News & Insights

Many hands make light work: how to make the most of your museums volunteer programs

Published 12 October 2016

Volunteering is big in Australia. Over 6.1 million Australian adults have participated in formal volunteering, and a quick unfiltered search on (a not-for-profit search platform run by SEEK Limited) returns over one thousand pages of volunteering opportunities across the country.  

Of these opportunities, almost two hundred are with museums, foundations and galleries. Organisations both big and small are looking for volunteers in roles varying from Accounts Receivable and tour guide operator, to data entry assistant and marketing coordinator. Volunteers are essential to the running of Australia’s museums and galleries, and to the advancement of vital cultural and scientific programs.

But as visitor numbers dwindle and people have less free time on their hands, how can museums and galleries attract the volunteers they need to maintain operations? How can you make the most of your volunteer programs? 

1. Create structured, meaningful volunteer programs

Natural history museums, such as the Australian Museum (AM), have been running volunteer programs for decades. These programs give everyday people the opportunity to participate in scientific research projects, and they’ve been hugely successful.

Why? ‘Citizen science’ programs offer people the opportunity to:

  • Do what they love with like-minded people;
  • Contribute to meaningful research; and
  • See the direct impact of their contribution

Volunteers have discovered new galaxies, photographed rarely-seen fish species and facilitated the digitisation of museum collections, among many other things. Paul Flemons, citizen science manager at the Australian Museum, recently told SBS’s The Feed that a lot of scientific research would not be possible without the contribution of volunteers.

Watch Paul Flemons on The Feed here.

So to make the most of your volunteer programs (and your volunteers), make sure you:

  • Set goals. Have a clear expected outcome for every program. Do you want to create a digital archive of all your works? Launch a new website? Attract 1000 new visitors in the next twelve months? Create a goal for your program and give your volunteers something to work towards, and invest in.
  • Communicate. Make an effort to report back to your volunteers about the impact of their work. Did you reach a significant milestone? Receive a grant or an award? People engage more when they can see the tangible impact of their contribution.

Whether they’re contributing to scientific research or running tours for school groups, you’ll get more out of your volunteer programs if you can make your volunteers feel like they’re a part of something bigger than themselves.

2. Measure and celebrate contributions

Logging volunteer hours isn’t always the most effective way to measure or reward an individual’s contribution. You’re much better off measuring outcomes, and celebrating them at every opportunity.

There are several ways to measure a volunteer’s contribution aside from simple hours worked. For example:

  • You can measure a tour guide’s contribution by the number of tours they’ve operated, or the number of exhibitions and shows they’ve worked on.
  • A customer service volunteer can be measured by volume of enquiries handled, or on the basis of visitor feedback.
  • You can celebrate the contribution of skilled volunteers, like researchers or shipwrights, by showcasing the final products of their work.

And while recognising major contributions is important, remember to celebrate the small wins too. Maybe one of your guides or front desk attendees went above and beyond to answer a visitor’s question? Or perhaps a volunteer’s leadership and knowledge has fast-tracked a restoration project? Encourage a culture of communication, recognition and celebration, to ensure your volunteers know they’re valued.

3. Provide a safe working environment

Volunteering has a well-documented positive impact on mental and physical health, but providing a safe working environment for volunteers is still critical.

Your volunteers aren’t able to contribute their best or make the most of your volunteer programs if they don’t have the right training, skills and equipment to do what they need to. If you’re running volunteer programs, it’s important that you:

  • Ensure all volunteers have the right skills and training, including any certifications or checks (such as a Police Check)
  • Provide proper induction sessions for new volunteers
  • Perform a Workplace Risk Assessment for all the places your volunteers will be working, and take all necessary steps to mitigate or minimise risks
  • Take out a Voluntary Workers Group Personal Accident Policy to ensure you and your volunteers are protected

Members of Museums Australia enjoy ongoing discounted premiums on Voluntary Workers Group Personal Accident insurance, as well as on public liability insurance and other solutions tailored for museums and galleries. Find out more here

volunteer programs

Better together

Volunteers are fundamental to the success and survival of Australia’s museum and galleries, but attracting time-poor people to volunteer programs can be difficult. That’s why creating goal-oriented programs, rewarding all contributions and providing a safe working environment is the key to attracting – and retaining – volunteers.

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