I never really thought about becoming a volunteer, it just did not seem like something that I would ever have time for. The few times I did volunteer in college or high school, I always ended up doing a job I didn’t really like. I became a volunteer when I was out of college and unemployed, and now I don’t think I could give it up. The Dearborn Historical Museum has become my second home and the other volunteers and staff members have become my second family. The Dearborn Historical Museum is run by 4 part-time staff members and a small army of volunteers.

On any given day one to a dozen different volunteers could be coming and going from our museum. I would say that we are very successful with our volunteers. We all seem to be happy and are very consistent volunteers.

This caused me to sit down and think – what makes us successful? –  and more specifically what do volunteers need from their institutions that make volunteer programs successful.

I came up with a simple list that reflects what I, as a volunteer, need from any institution I want to work with:

1. Volunteers need to feel that their work is meaningful. Of course, what is meaningful to one person can be completely different to another.

Volunteers in Civil War dress spend time in the Dearborn Historical Museum's Commandant's Quarters.

Volunteers in Civil War dress spend time in the Dearborn Historical Museum’s Commandant’s Quarters.

Some people find a sense of purpose in working with the public in docent or school tour leader positions while others prefer jobs behind the scene like working in archives, data entry or event planning. It becomes part of the institution’s responsibility to know and place their volunteers in positions that suit them.

Some volunteers have skill, physical, or time limitations; some people can’t use computers, some can only do jobs while sitting down, while other can only help out at yearly events. It’s important that the institution keeps tracks of these things. If you are fortunate enough to have a volunteer coordinator this task becomes easier. However if you do not have a volunteer coordinator, it’s important to have someone check in with volunteers and ask them about their projects. Typically a volunteer will tell you if it’s something out of their comfort zone or beyond their skill level.

If you feel like you are having a high volunteer turn over it could be as simple as your volunteers aren’t finding their work with you meaningful. While we aren’t paid in money, we want to be paid in a sense of accomplishment and usefulness.

As a volunteer, it is important for you to stay open-minded about new jobs or tasks being giving to you. Sometimes institutional personnel will ask you to do a job you have never done before and you should take that as a sign of being trusted and valued. It might be something you are uncomfortable with but, for one shift, give it your best, try and make a decision based on that. Don’t be afraid to respectfully tell someone that the job wasn’t for you.

2. Volunteers need and want to be trained.

A DHM volunteer explains to a group of second-graders how to make butter.

A DHM volunteer explains to a group of second-graders how to make butter.

After the first event that I planned for the museum, one of the main pieces of information I got back from my fellow volunteers was that next year there needs to be more training. One day of training wasn’t enough for some of my volunteers to be comfortable in their jobs. So that is something that institutions should ask themselves “How much training is enough training?”

Training is one of those iffy things. It is very important but it also takes up a fair amount of staff time. Some people will start training and decide they don’t want to volunteer after all. Not only did you lose a potential set of helping hands, that employee time and effort is lost. Not all volunteers need to be trained on specific computer software or on historical building facts. So it is important for an institution to determine who receives training and how they are going to train. I have found that a volunteer who is confident in their job will

produce more, feel more accomplished and is more likely to recommend volunteering to a friend.

3. Volunteers need to feel appreciated.

As obvious as that statement sounds after a day sorting through dusty boxes, or walking students around

Volunteer rewards can come in all shapes and sizes. From brunches, to awards, to once-in-a-lifetime experiences.

Volunteer rewards can come in all shapes and sizes. From brunches, to awards, to once-in-a-lifetime experiences.

the museum, nothing feels quite as good as being sincerely thanked for the work I have done. I know that my work means something to the museum when I am told “Thanks so much, we couldn’t have done it without you.” Some institutions offer awards to their volunteers, others host meals and parties in their honor. Whatever your institution does, make sure you do it with sincerity. Volunteers love to feel like they are making a difference but often won’t know they are making a difference until someone at the institution tells them.

Volunteers are not coming to your museum to make money, they are coming to make a difference. Sometimes that difference is for the museum and sometimes its to make a difference in themselves. I truly believe that if you feel like your institution is having a hard time keeping volunteers interested, then you should try to address the items on this list.