunteer. Intuitively, that understanding seems to flip the traditional concept of volunteers as those providing the service. However, the institution being the provider in the service relationship is the essence of the Participatory Museum. This understanding is stated in the opening paragraph in a recent article on volunteers:
To begin, we start with a question: If there were an opportunity for an unlimited number of paid staff at museums would we still recruit volunteers to assist in collections work? In this paper we answer that question with a resounding yes. In fact, we suggest that with increased paid staff, the quantity of volunteers should increase as well. We base this assessment in recognizing the shift of museums from being collections driven to centering on the visitor experience (Anderson 2004:2-5), an educational approach that is constructivist (Hein 2006:347-349) and that acknowledges the role of free-choice learning (Falk and Dierking 2002). (R.P. Connolly & N.B. Tate, 2011,Volunteers and Collections as Viewed from the Museum Mission Statement. Collections, 7(3), p. 325-346)
The flipping of roles makes the museum responsible for addressing the public needs whose cultural heritage the museum presents and preserves. In this capacity, it becomes incumbant upon the museum to provide opportunities for volunteering that align with how the public organize their volunteering capacity.
Besides the traditional, consider a few of the other types of volunteers we now serve at the C.H. Nash Museum:
- Avocational Organizations – I previously posted about the work of Memphis Archaeological and Geological Society. Also, for nearly ten years the Southwind Garden Club has planted seasonal floral arrangements at the museum. In a two-year effort, the Club created an arboretum at the site with plans for expansion in the coming months. Over a similar period, the Friends of Chucalissa provided integral support in coordinating special events and fundraising for the Museum. Particularly as the public pursuit of informal lifelong learning continues to grow, avocational and social groups will expand their outreach for volunteering opportunities.
- Scout Youth Groups – Through both regular volunteer service activities and program requirements, Boy and Girl Scout groups have built, painted, or maintained a variety of facilities, both large and small at our Museum. We maintain a regular list of possible projects for these groups to choose from. As youth discretionary time becomes more structured with a host of competing activities, we might expect that youth groups will continue as a primary outlet to experience volunteering in the formative years.
- Community Service Learning – Through programs such as the University of Memphis Emerging Leaders, area high schools, alternative spring breaks, students at all levels take part in curriculum-based volunteer activities that last for anywhere from 2 hours to several days in length. This type of volunteering proved instrumental in creating our medicinal plant sanctuary, landscaping at the Museum, exhibit creation, and in community outreach/cleanup projects. Community service/learning continues to increase both informally and through formal educational curriculum with no evidence of reaching a plateau anytime soon.
The above examples can be less predictable than recruiting the traditional volunteer docent who will show up like clockwork every other Tuesday and Saturday. However, in the same way that to remain relevant to the public that we serve, museums are shifting more to family programs in response to the reduction in the school “field trip” experience, we must also provide new and creative volunteer opportunities that are relevant to the public needs.
Without a doubt, the most exciting conferences I have attended for the past two years are the Volunteer Tennessee Annual Meetings that explores many of these possibilities. I will post about one of my favorites, the The Corporation for National and Community Service, separately.
What innovations have you incorporated into your volunteer programs?