The Health of Our Volunteer Programs

By Alexandra Rasic, James N. Gamble Executive Director

National Volunteer Appreciation Week is here! At The Gamble House, we’ll be celebrating our dedicated docents at a special sunset reception on Friday evening. Events like these are always a wonderful opportunity for volunteers to reconnect with old friends and meet new ones without the pressing need to get to post or cover a shift! Like many organizational members of AASLH, we rely heavily on volunteers to fulfill our mission, and we can’t say thank you enough.

Last year, members of AASLH’s Standards and Ethics Committee were exploring new project topics, and one that jumped to the top of our list was the important issue of volunteerism vs. compensation. Was this topic of big enough interest to AASLH members that we should create some resources to help them evaluate or rethink their practices? Creating a survey came to mind, but we were cognizant of survey fatigue and weren’t sure that was the best approach. For some perspective, I reached out to Bethany Hawkins, AASLH’s Chief of Operations. Over the years, I have had many conversations with her about volunteer programs, and she, like me, started out as a volunteer herself in a small historic site when she was a teenager. While Bethany felt the issue of volunteerism vs. compensation was important, she felt that a focus on the overall health of volunteer programs was what was needed. To quote Bethany, “COVID dropped a grenade on volunteer programs, and many have not recovered.”

Bethany suggested that we offer an Idea Studio Session at the annual conference in Boise, Idaho. The hope was that people who self-selected to join a conversation about the health of volunteer programs would shine bright lights on what were the most pressing areas of concern, and shine they did! Over 40 attendees came to the early morning session facilitated by me, Jenn Landry, Rebecca Martin, Irene Rodriguez, and Lora Vogt.

So was volunteerism vs. compensation top of the list? No. But four areas of focus quickly emerged: Foundational Practices; Diversity, Equity, Access, and Inclusion; Recruitment; and the Health and Wellbeing of Volunteers and Those Who Manage Them. Once these areas of focus bubbled to the surface, we broke into groups where the following points came together. If *you* are one of those wonderful people whose responsibilities include managing volunteers, we’re eager to hear what you think about this list, and welcome you to add additional points, make suggestions, and share resources on my conversation on the AASLH Small Museums Google Group. You can join this group by visiting the link and clicking the “Ask to Join Group” button. We understand that many people tasked with volunteer administration receive little to no preparation for this role. Moreover, advocating for formality or change in an existing program can be an uphill challenge. Share this blog post with someone who can help you be a changemaker! And please let AASLH know what kinds of resources you would like to see them create to help volunteer programs thrive.

Foundational Practices

  • Handbooks outlining policies and expectations are critical. Seeing structures in place is appealing to new volunteers. They help set expectations. Ask like organizations to share samples, or consider developing resources together.
  • Draft volunteer job descriptions. Create an application and interview each potential candidate. Make sure you are a right fit for one another.
  • Training should have a syllabus/outline of some kind. Ongoing training should factor into each volunteer program (for things like content updates and safety). Training is not one and done!
  • Discipline is a challenge. Policies will make it easier to address problems if they arise. What is unacceptable behavior? Communicate that as part of orientation. Consider a verbal, written, and final warning process. But know that some offenses should be cause for immediate termination.
  • Create communication and social media policies. Volunteers do not speak on behalf of an organization unless they are appointed to do so (unless it is an all-volunteer organization).
  • Have a process for evaluations or check-ins. It does not need to be overly formal. Peer review is an option. Create a rubric or outline for the process.
  • Create a sense of community. Host a potluck, picnic, family day, or something similar. Host an annual appreciation event. Recognize milestones that feel appropriate for your organization.
  • Background checks and screenings are becoming more of the norm. Consider how to work them into your programs, especially if you work with children. Look to school districts or youth organizations in your community for guidance.
  • Have policies in place to help to understand when a volunteer is no longer able or fit to fulfill a position. Consider emeritus positions when appropriate.

Diversity, Equity, Access, and Inclusion (DEAI)

  • Develop training to bring people along, not alienate them. Find someone who can speak to multiple generations well. And include multiple generations and people of all abilities in training whenever possible.
  • Identify organizations in your community who are doing a good job at DEAI and interview them. How did they learn? What advice do they have to share?
  • Encourage organizations to elevate visitor voices. Share DEAI-related comments that come up as part of evaluations or surveys. Volunteers should know what matters to visitors, and why.
  • If you have the resources, consider DEAI training for your organization (staff, board, and volunteers).
  • Normalize DEAI. Make it a regular part of communications, planning, and training.
  • Don’t talk the talk without walking the walk. Performative DEAI will be damaging to your organization.
  • Slow progress is still progress. Show that you are being genuine and sincere.


  • Are there opportunities in your community to participate in volunteer recruitment fairs?
  • Many adults and teens are looking for service days or short-term volunteer opportunities. Create some if possible. Understand that people want/need to volunteer in different ways. It cannot always be a long-term commitment.
  • Match expectations of volunteers and staff. Create job descriptions so that volunteers understand needs and expectations. Organizations need to stop accepting warm bodies. Public-facing jobs must be filled by people who want to engage with the public.
  • Whenever possible, onboard people in groups vs. one-on-one training. Create community and connection from the beginning.
  • Learn about barriers to participation. Are you hard to get to? Can training be modified? Are there challenges with physical accessibility that can be addressed?

Health and Wellbeing of Volunteers and Those Who Manage Them

  • Many people who oversee volunteers do that along with many other things. Be mindful of the workload and provide training. Especially at smaller organizations, few people come to these roles with training.
  • Acknowledge and accept that more goes into communicating with volunteers these days (emails, texts, calls, etc.).
  • Address medical concerns and cognitive issues. Have emergency contact information for each volunteer and update it regularly.
  • Sometimes the roles volunteers play in our organization must change. Times change, resources change, expectations change. Make adjustments accordingly and communicate why.
  • Create opportunities for staff and volunteers to work collaboratively vs. top-down structures. Volunteers crave meaningful work. They come to us with tremendous skill sets, knowledge, and perspective.
  • Encourage volunteers to tell you what they observe and need. Do they feel valued? Are they satisfied? How do you know?