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Standards and Best Practices for Museum Volunteer Programs

Proposed by the American Association for Museum Volunteers (AAMV)

November 2011 (revised May 2012)

 The following standards are proposed with the understanding that the diversity of museums and the roles volunteers play within them makes it extremely difficult to propose any single way a volunteer program should function.

We hope that the guidelines below will be helpful in evaluating museum volunteer programs to determine areas in need of expansion in any given institution. This is not intended to be a list of “must have” elements but a proposal of ideal components that will ensure that volunteers are successful in supporting the museum.

For the purpose of this document “volunteer” includes individuals who work in a variety of tasks at a museum for no payment of money, including docents and interns. Not considered for the purpose of this document are groups such as Boards of Trustees or fundraising “Friends of…” organizations who often volunteer their time.

Basic topic areas are first listed and then elaborated with additional elements to be considered.

Feedback is welcome!


 1. The institution ensures that the volunteer program has staff support and resources needed for its success.

2. Museum staff identify volunteer roles that serve the institution.

3. Recruiting is done in a fair manner so that information about volunteer opportunities is accessible.

4. Filling volunteer positions is done in a fair manner that ensures the best match for the job.

5. All volunteers receive an orientation to the museum.

6. All volunteers receive training that prepares them to perform their work to the best of their abilities.

7.  Communication between staff and volunteers is effective and frequent.

8. Supervision from museum staff helps volunteers to continue to learn and improve job performance while offering them the opportunity to give feedback and contribute ideas.

9. Evaluation of and by volunteers is performed. Volunteers are evaluated for the quality of work they perform, and volunteers have the opportunity to evaluate the volunteer program.

10. Evaluation of and by staff is performed. Staff supervisors skills in working with volunteers is evaluated, and staff have the opportunity to evaluate the volunteer program and the role volunteers play.

11.  Volunteers are recognized and rewarded for their work (commitment of time, quality/quantity of work, etc.)

12. Accurate records are kept to show the scope and breadth of the volunteer involvement in the life of the institution.

13. Risk management is in place.



1. The institution ensures that the volunteer program has staff support and resources needed for its success.  (Please note that some elements in this section are given more attention in other parts of this document).

  • At least one individual has responsibility for coordinating the volunteer program.

For the purpose of this document, this position is referred to as the volunteer coordinator. There may be one or more positions- paid or volunteer, part-time or full-time- depending on the size of the program. The person with this responsibility may have a variety of job titles and even may not have the word “volunteer” in their title.

  • A volunteer coordinator serves to assist staff in defining positions, drafting consistent position descriptions, and completing the interview process.

While position descriptions should be drafted by those with whom a volunteer will be doing a particular job, the volunteer program coordinator can offer guidance and ensure that descriptions across the institution meet basic standards in clearly communicating the responsibilities and duties of the position. Supervising staff should conduct interviews to ensure prospective volunteers fit the position, but the volunteer coordinator can assist in this process.

  • The volunteer coordinator completes screening to ensure prospective volunteers are a good fit for the institution.

This includes evaluation of basic qualifications and skills and screening for security risks. This may include but is not limited to background checks, fingerprinting, reference verification or whatever the institutions deems appropriate. Screening may differ based on volunteer roles.

  • The volunteer coordinator ensures that volunteers receive an orientation to the institution and a handbook and receives training for their position.

Ensuring that a volunteer receives an orientation and a handbook can be done by setting up a private or group meeting for new volunteers. Materials and information given at an orientation should provide basic information so that volunteers are aware of their responsibilities and benefits, as well as the mission, programs, and history of the institution. Training may be provided by the volunteer coordinator or by a variety of other individuals.

  • The volunteer coordinator is responsible for supporting volunteers in extending benefits to them and serving as a liaison to the institution.

A volunteer coordinator can ensure that all volunteers at an institution receive the same benefits and have access to information beyond that received as part of their specific job (e.g., upcoming events, news, new volunteer opportunities). The coordinator can serve as a conduit for volunteers to share their positive and negative experiences, and to make suggestions about the volunteer program, volunteer positions and responsibilities, etc.

  • The volunteer coordinator supports staff with volunteer supervision issues.

When staff need to solve problems in working with a volunteer (poor performance, bad behavior, etc.) the volunteer coordinator can assist in finding solutions – shifting a volunteer to a different position, retraining them, taking disciplinary actions, or firing the volunteer.

  • This volunteer coordinator is responsible for record keeping that allows the museum to evaluate its engagement of volunteers.

Record keeping can include tracking contacts and progress of an individual through the application process as well as activity of volunteers who join the museum staff. Information tracked can include basic demographic information (age, sex, residence), the dates a volunteer is active, the hours contributed by an individual volunteer and the collective hours of volunteers (throughout the institution, by department/exhibit, etc.). This allows for the retrieval of statistics such as the number of volunteers active and hours given during a particular year. This also allows reports that give a profile of the volunteer population over time.

  • A budget is in place to provide volunteers with the necessary tools and materials they need to properly do their job. Likewise, adequate workspace is provided.

Resources which may be necessary for volunteers can include computer equipment, desk space, identification, teaching materials, objects and props to use in interacting with visitors, etc. Volunteers should be provided with a secure space to leave belongings. Ideally a museum would provide a volunteer room where they could find current information, debrief, take a break, etc.


2. Museum staff identify volunteer roles that serve the institution.

  • All museum staff members have been invited to identify volunteer opportunities.

From the top down, the museum welcomes volunteers to become engaged in its work as appropriate. Staff members are encouraged to involve volunteers in supporting and expanding their work.

  • Written position descriptions provide a clear and accurate idea of volunteer roles, responsibilities, and qualifications needed.

This should include an idea of tasks a volunteer will perform; qualifications needed from a volunteer (skills, educational background, minimum age requirements, etc.), time commitment expected, and training requirements. Ideally the position description gives the volunteer an idea of how they contribute to a particular program or department within the museum.

  • Volunteer positions are designed to support and augment the work of paid staff.

The involvement of volunteers should allow staff to expand the quantity and quality of the work. Staff is thus able to justify the investment of time needed to train and supervise volunteers.

  • Volunteer positions are not created to replace paid staff jobs.

There are no museum jobs that cannot be done by a volunteer. Some museums are run totally by volunteers. Some jobs done exclusively by volunteers in one museum may be done only by paid staff in another (for example, museum shop clerks or admissions desk staffing). However, volunteers should not replace full-time or part-time paid staff as a cost-cutting measure. Paid staff should not feel threatened by volunteers but rather supported by their help.

 3. Recruiting is done in a fair manner so that information about volunteer opportunities is accessible.

Recruitment materials are welcoming to people of diverse ages, socio-economic status and educational background.

Volunteers should reflect the diversity of the community a museum hopes to serve. To encourage diversity, flyers, brochures and website information about the museum volunteer program should be appealing and accessible to a wide demographic group.

  • Diverse methods inform recruitment strategies.

Success in recruitment can be enhanced by research of the museum’s own changing volunteer population, local demographic trends, and changing economic climates that impact civic engagement. Recruitment methods will be governed in part by budgets, but may include: websites, print advertisements, attending volunteer and job fairs, use of social media, etc.

  • Analysis is done to determine which recruitment methods work best to attract qualified volunteers.

A review of recruitment methods and materials is done from time to time to determine which have worked best to reach the widest population of qualified volunteers. Keeping logs to track how potential volunteers find opportunities at the museum will allow an analysis of which methods are most successful in attracting candidates that ultimately get placed.

  • All individuals interested in applying to volunteer are provided with position descriptions and application information.

Communication with potential volunteers includes a clear explanation of the application process (including any preliminary orientation sessions required, application deadlines, interview process, etc.). Position descriptions allow candidates to understand the duties of a volunteer position, time commitment expected, required training classes, qualifications needed, etc.

 4. Filling volunteer positions is done in a fair manner that ensures the best match for the job.

  • Applications and interviews are designed to collect information allowing evaluation of skills and qualifications identified on a position description.

Applications may ask about previous volunteer and work experience, education completed, and motivation for volunteering. Information collected may also include specific expertise or skills, hobbies and interests, etc. Interviews help to determine a variety of other qualities important in matching a volunteer to a job such as interest level and enthusiasm, understanding of their volunteer role and oral communication skills.

  • Applications and interviews do not collect information that can be used in a discriminatory manner.

Information not collected includes: specific age, race or ethnic origins, socio-economic status, sexual orientation, etc.

 5. All volunteers receive an orientation to the museum.

  •  Orientation may include a tour of the museum, introduction to staff and site-specific policies and procedures, etc.
  • All volunteers receive a handbook, which includes at minimum:

     Mission Statement – Introduction to the institution, goals of the volunteer program, introduction to the president and staff, etc.

     Background Information – History of museum, map, frequently asked questions, etc.

General Information – Transportation, important museum contact information, benefits (discounts on parking, cafeteria and gift store purchases, free admission to the institution, etc.)

Procedures/Rules & Responsibilities – Dress code, professional behavior, emergency procedures, etc.

 6. All volunteers receive training that prepares them to perform their work to the best of their abilities.

  • Training can be formal classes or on-the-job training supplemented with media or print materials.

Training can include an introduction and orientation using materials such as a volunteer handbook and other printed handouts and guides. Visual media can include movies, PowerPoint, web-based links, forums, etc.

  • Position-specific training provides all necessary content, skills and knowledge to successfully complete tasks.

The supervising staff, other museum staff or volunteers, or content experts can conduct this training.

  • Customer service training is provided for volunteers who work with visitors.

Customer service training may include how to interact with a large group of visitors (example: school groups), how to handle a dissatisfied visitor or a missing child, etc.

  • Safety training is provided as appropriate.

Safety training may include ensuring volunteers are aware of fire exits, lab emergency procedures, medical emergency procedures, etc.

  • Additional training and enrichment opportunities are provided.

Additional training can include seminars or new materials on changing exhibit content, new museum protocol, emergency response training, working with people with disabilities or special needs, etc.. Some optional training may serve as enrichment opportunities for all volunteers. Volunteers should be welcome at seminars and lectures offered for paid staff.

 7.  Communication between staff and volunteers is effective and frequent.

  • Information provided to volunteers ensures that they have up to date information on museum events and changes.
  • Volunteers are given opportunities to ask questions, express ideas, and make suggestions to advance the mission of the museum.

Communication may include: sending a weekly, monthly, bi-annual, newsletter, allowing volunteers to participate in meetings with staff, holding meetings specifically for volunteers, etc. For some museums, the establishment of an advisory committee of volunteers may be appropriate.

8. Supervision from museum staff helps volunteers to continue to learn and improve job performance while offering them the opportunity to give feedback and contribute ideas.

  • Staff is trained to supervise volunteers.

This includes training on basic supervisory skills, an introduction to the volunteer program, knowledge of procedures and responsibilities for volunteers, familiarity with position descriptions, etc. This can be covered in training classes or with a handbook for staff volunteer supervisors.

  • Supervision of volunteers serves to build teamwork.

Supervision includes providing a friendly work environment. This encourages the simple use of “hello”, “please”, “thank you”, etc. between volunteers, staff, and visitors.

Teamwork is encouraged in careful scheduling and delegation of work so that all volunteers share more basic tasks and also have the opportunity to do more interesting tasks.

Teamwork can be encouraged by allowing volunteers to assist in planning, decision-making, and program development in the area in which they work. Volunteers can also be engaged in helping to improve the volunteer program itself (advisory council, committees to work on specific project areas, etc.).

  • Volunteer supervision includes review and evaluation, whether formal or informal, of job performance.  – see below.

 9. Evaluation of and by volunteers is performed.

  • Volunteers are provided with meaningful feedback about their performance, needs for further training, and opportunities for advancement in responsibilities.

The feedback volunteers receive about their performance should include constructive suggestions for needed improvements, as well as positive reinforcement of excellence. Staff should address performance problems promptly and provide training and supervision to help volunteers develop needed skills or knowledge. Volunteers who master basic tasks should be given opportunities to advance in responsibilities if possible.

  • Volunteers contribute ideas to improve the volunteer program and enhance their role in supporting the institution.

Examples of ways volunteers can share their ideas about their role, the volunteer program, and museum projects and programs, can include: satisfaction surveys, suggestion boxes, advisory council of volunteers, etc.

 10. Evaluation of and by staff is performed.

  • Staff performance reviews for those who work with volunteers includes assessment of their ability to supervise volunteers effectively.
  • Staff – who may or may not work directly with volunteers – should have the opportunity to provide feedback on the volunteer program. Feedback could include: suggestions for improvements, directions for future growth.

 11.  Volunteers are recognized and appreciated for their work (commitment of time, quality/quantity of work, etc.).

  • Benefits available to paid staff may be extended to volunteers in appreciation of their service.

Benefits for volunteers may include: museum discounts, invitations to staff meetings or holiday parties, parking, etc.

  • Volunteers, museum staff and the wider community are made aware of volunteer contributions.

This can be through events such as a recognition dinner, e-mail or written communication, recognition of volunteers in annual reports, a plaque on the wall of the museum, or press releases on volunteer accomplishments, etc.

  • Volunteers are given the opportunity to advance in responsibilities and take on leadership roles when appropriate.

 12. Accurate records are kept to show the scope and breadth of the volunteer involvement in the life of the institution.

  • Reports are provided to staff that document how volunteer support is essential to the accomplishment of specific projects and programs.
  • Records may include: number of volunteers, number of hours contributed on individual and aggregate basis for monthly, annual or fiscal year reports and project, position or departmental reports about how volunteers have contributed in aggregate or individually.

 13. Risk management is in place.

  • A fair procedure is in place to follow when a volunteer needs to be asked to leave.

A fair procedure should include clear communication to a volunteer concerning problems to be solved, and efforts to assist the volunteers in solving them. This should include both written and oral feedback.

Written incident reports should be prepared ad shared with staff concerned, including HR staff and Security if appropriate. HR and Security staff should be consulted for issues of a serious nature.

  • Accident and liability insurance is provided to cover volunteers when appropriate for your institution.

Accident and liability insurance can cover emergency medical care for volunteers or law suits that may arise as a result of volunteer action.

  • Information is provided to volunteers on potential safety and security risks, and orientation and training addresses these issues.

Potential safety risks include: serious death or injury, breach of confidentiality, loss of or damage to property, etc. Volunteers should be aware of emergency exits, lost child policy, medical emergency procedures, natural disasters protocols, etc.

  • Volunteers complete an emergency medical sheet, and other documents concerning professional behavior required of paid staff.

Documents required of staff and volunteers may include: harassment policy, code of ethics and conduct, waiver of responsibility/assumption of risk statement, and specific policies and procedures related to their volunteer role.

  • Institutional human resources policies are followed as appropriate.

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