Since the very early stages in its development, the Imperial War Museum North (IWM North) has aimed to appeal to people from all walks of life and to engender a sense of ownership among the local communities surrounding the Museum, writes Paula Hope.

With this in mind, a consultant was appointed to develop a volunteering strategy. The period of research, development and fundraising that followed has proved vital to the success of IWM?s pioneering volunteer programme. It gave it the essential top-down commitment and the human and financial resources necessary to run a professional operation. It also allowed us to develop strong links with local and regional networks of volunteer and community organisation and determine the areas of most need. In collaboration with our major partners, Salford College and Trafford Metropolitan Borough Council, we raised the necessary funding, much of it from the European Social Fund and the newly created Learning and Skills Council Greater Manchester.

The volunteer programme is situated within the Learning and Access department, reflecting the museum?s belief in the importance of inclusion and life long learning. It is a large-scale initiative that in its first year alone involved over 100 volunteers. Two full-time members of staff manage the programme on a daily basis, supported by staff from Salford Further Education College. The programme is very focused, but also has to be flexible as it involves a wide range of people with very different needs. Recruits comprise a diverse, non-traditional range of volunteers, including lone parents, those wishing to return to work, 13-17 year olds in danger of being excluded from school, people from various cultural backgrounds and people with disabilities. Volunteers from different walks of life have joined the programme to promote inter-generational, and peer learning. All are offered skills training, work experience, and NVQ accreditation in Cultural Heritage, and a number are taking part in specially developed unitised pre-NVQ courses, as well as basic literacy, numeracy and ICT skills courses in the Museum. The programme has made a significant and measurable difference to the lives of a large number of those who have taken part, and to date, over 50 volunteers have worked towards NVQ 2 in Cultural Heritage.

We have carried out ?active evaluation? of the programme from the moment volunteers started to arrive, listening to and acting upon their feedback and the feedback of our partnership organisations, and changing and developing the programme as required. Volunteers stay the course because they have a say in how the programme develops, they have their own support groups, and they can attend programme discussion meetings. Although the programme has not suited everyone and hard lessons have been learnt, these have used to make improvements to the second phase of the programme.

Further funding through to December 2003 will allow us to consolidate the programme and reach out to more target groups. Another aim is to share the experience we have gained from the programme - both our successes and mistakes ? and encourage others to consider the tremendous benefit that an inclusive volunteer programme can offer to cultural organisations, individuals and communities.

Paula Hope is Press & PR Officer Imperial War Museum North. For a copy of the volunteer programme Learning Outcomes Report contact Anna Brint, Volunteer Administrator at IWM North t: 0161 836 4081; e: abrint@iwm.org.uk