Association of Science - Technology Centers
About ASTC
About Science Centers
Annual Conference
Exhibition Services
Professional Development
ASTC Dimensions
spacerBrowse Back Issues
spacerSubscribe Now
spacerEditorial Guidelines
Browse Publications
Order Now

Resource Center

Inside this issue:

Ready, Set, Go! Maximizing Success with Museum Volunteers

The Year of Volunteers: Celebrating a Vital Source

Why I Volunteer: Three Personal Stories

Playing on the TAG Team: How Local Experts Enrich One Science Center's Offerings

Meaningful Contributions: The Role of Training in the Volunteer Experience



Browse Back Issues ASTC Dimensions: July/August 2001
July/August 2001:
Volunteer Power!
Ready, Set, Go!
Maximizing Success with Museum Volunteers

By Jan Davison

At science centers around the world, services donated by volunteers are essential to the bottom line. Museum volunteers—whether they serve on the board of directors, assist with educational programs, build and maintain exhibits, or fill other important jobs—help staff provide more services to visitors with little additional cost.

Recently, however, increasing limitations on resources, both human and fiscal, have left volunteer programs reaching beyond traditional ways of doing business to find new solutions, new alternatives for expanding the work they do. Even in the United States, with its long tradition of volunteerism, societal changes have had an impact on people's ability and willingness to donate their time.

In "Management Implications of Contemporary Trends in Volunteerism," a paper presented at the 1998 conference of ARNOVA (the Association for Research on Nonprofit Organizations and Voluntary Action), volunteer-program consultants Mary Merrill and R. Dale Safrit outlined the following trends now shaping the field:

  • In an effort to balance home and work, increasing numbers of people are saying they are too busy to volunteer.
  • There is an increased demand for volunteer services. Organizations are trying to do more with less, resulting in greater competition for volunteers.
  • People are looking for places where their efforts can make a difference. They are often looking for the personal touch.
  • The majority of today's volunteers are working people: According to Independent Sector's Giving and Volunteering in the United States (Washington, D.C., 1999), 61 percent of persons who are employed part-time volunteer, and 58 percent of persons who work full-time volunteer.
  • Volunteers want meaningful, challenging, interesting work.
  • Volunteers have higher expectations than in the past. They look for professionalism and flexibility.
  • Technology is rapidly changing how and where people perform volunteer service.

Last fall, Marcia Hale, then manager of volunteer services for Chabot Space & Science Center, and I led a session on volunteers at ASTC's Annual Conference. We emphasized that successful volunteer programs do not just happen; they are the result of careful planning and preparation. Understanding the needs of your science center, as well as what is happening with volunteers in your community, will help you design strategies and techniques that fill those needs while addressing contemporary trends.

Matching needs to resources
In moments of desperation, it is tempting to rush out and recruit the volunteers you need without really considering who would be most successful in your organization. Asking yourself a couple of key questions first can help you avoid limiting your options.

Are we being flexible enough?
With today's high employment rates, the majority of volunteers are working people, unavailable between 8 a.m. and 5 p.m. By restricting volunteer positions to daytime hours, you limit your resources primarily to retired people and possibly homeschoolers or students seeking service learning credits.

In the same way, offering only support positions, such as information desk helper or floor host, instead of skilled positions, like exhibit technician or graphic artist, means that people who could make a valuable contribution never consider volunteering.

Broadening opportunities and being more flexible in scheduling can result in a larger group of candidates to draw on. At COSI we developed a partnership with the local College of Art and Design to provide us with graphic arts students in need of internship experience. Though the interns work mostly off-site on their own time, they are under the direction of our publications manager, who sends and receives their projects electronically.

Young Volunteers Make a Difference

When COSI Columbus moved to its new site in 1999, the science center brought with it a long tradition of volunteer involvement. In the year ending June 30, 2000, a total of 1,028 volunteers—ranging in age from 12 to 83—donated 151,342 hours of service to the museum, with an estimated value (based on comparable paid positions) of $1.17 million. Departments served included not only education (both in-house and outreach) and guest services, but also exhibits, development, marketing, and administration.

The oldest and largest of COSI's in-house programs is the Teen Volunteers. This group annually includes more than 700 young people, aged 12 to 18, from both public and private schools. The teens attend four required Orientation and Training classes and agree to serve at least two days per month, assisting on the floor in the Learning Worlds, the museum store, the theaters, and guest operations, and behind the scenes in exhibits and offices. Participants aged 15 and up who have served a minimum of 300 hours are eligible to apply for special 10-week summer Youth Internships. As of 1999, 45 Youth Interns had completed 60,000 hours of service.

Homeschooled students aged 12 and up make up another important pool of youth volunteers. These young people make a commitment to work one day a week at the museum during daytime hours. During the 1999-2000 school year, homeschoolers contributed more than 21,000 hours to the museum.

Source: COSI Volunteer Demographics Report, June 2000, and COSI Youth Volunteer Fact Sheet, June 2000.

What do prospective volunteers need?
Like most of us, volunteers make rational decisions about the allocation of their time; they will strive to spend it in settings where they obtain personal value. For some, this may be the social aspects of volunteering, for others, it may be achievement or just the affiliation with your museum. Understanding these motivations is the key to keeping volunteers. Museums that enable people to do good work in a good setting with good coworkers are uniquely positioned to provide a sense of value and accomplishment-and often in ways that paid work settings cannot duplicate.

Three steps to success
Of course, effective recruiting is only part of the equation. As volunteer-management consultants Steve McCurley and Rick Lynch point out in their 1996 book, Volunteer Management: Mobilizing All the Resources of the Community, "There is no point in being good at recruitment if you cannot keep volunteers coming back. Recruitment is a solution to the problem of not having enough volunteers; retention is a way to avoid the problem altogether."

Success in both recruitment and retention comes when the entire organization understands the process and is willing to incorporate volunteers seamlessly into museum activities. Marcia and I believe the most important factor in recruiting and retaining volunteers is preparation. In our ASTC session, we outlined a three-step, Ready-Set-Go! approach to maximizing success with volunteers: >

1. READY your job descriptions.
Before you recruit, take time to do a needs analysis. Look at your operation from all angles-the big picture as well as the details-and design volunteer positions around real work that will benefit your museum.

It's important for staff to participate actively in this process. At Chabot, Marcia would hand busy employees who requested volunteer help a Job Factor Worksheet. This form asked them to assign all the tasks they were responsible for to one of three columns:

  • things I have to do myself
  • things I do that could be done by someone else
  • things I want to do but never get around to.
Once the worksheet was filled out, the first column became the staff member's new job description, and the second and third columns formed the basis for volunteer position descriptions. With a clear picture of the skills and time commitment needed, recruiting and selection became much easier.

At COSI, I have found that using a worksheet not only helps supervisors identify projects and tasks to be done by volunteers, but also, by establishing clear expectations, aids in the management of those volunteers. From the worksheets come training ideas, evaluation forms, and other tools needed to utilize volunteers effectively.

2. SET up your training program.
The importance of having well-defined selection, orientation, and training processes in place before you recruit cannot be overestimated. Volunteers have more confidence and perform better when an operation appears professional and organized. From my own volunteering, I know how uncomfortable it is to show up for an assignment and be given no clear instructions. Volunteers who don't feel they are contributing in a meaningful way may not return.

Always tell applicants what kind of training they can expect and what time commitment you require. Have manuals and other materials ready in advance, and make sure that whoever is doing the training can answer questions as well as get trainees excited about being part of your team.

All staff members need to know how to work with volunteers effectively. At COSI, we build this in by mixing new employees and adult volunteers together in three required orientation classes-Safety, Courtesy, and Show. (A fourth class, Efficiency, dealing with policies and benefits specific to each group, is conducted separately.) The result is that volunteers and staff alike consider themselves part of a unified museum team.

3. GO find your volunteers.
Where can you locate good unpaid help? A variety of online sites allow organizations to post volunteer opportunities (www. is my favorite), and a little research will uncover resources in your own community. Check out corporate volunteer offices, rehabilitation programs, schools, and retirement groups. These nonprofit organizations are often looking for ways for individuals or groups to help out. Ask them to match their people to your positions-it saves time and helps you create a successful program.

One unusually effective match at COSI came out of our need to unpack, price, and organize the large volume of incoming items in the gift shop stockroom. Staff couldn't process the inventory fast enough, so the Volunteer and Community Resources Office contacted a halfway house for women working to reenter their communities. The assignment, which requires little training, was well suited to a group not always made up of the same individuals. Once a week, 10 women come to the museum with their coordinator, accomplishing a total of 40 hours of work in a single afternoon. They feel needed and positive about the experience, and their service allows gift shop staff more time to serve our guests.

Internship fairs and community service events are another place to look for volunteers. Have a variety of staff members-not just your volunteer office team-represent the museum on such occasions. It can also be effective to set up an information table in your lobby. Don't be shy: According to that 1998 Independent Sector survey, the number-one reason people volunteer their time is that "somebody asked them."

Jan Davison is director of Volunteer and Community Resources at COSI Columbus, Ohio. She can be reached at:

return to top
About ASTC | About Science Centers | Annual Conference | Exhibition Services
  Professional Development |Publications| Resource Center | ASTC Home