Volunteers will be crucial in rebuilding post-pandemic heritage. But according to the Institute of Fundraising, only 9% of the population make up 51% of all volunteering hours in the UK. In museums and galleries, they are likely to be wealthy, white and well-educated.
“If our sector had more diverse programmes we would be a lot more resilient,” says Matthew Hick, the head of volunteering at the Science Museum Group.
Museums must diversify their volunteer base to make sure the sector’s volunteer needs are well met and representative. This includes engaging volunteers in new ways, including digitally. As well as considering how volunteers can get the most benefit out of their experience, museums must foster new partnerships and work towards longer-term structural change.
This edition of In Practice looks at the barriers to volunteering, and how these might be overcome, along with the opportunities and risks of digital volunteering.
Tailoring your offer
Organisations have to be clearer about the benefits of volunteering, which should be tailored specifically to diverse groups’ needs.
According to the 2019 UK Civil Society Almanac Survey, people volunteer to “improve things and make them better”. The reasons people give for not volunteering are a lack of commitment and time.
“The main challenge for our sector is asking how someone who is dedicating their spare time is making a difference, not just for our organisation, but for the wider community,” says Rebecca Benson, the volunteer manager at Birmingham Museums Trust.
Working with partner organisations such as Jobcentre Plus can help identify different people’s aims for their volunteering work.
“You need to find out why the volunteer is coming, build up a personal relationship to see if you can fulfil their needs, and be open about what other support the museum is providing. Don’t be afraid to say you can’t meet all of someone’s requests,” says Tamsin Russell, the Museum Association’s professional development officer.
At the Science Museum Group, volunteers benefit from external trips and training opportunities. Each of its sites runs two outings a year, a volunteer seminar and a volunteer awards night. Some sites run volunteer lunches and quiz nights.
The Railway Work, Life and Death project at the National Rail Museum in York began in 2016 and saw volunteers spend some 1,000 hours transcribing details of workers and their railway accidents into a database. Volunteers went through reports produced by the state-appointed Railway Inspectorate, and through the record book of the Great Eastern Railway Company’s Benevolent Fund.
This allowed participants to raise awareness about those who suffered from disabilities in the wake of such accidents, but also gave volunteers personal development training through contributing to the research itself.
Many volunteers might not be able to volunteer at specific times, so flexibility is important.
Amy Cotterill, programme manager at the children’s charity Coram, managed the Snapping the Stiletto project at Essex County Council. The project, which finished in January, examined how Essex women’s lives have changed in the 100 years since 1918, when the first women were given the right to vote in parliamentary elections in the UK.
“I am using the learning from that programme in my new role at Coram to inform our current project, Voices Through Time: The Story of Care,” she says. “We are using the platform Zooniverse to recruit volunteers to work remotely on transcribing records from the Foundling Hospital.”
Zooniverse is an online platform that allows remote volunteers to flexibly participate in research and volunteering projects.
Flexibility through micro-volunteering – volunteering for a single event – can also help. Birmingham Museums Trust has run a summer volunteering programme since 2014 where volunteers can join for five days at a time when younger volunteers and students, who might be looking for their first work experience, have capacity and when visitor numbers are high.
Gaining feedback from volunteers about when they can work can serve you well. “Someone might join for one reason and their life might change – we have to monitor that,” says Benson. This helps avoid a “one size fits all” approach.
Museums should move away from a model of simply posting volunteering positions on their website and take a more proactive recruitment approach.
A 2015-16 Birmingham Museums Trust research project, which was part of the Museum Association’s Transformers programme, found confusion among local people about Birmingham museums’ status as a charity.
“They didn’t know what opportunities we had available,” says Benson. “They thought they had to be an expert, they thought they had to have a degree in history and know lots about fine art in order to support us. They weren’t aware that volunteering is a two-way thing.”
According to the UK Civil Society Almanac Survey, one in five people who have never volunteered have never even thought about it.
“We need to think about how we get on people’s radars,” says Benson. “How do people see the difference that they are making?”
One option is to use social media alongside traditional PR to target specific online groups across different demographics. Volunteers might serve as ambassadors to others so it’s important to pass on relevant information.
“There was a time when people would put roles on their website and that was enough, but we have to look at what people want,” says Benson. “Are the roles fun, can people contribute in a worthwhile way, are they reaching out to different communities?”
Showing you are flexible and streamlining the application process both help to reach new people.
“We should make heritage a cause people will give up their time for,” says Hick. “And we need to simplify recruitment processes to make it much easier to volunteer – it shouldn’t take two months to apply for a volunteer role.”
Museums must think about diversity in terms of race, gender, class and disability, as well as around digital literacy.
The Association of Volunteer Managers highlights the charity sector consultant Helen Trimbrell’s recent research, What the Bloody Hell are You Doing Here?, which looked at the experiences of Black, Asian, minority ethnic and white volunteers comparatively across four organisations.
According to the report, some white volunteers “were unable to conceive that the experience of a volunteer could be impacted by ethnicity”.
According to the 2019 report Time Well Spent: A National Survey on the Volunteer Experience by the National Council for Voluntary Organisations (NCVO), younger, male, unemployed and lower socio-economic groups are less likely to volunteer. And there is some evidence to suggest that those from minority backgrounds are more likely to be dissatisfied by their volunteering experience.
“We have quite a way to go to make our environments inclusive, to make our spaces welcome and to make sure everyone has an equal voice in these spaces,” says Benson.
It is a good idea to include diversity questions in your volunteer engagement surveys.
“Put those questions in now, and then track them over time,” says Hick. ”It will help you understand the experience different groups have of your volunteer programme and help you to do something about it.”
Alongside the volunteers themselves, volunteer managers should be more diverse. Volunteering can be used as a talent pipeline to diversify volunteer management.
“We have to understand what the implications are on the effects of structural racism and what that means to volunteering, and that’s something we have think about more broadly as a society,” says Hick.
The sector can do more to address the cost of volunteering. Having to pay for training or to get to a site, can be a barrier to participation.
Making recruitment processes less formal and more inclusive can remove the barriers that interviews and application forms can create.
“Why not invite people to a volunteer manager at a taster day, try a role or two, and decide whether they want to do it?” says Hick.
Induction with museums in the Science Museum Group can take six to eight weeks.
"We need to radically rethink those processes,” Hick says. “We need to think about the role digital technology can play in reducing onboarding time and lowering travel costs associated with training. Of course, we need to remember that not everyone has access to these platforms and consider what the implications of this approach are for them.”
Beyond this, volunteering can be a way of building self-esteem or skills for those rejoining the workforce. An example of this is Volunteering for Wellbeing, which worked across 10 venues in Greater Manchester and helped more than 200 people develop a route into volunteering away from social and economic isolation. Participants received a 10-week training course, gaining skills including personal presentation practice.
Volunteering might be someone’s first experience of work, or a way to keep busy during a period of under- or unemployment.
“A little thing, like giving someone reference if they’ve not had one before, can make a difference to how people are able to move forward with their lives,” says Benson.