Volunteers have choices about how they will spend their volunteer hours. Museums and other institutions, therefore, must strive to make their programs attractive to prospective docents, as well as rewarding to active docents. While some larger institutions are blessed with well-established docent programs and no shortage of applicants to join their docent corps, smaller institutions often have a tough time finding and keeping docents.
Small museums have small paid staffs, if any at all. Many museums, especially in rural areas, are run entirely by volunteers. The shortage of paid staff time that makes docents so necessary is the very condition that limits staff time for recruiting and training docents. It becomes a vicious cycle: if you don’t invest time recruiting and training docents you end up leading the tours yourself, further reducing the time available for your other staff duties.
The pool of potential volunteers is shrinking. Wives of professionals are likely to have their own careers today, moms are returning to work, and seniors increasingly are becoming care-givers for their grandchildren, or embarking on second or third careers themselves. With traditional sources driving up, museums must be creative in seeking out potential docents.
Possible sources, in no particular order, include university and high school students. Scouting organizations, senior citizens’ groups, professional organizations, civic groups, medical auxiliaries, symphony guilds, museum support groups, and organizations of retired professionals (especially teachers).
Any mailing lists you can get have possibilities of turning up some dedicated new volunteers. Send a mailing to the docents of other institutions as some volunteers are willing to give their time to more than one museum. In Missoula, Montana, one retired teacher volunteers at the historical museum, the art museum, the public library. Meals on Wheels, and reads to blind people, among other volunteer commitments.
Ask your local newcomers’ club or Welcome Wagon organization to include a brochure describing your museum and its volunteer opportunities in the basket of goodies they bring to new residents in your area. Newcomers frequently welcome volunteer work as a chance to make friends in their new community.
Don’t overlook your museum visitors. A rack of pamphlets near the entrance describing volunteer opportunities could bring in new docents. Include a tear-off or mail-in form for those interested in receiving mailings about your docent programs.
Incentives and Benefits
Once volunteers have been recruited, museum staff should try to make new volunteers feel a part of the team. Give them a discounted or complimentary membership to the museum and a free subscription to the museum newsletter. You may want to create an associate membership category, or give limited-term regular memberships free to new volunteers.
Make up official-looking name badges for volunteers. If money is in short supply, blank museum name plates can be personalized with “dymo” labels. Give docents a notebook or binder for their museum handouts and notes, a discount at the museum shop, guest passes for visiting friends and family. These token gifts can go a long way toward making docents feel like a part of the museum family.
Make volunteering easy for your docents. Provide a secure place for coats, purses, and other possessions, and consider giving out parking passes or tokens for parking meters, if applicable. Put the docent schedule or calendar in a convenient place, which has the added benefit of encouraging docents to sign up for additional tours. Schedule enough docents for each tour so no more than 10 to 15 participants are in a guided group whenever possible.
If your museum has sufficient demand for tours, consider having each docent commit to one morning or afternoon a week— the same day every week— during the touring season. Besides making it easier for docents to plan their own schedules, this also helps the staffer who schedules tours by guaranteeing that docents will be available at those times. If it should happen that no tours are booked for a given day, give docents notice or provide opportunities for meaningful work, such as independent research in the museum library, collection, or exhibition halls.
Museums must remember to recognize the contributions of their volunteers. Thank them often; send each docent a thank-you letter at the conclusion of the touring season. Pass along “fan mail” sent by school groups or other visitors. Feature volunteer profiles in your museum newsletter, and print occasional articles recognizing volunteer efforts. List docent names in the museum’s annual report, perhaps by docent class year or years of service. Present service pins recognizing milestones like two, five, and ten years. Host a volunteer pot luck or recognition picnic. Submit names for local Volunteer of the Year recognitions. Even if they don’t win, it’s nice to know that one’s efforts are appreciated.
Most importantly, make sure your docent program has value to your volunteers by encouraging personal growth. Docents give a lot to their institutions, their institutions should be alert for appropriate ways to give something back to their volunteers.
The initial training course can be a personal enrichment experience for the participants. If your institution’s staff is simply too busy to develop a docent program, consider whether a volunteer docent organizer could be an asset in getting your docent program up and running. Recruit a dedicated and trusted volunteer for this short-term task. Once the initial organizing is done, staff can pick up the day to day operation of the docent program.
Design your docent training to be comprehensive, covering not only current exhibitions, collections, and interpretive techniques, but also background material for the general subject area of the museum. Depending on the scope of the museum, a comprehensive docent training program will require substantial commitment of time; however, the payoff will be well-prepared, confident docents who will have successful and fulfilling teaching experiences.
In exchange for this comprehensive education, docents may be asked to make a time commitment to the museum’s docent program. A sample obligation might be two years, including the duration of the training program. Or perhaps a materials fee could be charged at the beginning of the docent course, applicable to museum membership at the conclusion of the training, or refundable after a specified length of service.
Provide continuing education opportunities for your docents, and not just at your own museum. Schedule docent-led tours of other institutions in your region (or beyond). Provide docents with subscriptions to The Docent Educator. Allow docents to take museum course offerings for a discounted fee. Encourage current docents to sit in on selected new docent training sessions for review purposes. Give your docents free access to your museum reference library and video collection. Encourage docent attendance at regional museum conferences. Investigate the possibility of arrangements with local colleges or universities that would allow docents to audit relevant courses or to have reduced tuition fees.
Get your docent group together with docents from other area museums for joint trainings or fun events. For instance, volunteers on Sanibel Island, Florida, participate in a “Cross Training,” in which volunteers who meet and greet the public participate in educational outings to a number of visitor destinations in their area, including a lighthouse, shell museum, wildlife refuge, and historical sites on the island of Captiva and Sanibel. Besides being enjoyable and educational, cross-training provides docents with additional perspectives on other sites that your museum’s out-of-town visitors may want to see.
Being a museum docent can be a very satisfying experience. When docents feel needed, valued, and rewarded for their efforts, they can become an almost permanent part of a museum’s staff Many docents will outlast museum staff members, providing continuity during times of staff transition. If a museum makes the initial effort to set up a well-thought-out docent program, its volunteers can enable museum staffers to concentrate on other parts of their jobs, rather than leading tours.
Kim Erway Birck serves as a docent at the Historical Museum at Fort Missoula and the Art Museum of Missoula, in Missoula, Montana. In addition, she is a local Girl Scout Leader. Ms. Birck received a B. S. in natural resource management/biology and has done graduate work in environmental journalism, ornithology, botany, and environmental education.
Erway Birck, Kim. “Recruiting and Retaining Docents,” The Docent Educator 7.4 (Summer 1998): 12-13.