Volunteering in museums finds itself at a crossroads

The heritage sector couldn’t survive without volunteers, but the nature of the role is changing, and institutions need to attract younger and more diverse recruits. Geraldine Kendall Adams assesses the challenge of ensuring the workforce is fit for the future
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Geraldine Kendall Adams
Last month, volunteer groups from a wide range of museums and heritage organisations were recognised with the Queen’s Award for Voluntary Service, honouring their “exceptional service” to communities. 
Recipients came from across the UK, from Ullapool Museum Trust in Scotland to Porthmadog Maritime Museum in Wales to the volunteer-run Beaminster Museum in Dorset. The awards highlighted once again that the museum and heritage sector could not survive without the vital contribution of its volunteers. 
The Heritage Volunteering Group’s (HVG) latest survey, which was published in May and attracted 60 responses from museums and heritage organisations across the UK, gives a valuable overview of this impact. According to the survey, an average organisation has 96 volunteers, who contributed a total of 7,540 hours of their time in 2018-19; if those volunteers were paid the national minimum wage, the cost would have been £61,903.
Wide range of roles
For a quarter of those surveyed, volunteers contributed 30,001 or more hours of their time in 2018-19 at a national minimum wage cost of £250,304. 
Volunteers work across a wide variety of roles, according to the survey. The biggest proportion are in front-of-house (32%), with 15% in learning and engagement, 13% working on archives, 9% working on collections care and conservation, and 5% engaged in curatorial work. Other roles covered include everything from finance and IT to gardening, engineering and maintenance. 
But the nature of volunteering is changing, and the survey – along with other recent research – highlights several challenges that need to be addressed to ensure the volunteer workforce is fit for the future. 
The Museums Association’s (MA) 2019 Museums in the UK report, which was covered in Museums Journal last month, shows there are serious concerns among museums about future recruitment in the volunteer workforce, which by its nature tends to be made up of older, retired people. 
“The average age of our volunteers is high, so we suffer from reduced numbers, with fewer younger people joining us,” writes one respondent – a concern that is echoed time and again in the survey. 
The HVG’s data backs this up, finding that by far the largest proportion of heritage volunteers (51%) are retired. This is followed by 15% who are students, 12% in part-time work, 9% in full-time work and 8% who are not in employment. 
Sustainable recruitment
Beaminster Museum’s curator, Brian Earl, who became a volunteer after retiring from a career in IT 10 years ago, believes that sustainable recruitment is becoming a key issue. 
“People are retiring later than before and there’s not the same ethos, so it is getting harder to bring people in,” he says. “It’s a mindset – people of my generation were told that you put something back into the community, but there are not many in my children’s generation that would ever set foot in a museum [to volunteer]. We’re grateful that by word of mouth we’re able to keep going, but I’m worried that this might be the last generation of people that can be persuaded.”
Volunteer diversity
The lack of diversity and representation in the volunteer pool is another cause for concern. “Our research shows that it’s white, well-educated, middle-aged people who do the majority of volunteering,” says HVG chair, Matthew Hick, who is the head of volunteering at the Science Museum Group. “The traditional, regular type of volunteering has produced a certain type of volunteer.”
To engage with a younger and more diverse volunteer base, this model needs to change, he says. One way to do this is by finding out what motivates different groups to volunteer – or stops them from doing so. 
“At the Science Museum Group, we’ve started to shift to more short-term, flexible voluntary placements,” says Hick. “People don’t have to make a long-term commitment. We’re exploring projects that give them a specific experience they’re looking for. It’s a shift away from the ‘one size fits all’ model.”
Drawing on external research, the Science Museum Group is also exploring how a more tailored volunteer programme, which addresses people’s specific motivations and barriers, can help increase diversity in their volunteer programme. This approach involves identifying the kinds of volunteers the museum wishes to recruit, then producing roles, experiences and promotional materials that meet their needs. 
“For example, recent research shows South Asian men are more likely to volunteer for reasons related to career or skills development, so we might highlight the skills and training we provide for this audience.”
Working in partnership with other community organisations is key, says Hick, as their knowledge can offer a valuable insight into what different groups are looking for. “We don’t need to reinvent the wheel. They help us co-create roles across a wide range of services.”
Nurturing leadership
It may be easier for a large organisation with the resources of the Science Museum Group to trial new models of volunteering – but how can this change be enacted more widely across the sector, particularly among smaller museums? Nurturing leadership among volunteer managers and coordinators is vital, says Hick. 
“There are relatively junior people leading large teams of volunteers – often 60 or 70 people – where they have to act in a leadership capacity,” he says. 
“At HVG, we are passionate about supporting their development as leaders. They can sometimes feel they are too junior within an organisation to make change. They’re not. We would advocate for heritage to invest far more resources in volunteer managers and programmes. It’s a relatively low spend and the return on investment is significant.”
Potential of volunteering
Hick believes the sector has not fully realised the potential of volunteering across a broader range of activities. These include new areas such as digital micro-volunteering, which could involve, for example, a large group of people contributing to a research project via their smartphones. 
Many organisations are also missing out on the opportunities of corporate social responsibility volunteering, which can bring in high-value professional services from businesses. 
“There’s an opportunity for the heritage sector to think more broadly about volunteering, in a way that supports an organisation not just operationally, but in its broader strategic objectives,” says Hick.
The MA is exploring how to support and nurture volunteering in the sector. “We’ve identified volunteers as a key group for our workforce strategy,” says the MA’s professional development officer, Tamsin Russell, who sits on the HVG steering group. 
“We acknowledge that for volunteers to be treated well and realise their potential, we need to have volunteer coordinators that are able to do that.” The MA itself has about 210 volunteers, including membership reps and mentors.
Although those in the sector are keen to emphasise the positive impact of volunteering, there’s no escaping the fact that unpaid roles can sometimes tip over into exploitation. 
On one hand, volunteers might be offered a dull, unfulfilling experience; on the other, they could be asked to do too much; the cuts of the past 10 years have led to volunteers replacing paid staff at many institutions. There are also fears that an over-reliance on volunteers could mean professional expertise is lost and museum salaries – which are already comparatively low – remain devalued. 
The Art Fund made headlines earlier this year when it announced that it was disbanding its network of volunteer fundraisers because it wanted to bring about the “best possible return” on its investment; going forward, the organisation plans to invest more heavily in professional development for museum curators. 
Huge impact
Organisations that benefit from volunteers are urged to ensure they offer a flexible, meaningful experience that doesn’t make stringent demands on people’s time. Done right, volunteering has a huge impact on the wellbeing of those involved, offering many a social outlet or route to employment that they wouldn’t find otherwise. 
The secret to providing an engaging experience for volunteers is to make sure it doesn’t “look too much like their work life”, says Earl at Beaminster Museum. “We’ve cut down on bureaucracy – there’s no middle-management here. It’s very informal and based on trust.”
Part of the joy of volunteering is the sense of collective responsibility it brings, he says. “There’s a shared creation and shared ownership of everything. No volunteer is more important than the other. Everyone has an equal part to play.”
Age of volunteers
Under 16   3%
16-17        2%
18-24        18%
25-34        11%
35-44        6%
45-54        9%
55-64        20%
65-74        28%
75-84        9%
85-94        1%
For the latest volunteering updates from across the voluntary sector, sign up to be member of the Heritage Volunteering Group at http://tiny.cc/uic87y

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