Making the most of the gift of volunteering

The relationship between a volunteer and their museum is often described as a ‘gift’ relationship – one in which the volunteer gives their time freely and willingly to contribute to the museum’s work.  Unlike many gifts, though, this gift comes with responsibilities for the recipient, since running a successful volunteer programme takes both time and resources from the organisation. In this article, we’ll look at four practical steps that can help you to create engaging and rewarding volunteer opportunities that bring benefits for volunteers and your museum.

  1. Create a clear volunteer role

The Museum Accreditation Standard (1.3) requires accredited museums to have agreements in place with employees and volunteers, setting out their roles and responsibilities.  Do this by scoping volunteer role descriptions clearly in advance, setting out the work to be done, timescales and any particular skills or experience needed.  Be careful to create a clear distinction between employee and volunteer roles, as failure to do so could mean that a volunteer could claim worker or employee status and be eligible to receive the National Minimum Wage in return for their work.

  1. Review your duty of care to volunteers

All organisations have a common law and legislative duty to avoid causing harm and to protect volunteers and employees from harm.  To ensure you fulfil your duty of care to volunteers:

  • Check your insurance policy provides sufficient cover for volunteering.
  • Check your Health and Safety, Safeguarding and Data Protection policies to ensure it is clear how these apply to volunteers.
  • Do a risk assessment for the volunteer role, as well as ensuring that it is included in your security risk assessment and emergency plans (accreditation standards 3.2 and 3.3).
  1. Put in place robust training and supervision arrangements

One of the key factors that drives volunteer engagement is the quality of the training and supervision provided.  Key tools to help with this include:

  • A Volunteer Agreement and Problem-Solving policy.
  • An induction checklist and trial period when volunteers start with you.
  • Clear processes for communication so that volunteers feel informed about what’s happening in the wider museum.
  • Ways to recognise volunteers’ contributions, such as a simple thank you or social events.
  • Opportunities to give volunteers a voice in your museum, by consulting or seeking feedback.
  1. Make the opportunity as accessible and inclusive as possible

To attract the widest range of volunteers, ensure you consider how accessible and inclusive the volunteer role and your museum’s working practices are.  This list of considerations is by no means exhaustive, but it is a good place to start!

  • Have a recruitment policy that sets out your commitment to diversity and inclusion.
  • Exclude any skills or experience that aren’t absolutely necessary from the role description.
  • Consider whether you can reimburse out-of-pocket expenses to ensure volunteers are not financially disadvantaged as a result of their volunteering.
  • Use simple language to ensure documents accessible for those whose first language isn’t English or those with disabilities or cognitive processing conditions.
  • Ask prospective volunteers if they need any particular support to access the opportunity.
  • Review your working practices and identify any potential barriers that might impact on someone’s ability to volunteer.

Resources and information

NCVO on working with volunteers>>

NCVO on writing volunteering policies>>

Volunteer Scotland resources and guides>>

Heritage Volunteering Group (HVG)>>