Tuesday, September 22, 2009

Calling All Volunteers

I can't even remember how many conversations I've had about small museums and the lack of volunteers. "No one wants to volunteer," "People just won't commit," "Women are all working," and more are the common complaints.

In the past several weeks I've come across an event, a blog, and a newsletter that make me think that perhaps the problem is not with those busy non-volunteers, but in the way we connect and deal with them.

First the event. The photos in this post are from the New Kingston Film Festival, in tiny New Kingston, NY. The day-long film festival is held in a barn (bring your own blankets) and featured an eclectic group of films. But what's important is why the festival exists, according to their website,
We moved to the hamlet of New Kingston from the borough of Brooklyn in 2007. When we got here we said to each other, "this place is perfect! It's got nice people, stunning views, a post office....it's all we ever wanted!" we thought some more and then said to each other, "actually maybe there is ONE thing that New Kingston lacks...A Film Festival!"
So, these volunteers (because it's clear nobody's making any money from the festival), got to work: found films, did promotion, borrowed chairs from the church, got a restaurant to provide food, make coffee and popcorn, got a port-a-john, hung the lights, made sure the projector was working. And then, did it all again for the second year. All of these are tasks that most small museums would love volunteers to do. Why did they do it?

Next up on my volunteer notice list: A blog from the Montezuma Historical Society about their Erie Canal related archaeological dig this summer. Cheryl Longyear, town historian, created the blog about their adventures--and in a thank-you to volunteers, wrote,
What an amazing group of volunteers we had for our August 29 and 30 dig. You took volunteerism to a whole new level. We survived the weekend with heavy rain, mud, mosquitoes and lots of hard work. But wait; there's more....they even said they would come back again in two weeks to close out the three plots we worked on all weekend.

Under the expert guidance and direction of David Babson, we now are expert novices at plotting, digging, sifting, and documenting artifacts found on the Four Canals Historic site in Montezuma. As soon as available we will post details, photos and video of this amazing weekend.

Thank you, thank you, volunteers. YOU ARE THE GREATEST!!! In spite of the challenging weather conditions, I'm thrilled with the teamwork and all that was accomplished.
What made these volunteers give up a summer weekend to the mud, mosquitos and hard work?

And finally on my notice list, the newsletter of the Slate Valley Museum--and their help wanted column. It reported that several positions from the previous newsletter had been filled, including Good Hearted Lawyer, Data Dasher and Shop til You Drop Specialist. They're seeking A Versatile Cool Head, A Publications Sleuth, and a Heavy Lifter. It's been a long time since I've read a museum newsletter with a sense of humor, and these entries made me laugh out loud. But what made the museum's members respond?

So I haven't spoken with any of these volunteers, but here's my long-distance take on what made volunteerism work at all three places.
  • People volunteer for things they feel passionate about. The Film Festival folks love film, and New Kingston. If there's nothing to be passionate about in your organization, you'll have a tough time finding volunteers.
  • Volunteers like to make some decisions. The film festival people got to decide what films to show, not just show up to run the projector. I know not every volunteer can take on managing a project, but many can. Try not to micro-manage your volunteers.
  • Volunteers like to feel they're part of something important. Those archaeology volunteers really felt like they were uncovering something meaningful about the history of their community.
  • Volunteers like specific tasks. The Slate Valley Museum probably won't ask their Good Hearted Lawyer to shovel the walk (unless he moonlights as the Snowman, also needed). Every job on their list is clear and concise. How much better is that then trying to find people to sit idly at your front desk?
  • Volunteers like fun. At the film festival, the organizers were obviously having fun--and the archaeology crew definitely, despite the rain, looks like they're having fun too. The Slate Museum's entertaining job descriptions help ensure that those volunteers approach their work in a spirit of fun as well.
So, lighten up, broaden your circle of friends, work as a team, and have fun!


Nina Simon said...

Great post! I particularly appreciate the unique and specific examples. I'm glad you are blogging so much these days; I always look forward to reading your posts.

Linda Norris said...

Thanks Nina--always nice to know there's a reader out there!