Vicky Dawson explains how, through the organisation-wide adoption of Volunteer Makers, museums can achieve and evidence their core strategic aims of improving how they are run and the experience of their users. These two aims are cornerstones of Museum Accreditation, the national standard scheme for museums in which over 2,500 public museums of all sizes across the United Kingdom participate.
Volunteer Makers is a national programme – supported by Arts Council England – which is pioneering a model of audience engagement using digital and blending volunteering with public participation. Accreditation is operated by Arts Council England and partner organisations in the home countries. It provides a framework against which museums benchmark their governance and resource deployment, collections management and public services. In order to become Accredited a museum must evidence that it meets the required standards across its operation and demonstrate how it identifies and plans improvements.
Volunteers play an important part in the operation of most museums today. In South West England over 30% of Accredited museums are completely run by volunteers. Even in museums with paid staff volunteers take on roles as Trustees, front of house staff, learning officers, fundraisers, exhibition developers, collections assistants, website managers – you name it, there will be a volunteer doing it. The management of this highly valuable resource is therefore essential and is one of the activities assessed in Accreditation (sections 1.4 Forward Planning and 1.7 Workforce) where Volunteer Makers can help museums deliver.
Volunteer Makers facilitates the recruitment of volunteers to carry out the activities set out in the museum’s Forward Plan. It encourages all departments within the museum to identify the skills needed and the activities involved in delivering its objectives and to break them down into ‘challenges’ which volunteers can sign up to. The customer relationship management features of the platform enable the museum not just to manage the promotion of volunteer opportunities or organise its records on individual volunteers, but also to quantify and put a value to their volunteers’ contribution – valuable data to support funding applications as well as business planning.
For the new or existing volunteer the online platform improves their experience too: it creates an accessible and efficient hub where they can find out about the opportunities available, match their skills, read up on roles and responsibilities and apply if they are interested. Once signed up, they can keep track of and evidence their involvement – a definite advantage if they are volunteering to enhance their CV and employment prospects.
By harnessing techniques more familiar to digital engagement, marketing and social media (including personalisation and gamification) to improve the experience of its users, the museum is also addressing one of the other key requirements of Accreditation and a core strategic aim of most museums: to broaden the diversity of its users (Accreditation requirement 3.1.3).
The most successful museums today are no longer regarded purely as the guardians of the nation’s or community’s heritage but also as the inspiration for personal expression and a conduit for civic involvement. Opportunities for participation, co-creation and debate bring in more diverse visitors: younger people, people who thought museums were stuffy, people from marginalised communities.
Volunteer Makers enables museums to capitalise on this trend by blending volunteering with public participation through digital engagement. It allows museums to promote and manage micro-volunteering and seamlessly encourage people to become more deeply involved as volunteers as their available time increases. This concept of the ‘long tail of volunteering’ makes museums think about volunteering in a more creative and agile manner in the face of changing demographics and increased financial pressures.
These are the two main areas where Volunteer Makers is helping museums improve and evidence their compliance with the Accreditation standard, thereby achieving core strategic aims and contributing to their resilience. To do this Volunteer Makers and Accreditation need to be firmly understood and applied across the whole museum – from the Governing Body to the cleaner, volunteer and paid staff. The recent re-launch of Wardown House Museum in Luton is testament to this.
These are exciting times for museums where the responsive will flourish, delivering with more relevant and vibrant programmes. They lead the vanguard to ensure museums are recognised once more by communities and funders as being an active and essential part of cultural life.
Vicky Dawson is a freelance museum and heritage consultant based in South West England.