Beginning difficult conversations with volunteers about physical ability.

  • 03 Feb 2023 2:57 PM
    Message # 13083894

    Does anyone have any experience and/or advice about starting conversations with volunteers about their changing abilities?

    We run a sail training program at our museum where volunteers can learn to sail on a historic ship. When the museum's vessels take passengers out, volunteers are part of the crew. One of the biggest points we make to volunteers is that this role is physically strenuous and can be very dangerous. 

    I have been in my position a year now and have one sailing season under my belt. One of the things that I and several others have noticed this past year is participants who overestimate their own physical abilities. What is so concerning about this is how important reflexes, mobility and to a lesser degree strength are as qualities in crew members.  

    The toughest group to bring this up to is volunteers who have been in the program for a long time, sometimes decades, who might not be ready to confront the fact that their physical abilities may not be the same as they were when they started. 

    As we use the winter to plan for the next season, we are rethinking our best practices and I would really love to set up a plan on how we address physical ability and the requirements around that with new and returning volunteers while at the same time remaining accessible and inclusive to everyone.

    We don't want anyone to feel excluded or singled out and we don't want to offend, but at the same time we have the safety of other volunteers, staff and passengers to think about. It is a difficult subject to address and the response might have to change depending on the situation or individual, but I feel that having a plan for this event and addressing things early is obviously better than addressing things after an accident has happened.

    If anyone has an experience with this or knows of any resources on this topic, I would love to know! Thank you! 

  • 04 Feb 2023 2:29 PM
    Reply # 13084960 on 13083894
    Brandi Shawn-Chaparro (Administrator)

    Hi Nick, 

    Thank you for raising this issue. Do you have any kind of re-assessment of skills for volunteers? When a volunteer's abilities change, they often don't want to admit it to themselves, or they may be embarrassed for others to know. It sounds like the situation you are in is quite a dangerous one however. Having a way to assess skills in a respectful and dignified way is critical, but I'm sure is challenging.

    Something that I do for some of our older volunteers is to have other positions I can offer related to the thing that those volunteers love most. For instance, our volunteers who give tours around the 200-acre estate may reach a point when they cannot make that journey and spend 90-minutes on their feet. We then have roles where they can provide information to our visitors from one of our stationary info carts we have on the grounds. 

    Most importantly though, I'd start with having a conversation with the volunteers you're concerned about. Sharing with them what you've witnessed, explaining why it's important to keep everyone safe, including them, and then asking them how you can continue to involve them in a new or different capacity. Maybe the volunteers you're experiencing this with now can help you craft a pathway for other volunteers to transition away from the most strenuous roles.

    I hope that helps and I look forward to seeing what others have to suggest!

    Best wishes,


    Brandi Shawn-Chaparro
    Associate Director, Volunteer & Visitor Engagement
    The Huntington Library, Art Museum, and Botanical Gardens
    AAMV Western Regional Director

  • 14 Feb 2023 5:31 PM
    Reply # 13097828 on 13083894

    Hi Brandi,

    Thank you so much for your insight. We are currently working on a re-assessment plan for physical abilities that can hopefully do a better job at identifying potentially difficult situations before they arise. The bonus of this is that it would also be something that everyone would do regardless of age or ability to create a norm. 

    I agree that having open and honest conversations with them is the way to go, and to make sure that there are concrete instances to point to. Hopefully we can create less physical alternatives that will still keep people on the water but out of safety sensitive positions. I will keep this post updated on the progress we make!


  • 15 Feb 2023 4:15 PM
    Reply # 13099107 on 13083894
    Deirdre Araujo (Administrator)

    Hi Nick,

    I'm glad that Brandi was able to respond with helpful suggestions! May I have your permission to pose this challenge to our friends here at the Sailing Science Center on Treasure Island? I think they would benefit from learning how you handle it going forward, but may also have some insights to share.

    All the best,

    Deirdre Araujo, Exploratorium, San Francisco

  • 21 Feb 2023 10:59 AM
    Reply # 13105454 on 13083894

    Hi Deirdre,

    Of course! Feel free to share, the more minds discussing this the better!

    Thank you,


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