A volunteer talking to visitors at the Cincinnati Museum Center.

We all know most non-profits run on volunteers.  Working at a small historical society, this is especially true. When I first started my job in Spring of 2015, I was faced with a rather small volunteer force. I wasn’t sure how to go about initiating change and growing the volunteer base, so I made it up as I went along.  This is what I’ve learned.

  1. Feed your volunteers. Every appreciation event involves food. We provide food at every living history event. One of our fall/winter events includes making cookies for visitors. I make extra for the volunteers. When the season is approaching its end and everyone is worn out, I carry around chocolate.
  2. Get to know them. My volunteers are some of the most interesting and inspirational people I’ve met. None of them see age as a limitation. They ski and paint and lead such busy lives I get tired just listening to what all they do. Also, get to know their preferred method of communication. It seems like a small thing, but makes a huge difference.
  3. Notice them. Volunteer appreciation and recognition events are a must. We do 3 or 4 get- togethers a year. Keep track of important events in their lives and pay attention when someone is sick or has a death in the family.
  4. Provide support. Some volunteers want to help, but are nervous about stepping outside their comfort zone. Pair them up with an experienced volunteer and give plenty of pep talks. Adequate training is a must.
  5. Keep them in the loop. This is probably one of the hardest to accomplish, especially as your volunteer pool grows. They need to know what their job is, but also should be aware of events and achievements of the organization itself. They can’t be proud of what they do and the organization they volunteer for if they don’t know what is going on.
  6. Embrace the quirks. Volunteers are people. People have quirks. Don’t judge and enjoy them for who they are.
  7. Be patient. Remember you are dealing with people with concerns and questions. Yes, you will be asked the same thing 3136 times.  It’s OK. Be patient with change.  It takes a long time, especially when things have been done a certain way for the past 20 years.
  8. Learn how to talk people into things. I say this partly in jest, because you never want to manipulate someone into doing something they don’t want to do. That’s how you lose people. But in all seriousness, you do need to convince people that they are needed and will have fun. It’s a skill I didn’t know I had.
  9. You will never have enough volunteers. I started with about 8 volunteers.  It was not anywhere near enough. Scheduling was a nightmare.  Now I have close 40 volunteers.  There are still events that I can’t fully staff and I’m running around doing 25 different things.

In the end, I’ve learned a lot and working with the volunteers is probably one my favorite parts of my job.

Editor’s Note: To learn more about volunteer management, register for one or all three of AASLH’s upcoming spring webinar series on recruiting, training, and managing volunteers. 

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