by Jodi Helmer
Greeting visitors. Cleaning habitats. Feeding animals. Leading tours. Writing newsletter articles.
At zoos, aquariums, and museums, the to-do list is endless. It’s not just the sheer number of operational requirements that present a challenge for these organizations: As nonprofits, there is often no funding to hire paid staff to devote 40 hours per week to tackling the tasks.
The solution: volunteers.
A dedicated volunteer corps helps zoos, aquariums, and museums meet institutional objectives while enhancing the visitor experience without putting a strain on the operating budget. “Volunteers contribute a great deal to helping [us] deliver on our goals and objectives, [allowing] the museum to achieve tasks and projects that we otherwise might not achieve,” explains Chloe Young, human resources and development adviser for the Museum of London in England.
Over the past decade, the museum has engaged more than 800 volunteers in its London Archeological Archive and Research Centre alone, helping improve the storage and access to collections that would not have been possible without a volunteer workforce.
Understanding the Impact
The London Museums Group, a nonprofit organization representing 20 museums in London, England, estimates that 9,000 volunteers contribute £17 million (US$27 million) worth of services on an annual basis to London museums. In the United States, about 64.3 million people volunteered at least once between September 2010 and September 2011, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics.
The Oregon Coast Aquarium relies on more than 400 volunteers whose roles range from cleaning tanks and interpreting exhibits to assisting with clerical tasks and facilities maintenance. Since the aquarium launched its volunteer program in 1992, volunteers have contributed 1,102,927 hours of service. On an annual basis, the aquarium benefits from volunteer hours equivalent to a workforce of 26 full-time employees.
According to Carmen Morgan, manager of volunteer services for the Oregon Coast Aquarium in Newport, Oregon, volunteer service is one of the biggest reasons the aquarium is successful. “We don’t have the financial resources to hire staff to do all of the work that needs to be done for the aquarium to operate,” she says. “Without our volunteers, we would not be able to operate the aquarium.”
Planning for Success
While volunteers are essential to the success of zoos, aquariums, and museums, attracting a dedicated corps that is willing to work gratis is not as simple as putting a notice on the organization’s website and waiting for volunteers to show up for shifts.
Building a team of volunteers needs to be viewed as an essential investment and, according to Morgan, recruiting, training, and retaining volunteers often takes just as much effort as hiring staff. In fact, museums, zoos, and aquariums with successful volunteer programs often use the same strategies to add volunteers and staff.
Tracy Bryan, volunteer coordinator for Zoo Boise, asks volunteers to fill out detailed questionnaires, go through an interview process, and participate in training. All volunteers also receive a volunteer handbook that outlines policies and procedures. “We want to make sure we’re giving our volunteers all of the tools they need to do their jobs,” Bryan explains.
Establishing expectations for volunteer service helps to ensure volunteers understand their commitment and have a willingness to uphold the professional standards of the nonprofit.
The Oregon Coast Aquarium requires its volunteers to commit to a minimum of 100 hours of service per year, approximately one four-hour shift per week. “We want to keep our volunteers active,” explains Morgan. “If volunteers aren’t here on a regular basis, it’s hard to keep up with current information about our exhibits and communicate that information to the public.”
Another essential element of success is matching the skills, experience, and interests of volunteers with the needs of the organization. A volunteer who loves animals but hates public speaking might be better suited to assisting with animal enrichment than leading school tours, while a volunteer with mechanical skills might not feel fulfilled stuffing envelopes in the development office. “We recognize that not everyone has the same interests so we interview all of our prospective volunteers, review volunteer job descriptions, and match their skills with the positions we have available,” Morgan says.
At Zoo Boise, Bryan sends out annual surveys to volunteers asking for anonymous feedback on their volunteer experience. “Evaluations help with retention and help us improve the volunteer experience,” she says. “We often change our program based on the feedback we get.”
Whether volunteers are involved with cataloging priceless museum artifacts, SCUBA diving into tanks filled with sharks to clean the habitat, or explaining the importance of protecting endangered species, extensive training is essential.
After volunteers at Zoo Boise have filled out questionnaires about their interests and experience, volunteer managers step in to prepare them for their roles. Bryan leads mandatory weekend orientations for all volunteers that include general information about the zoo and its volunteer program, as well as specific information and training for various volunteer roles such as animal care volunteer or zoo naturalist.
Once training is complete, volunteers still need access to ongoing support to thrive in the organization. “Time is spent in planning and structuring volunteer roles and ensuring that these complement other departmental activities, and that there are resources available to support the volunteer [to] ensure that the role adds benefit to the organization and also provides interesting opportunities for our volunteers,” Young notes. “We retain volunteers by providing a good experience and investment in training and support for those [who] manage volunteers.”
Once volunteers are trained, creating a detailed schedule helps ensure adequate volunteer resources are available during operating hours.
To simplify what Bryan refers to as, “a very intricate process,” Zoo Boise asks its volunteers to commit to a specific shift for the duration of their volunteer service. For example, an animal care volunteer might work with a zookeeper in the elephant habitat every Monday from 9 to 11 a.m. “It makes things so much easier if our volunteers stick to the same schedule,” she explains.
Honor the Commitment
Volunteers who give their time to a zoo, museum, or aquarium need to know their contributions are valued. Successful programs incorporate volunteer recognition strategies both big and small to honor their volunteers.
The Oregon Coast Aquarium bestows special pins to recognize volunteers who have contributed 500, 1,000, 2,000, and 3,000 hours of service. Zoo Boise sends handwritten thank-you cards to its volunteer corps and often surprises volunteers who have gone the extra mile with Starbucks gift cards. To ensure volunteers feel like an essential part of museum operations, the Museum of London invites volunteers to participate in staff meetings, events, and training courses, and their contributions are highlighted in a special “Meet the Volunteers” section of the website.
All of the organizations offer free tickets to experience the facilities outside scheduled volunteer shifts and host annual appreciation events to recognize volunteers for their service. “We want to let our volunteers know how much we value their contributions,” Morgan says. “They give us a huge gift by volunteering their time, and the [annual] volunteer recognition event is a way for us to give back.”
Jodi Helmer is a freelance writer in Charlotte, North Carolina. Learn more about her work at www.jodihelmer.com.