As a little context, this is a cartoon reflecting current broader issues, although the topic arises from stories I’m hearing from specific sites. Volunteers are the lifeblood of many heritage sites and museums, working tirelessly in front and behind the scenes to maintain and promote places they care deeply about. Organisations such as the National Trust wouldn't be here without them. However, with government cuts, funding increasingly hard to procure and belts generally tightening, more venues are turning to volunteers for help – and discovering the raft of issues which come along with this 'miracle’ workforce.
Most volunteers are dedicated and hard working, but what do you do if someone refuses a certain part of a role? If an area of your museum has to be shut because the volunteer staff had a better offer of something to do for the day? If you realize a volunteer presents a bad impression and doesn’t have the expected professional attitude? Paid staff are under fear of losing their job and thus income if they are lax in work, what will a volunteer lose? Employing volunteers is, if anything, more complex than paid staff. A proper handbook or agreement with clarity on what volunteers will receive from you in return for their time (vocational training, access to restricted areas, education opportunities) and what you expect from them (hours per week, exact scope of work, professionalism) is as vital as a contract with paid staff. If it’s not clear, a volunteer can potentially claim the same rights as contracted staff, iffy when it comes to trying to get rid of them and you’re suddenly in front of a tribunal.
How much thought is given to the integration of voluntary staff alongside existing paid roles? Will the job descriptions be basically the same duties and expectations with the same managerial support and training or will they differ for paid/voluntary? Volunteers will usually prefer to have the ‘best’ bits of a role, either matching their idea of what heritage work is (indoors, warm, no heavy lifting…) or matching their career plans. If the role doesn’t meet their expectations, they have little reason to turn up to work. If the volunteer roles cater purely to their wants, paid staff may resent their roles changing to pick up the less desirable parts.
A quick look online shows how much thought is dedicated to helping businesses plan for using volunteers and the numerous warnings about pitfalls for all parties involved. There’s plenty of free advice for planning, advertising, creating toolkits and handbooks, risk assessments and any issue that might arise. http://www.volunteering.org.uk/ has great resources for both employers and volunteers. Then there are courses that can be taken, books to buy…
So why is it with all this free help available, that so many places still manage to shout “Whoopee! With this level of unemployment people are glad of something to put on their CV and we save money!” and then go directly to aggravated staff, do not provide volunteer agreement, do not assess risk to business? If you want to volunteer in 2012, a valuable experience, make sure you go in savvy, and help your employer to help you and themselves.
Webcomic and occasional blog about the heritage sector.
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