Lynn Blackadder dispels some of the myths of cultural volunteering, and explains how to get volunteer programmes right.

Opinion remains divided as to whether arts organisations should set off down the volunteering road, because despite the increasing number of success stories, there is a stigma attached to volunteering. Negative attitudes generally stem from experiences of badly managed programmes, or simply hearing about them. Moreover, salaried staff are often suspicious of people who want to do unpaid work. They assume a sinister, hidden agenda: ?volunteers want to penetrate our organisations and take our jobs?. And there is often a misconception that, once you?ve introduced volunteers, you won?t be able to get rid of them.

It is ironic that, given current policies emphasising visitor numbers and the role of the arts as an agent of social change, we are suspicious when people want to get involved. I?m not suggesting that involving volunteers is easy, or that all volunteers are altruistic angels. I?m not even saying that volunteering is a good thing for all arts organisations. But I do think that if an organisation?s core business is about attracting and offering the public life-enhancing learning experiences, mutually beneficial volunteering opportunities should be considered. Setting up a successful volunteer programme requires a lot of careful thinking, but the following advice will help you to establish whether this is something your organisation could take on.

Identifying the need

Can volunteers help you achieve your organisational objectives? For over ten years Chicken Shed Theatre Company was entirely volunteer run. Now volunteers carry out almost the entire front of house operation. The Egyptology Centre at Swansea has a team of child volunteers (the ?Nubies?) who give regular guided tours. But if volunteers can?t make a difference, don?t feel obliged to include them. Reactive, unstructured and badly managed volunteer placements don?t work.

Defining the volunteering offer

To engage and retain volunteers you must make a genuine offer, and volunteering should be a two-way exchange. If either the organisation or the volunteer is taken for granted, the neglected party will become disillusioned. Also, think about how your offer compares with that of similar initiatives. Don?t create a scheme that duplicates existing local provision unless you have a specific, dedicated audience. For example, Cockpit Arts is aiming to develop a Friends scheme that could be largely self-managed. And whilst there are many volunteering initiatives in Manchester, Imperial War Museum North volunteers were excited to take ownership of a project that helped them to help themselves in their own community.

Allocating resources

The most critical success factor for involving volunteers is adequate resources, both human and financial. There are a number of funding organisations specialising in volunteering initiatives that can be explored. From a human resource perspective, it is common for arts organisations to push responsibility for volunteer management onto untrained staff with already full-time jobs. As a result, volunteers receive ? at best ? pastoral care, and are seen as burdensome. Staff must be rewarded for additional responsibilities, and given organisation-wide recognition.

Developing a strategy

Your strategy should include a volunteering vision that is clearly communicated to all staff and volunteers (including Trustees) stating why volunteers are involved, the value of their contribution, and the relationship between them and paid staff. This will help staff to buy into the programme, and volunteers to understand how they fit in. Planning programme delivery is essential, including budgets, marketing, recruitment, induction, training, facilities and procedures for review, recognition and rewards.

Creating a management structure

If structures are too rigid they will be off-putting, and it?s important that your programme is flexible enough to evolve in response to volunteer and staff needs. However, both parties will benefit from systems, procedures and documentation such as a handbook and a volunteer agreement. It is helpful to outline what is expected of the volunteer and the organisation, explicitly stating the nature of the relationship and clarifying important issues such as volunteering expenses. The National Art Collections Fund manages a regional network of 500 fundraising volunteers who pride themselves on their ability to work with minimal support. In 2002 the Art Fund developed ? with the help of its volunteers, and not without some initial resistance ? a Guide to Volunteering. Its content is of most use to new volunteers, but regularly updated releases are an effective method of sharing best practice and new legislation.

Providing training

Never assume that managing volunteers is the same as managing paid staff. Whilst sound human resources principles should generally be adapted and applied, managers need to understand the different motivations and needs of volunteers to keep them engaged. Personal development plans can help establish and evaluate the achievement of goals and aspirations. Volunteers should always be trained to carry out their tasks. This is non-negotiable.

Creating positive culture

Training can also help paid staff understand and address their personal prejudices towards volunteers. Islington Arts Factory is developing a scheme that offers local unemployed residents voluntary arts administration experience. The organisation recognises the importance of addressing any concerns staff have about involving volunteers, and it is also looking at how the experience of managing volunteers can contribute to staff development.

Continuous improvement

Listen to and learn from your volunteers and staff. You should always be open to receiving comments and suggestions. Regular, informal, two-way reviews are a constructive way of discussing the performance of and future direction for volunteers and your programme.

Pandora?s Box ?

Finally, if you embark upon a volunteer programme, don?t think that there is no turning back if it doesn?t work. Establish what can realistically be achieved. Structure the expectations of staff and volunteers so they know what?s happening, and ask them to steer the programme. If you don?t give it a go, you?ll never know.


Lynn Blackadder is an arts management consultant who helps organisations involve volunteers effectively. t: 020 7624 2647 e: lynn@lynnblackadder.com
She is author of ?Cultural Volunteer?, a free e-newsletter that shares best practice in good volunteer management. Subscribe at http://www.lynnblackadder.com.