The Volunteer Conundrum: Necessary, Infuriating or Both? And Why?

Look back at museum history and you will uncover a wealth of volunteer labor. From Mount Vernon to MOMA, local historical societies to heritage sites, many of the organizations we think of today as staid and patriarchal, owe their lifeblood to a group of volunteers whose persistence created an organization. That moment of transition, when a group of like-minded individuals with a museum goal in mind becomes a non-profit organization governed by a board of trustees is a delicate one. Like it or not, it can stamp organizational culture into the future because it hallmarks who volunteers are, and most importantly, who they’re not.

Recently Michelle Moon tweeted that museum volunteer programs are a “third rail,” meaning they’re too volatile to discuss. Moon’s tweet was in response to an Instagram post on ChangetheMuseum praising Veronica Stein at Chicago’s Art Institute for her efforts in disrupting its all-powerful Docent Council. I don’t want to litigate the Art Institute’s case, but even today almost a year after it fired its docents, the topic still lingers. Why? Well, it incapsulates a gazillion touch stones, many dating to pre-Covid museum history and some to today. There’s gender–the vast majority of museum volunteers are women. There’s ageism. Many museum volunteers are older. There’s class–many volunteers, often called docents from the Latin docere, to teach–are wealthy or at least privileged enough not to work 40/hrs a week. There’s race: the vast majority of docents are White. They are frequently powerful. Collectively they form or join docent organizations, and, because they offer a much-needed service–their organization grows powerful. Even at a county historical society, a strong docent organization has the capacity to cripple an education program by simply failing to show up. And, at another level, docent programs’ origins are often built around women without careers who volunteered while their husbands took positions on the board.

Blech. I can hear you eye rolling. Like we need to feel sorry for a bunch of rich, older, White women, who create organizations within organizations and then refuse to take instructions from anyone. Right? But there are so many ways this narrative speaks to the museum field’s failures and problems. First, how did volunteer organizations become a third rail? Well, to quote Deep Throat, follow the money. When you put a group of well-heeled women together, who by the way, are often married to well-heeled men, who museum leaders want to court for one reason or another, they are teflonned. Any hint of distress might mean less giving. Is it possible less-than distinguished volunteer teaching is an acceptable trade off for a more robust annual fund? Second, museum education is the pinkest place, in a pink collar field. I’ve written about this a bit, which you can find here, and here, but if you want a concise break down look at Margaret Middleton’s Twitter thread on the subject. Her point, that if a field (museum education) is devalued from the start, volunteers are often a necessity not a choice. But once again, dismantling a volunteer program, may mean biting the hand that feeds you.

I understand it’s easy to sit at your laptop and act as though fixing the museum world’s problems is a snap. It’s not. Negotiating with humans is frequently challenging, and who has time to unravel organizational culture when there are so many more pressing problems? That said, here are a few thoughts for anyone considering dismantling or changing a volunteer program.

  • The Bureau of Labor Statistics devotes considerable time to the act of volunteering. In fact, it defines volunteers as workers albeit unpaid ones.
  • If volunteers are staff, just unpaid staff, then their work expectations, as opposed to their time, shouldn’t be less than staff. In other words, both types of worker, paid and unpaid, serve the museum. Anything less seems like it leads to anarchy. For example, what if the volunteer EMTs formed their own organization and refused to be trained by their parent organizations? No one in a museum will die if their teacher is a volunteer as opposed to staff. So…. is the question whether volunteers are old, rich, and White or whether they are serving themselves and not the institution?
  • Interestingly, the BLS notes that volunteers can’t displace paid staff.
  • I once heard Darren Walker talk about diversifying the Ford Foundation’s board. Perhaps because there is such is level of trust between Walker and his board, the board confessed it couldn’t diversify on its own. Board members didn’t know how, and more importantly they didn’t know who. Is it possible that if charged with diversifying their ranks, some docent organizations would need help? Might they also need help getting to the point of asking for help?
  • Like staff, volunteers, even the most magical ones, take a lot of work. (For example, the Met’s volunteers train weekly for six months before being let loose in the galleries.) Too often volunteers train volunteers, creating an elaborate game of telephone, and distancing volunteers from staff. Does your organization have resources to educate and incorporate volunteers into its wider staff?
  • Has your museum leadership talked about how to transparently deal with questions from paid staff about their worth, and what they’ve invested in the field, which is not nothing, versus a volunteer who swans in once a week for a tour?
  • Has your museum talked about the language it uses when defining groups, either within or without the museum? As part of DEI education, many organizations offer help regarding appropriate group descriptors. As a museum leader, have you needed to model similar behavior when it comes to volunteers?
  • At the end of the day, does your museum need volunteers? If so, which is more important: having a diverse body of volunteers or having volunteers who serve the museum? Or both?

Be well. Stay cool.

See you in September.

Joan Baldwin



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