Docent Educator Logo

An Approach to Motivate Volunteers

Volunteer management its like any other management. It requires planning, organizing, leading, and controlling. Good management requires another essential element — motivation.

Traditional and Behavioral Approaches

Organizations that use a traditional, hierarchical management approach believe that supervised workers should be simplified, standardized, and specialized, and that supervision and pay incentives should be used as principal motivators. In this context, only managers are allowed to think, coordinate, and control. Institutions adopting this model assume that hierarchy and vertical work relationships are the best way to assure productivity and create the best products.

A more effective style of management uses a behavioral approach. Organizations adopting this model envision the organization of supervised jobs to be challenging, interest, and inherently motivating. This theory assumes that every individual can exercise a considerable amount of self-control and self-management and that every individual can add value to the final product by sharing their ideas and efforts.

Levels of Control

The volunteer manager’s job is to make sure things get done and to enable volunteers to do their work. One of the challenges, however, is that he or she must get things done indirectly through other people. Consequently, in addition to planning volunteer programs, creating volunteer jobs, recruiting, interviewing, training, supervising, and communicating information, one of the most critical roles of the volunteer manager is to create a motivating climate. Basically, the work environment and the work of volunteers are affected by the degree of control the manager has over them and the degree of control volunteers have over their own functions.

Often, managers are anxious about letting employees decide how to proceed in doing their jobs. The natural response of volunteer administrators is to adopt a management style that will give them the most control. However, when volunteers must get approval from supervisors for each step in achieving a goal the volunteers lose the ability to think for themselves. This leads to two important consequences. First, it means more work for the manager who has to continually issue assignments and supervise. Second, creative input from volunteers is low or absent, resulting in low rates of innovation. Ultimately, in an environment where people are denied control over their work, they come to resent their responsibilities.

The better way to empower volunteers is to progressively give them more control over their duties. Volunteers earn the authority to decide what they do, first by acknowledging what needs to be done, then doing it, and then giving progress reports to their supervisor. This offers a good balance of control for both the manager, who sets the agenda, and the volunteers, who decide upon methods of implementation.

Creating a Motivational Environment

Motivational climates are created only if people really enjoy what they are doing. Obviously, this is key to creating a challenging and interesting atmosphere for all. At the McCord Museum of Canadian History in Montreal, Quebec, two paid employees manage a team of about 50 volunteers. The requisite functions of the department are to ensure an adequate pool of volunteer guides and to provide a motivating climate. Several methods of recognition are used to create such an atmosphere. Adequate and inspiring training, the availability of supervisors, evaluations, and gifts (such as free issues of each exhibit catalog and discounts at the museum’s gift shop and restaurant) are the main methods used.

For several years now, the education department has faced a public asking for more entertaining and interactive approaches. In most cases, the museum’s exhibits do not, by themselves, answer these desires. Therefore, in the last three years, the department set up a new interpretation strategy based on new interpretive approaches. The first step was to offer the public a learning approach based primarily on objects and their observation instead of standard lectures. The next step was to create, with the active collaboration of volunteers, scenarios for each exhibit. The scenarios divided exhibits into several sections. This approach generated two immediate results. First, interpreters gradually felt more comfortable integrating objects in their presentations. Secondly, now that exhibits are divided into “blocks” of interpretation, interpreters can start and end their tour virtually anywhere in the exhibit. Thus, more guides and groups can be present in the exhibit at the same time and rotate from one section to another.

Lately, this new interpretative approach has generated another, even more interesting result. Now that exhibits are divided into distinct parts, the department heads are stationing one volunteer guide to a section. Instead of guides walking the entire exhibit with one group, the visitors move from one section to the next during their visit while the volunteers stay in place.

This new interpretative technique has several advantages. First, the guides have a greater tendency to remain focused on the exhibit. Guides observe more carefully the time allowed for each section. Since guides have the choice to learn only small parts of the exhibit, they usually feel more comfortable to interpret it in a shorter amount of time after the training is done. Furthermore, since the guides tend to stay closer to the scenario, visits are more consistent. Another advantage is that groups are in contact with more than one guide and thus with more than one style of interpretation. It creates visits that are more lively, enthusiastic, and diverse. Finally, this technique allowed the department to increase the visitor capacity, especially for school groups.

While this approach presents many advantages, it has some inherent drawbacks. Some interpreters get bored interpreting the same section over and over. The contact with groups is briefer and makes it difficult for interpreters and their groups to develop a relationship. It requires the presence of a supervisor in the exhibit to make sure that everything is under control and timing is respected. Plus, it demands a larger number of guides.

This new interpretative technique has generated an array of unexpected results. Since the guides have an increased tendency to stick to the “ready-made” scenario primarily based on the interpretation of objects, an increased number of guides feel more comfortable including objects in their discussions. Another result is that guides feel interpretation is a team effort rather than a singular enterprise. Therefore, supervisors have observed a decrease in the competition among guides and an increase in collaboration and the sharing of expertise. Finally, this program has allowed the McCord to develop a “Student-Guide Program,” training seventh grade students to be guides. Each student is assigned a mentor-guide from the museum and, together, they prepare the interpretation of one section of the exhibit. Later, the student interpreters’ classes come to the museum and the student-guides interpret the sections they have learned.

Using this practical example, we can determine the management strategies used by the education department to motivate their volunteers. The approach is behavioral. The staff is in charge of organizing the elements for production and arranging the conditions and methods of operation. The volunteers have opportunities to decide on their own methods and are allowed to use their Ml capacities. Volunteers are motivated because they have the freedom to chose what type of assignment they want and when it will be accomplished. AH of this leads to job enrichment. Job enrichment results from horizontal job enlargement — an increase in the number of functions an individual has to do in the realization of a product or service — and vertical job enlargement— an increase in the involvement with supervisory personnel in planning and decision-making.

Catherine Charlebois is studying for a Master in History Museum Studies at the Cooperstown Graduate Program. Previously, she studied at the University Of Montreal where she received a baccalaureate specialized in history. Ms. Charlebois has been a curatorial intern at the Strong Museum in Rochester, NY, a guide at the Fort- Chambly Fur Trade in Lachine, and a volunteer-guide at the McCord Museum of Canadian History in Montreal.

Charlebois, Catherine. “An Approach to Motivate Volunteers,” The Docent Educator 9.3 (Spring 2000): 6-7.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *