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Disbanding the Docent Council

Change! We either welcome it or fear it, depending on how the change will personally affect us.”

That sentence was the first paragraph of a letter I sent to all Tulsa Zoo Docents nearly 10 years ago when I made the decision to “restructure” the Docent Council and its relationship to the Education Department. In other words, I disbanded the Docent Council and its by-laws.

I had several reasons for taking what appeared to be a drastic step. These reasons were based on a number of problems I know can be common to any volunteer organization. One of the most pressing problems was the power struggle between some of the paid staff and the volunteer staff

There were times when I felt as if I were no longer the head of the department. The Docent Council attempted to set policy for the department and impose its rules that had nothing to do with educational activities. An inordinate amount of time was spent on Docent Council activities, including Board meetings, monthly meetings, special committee meetings, etc., rather than on actual education programs. The organization had become more important than the programs.

The more I thought about it (and this was over a time period of several years), the more 1 realized that most of the Docent Council’s activities had nothing to do with fulfilling our education department’s mission. The mission statement of the Education Department is “to help people of all ages develop a greater understanding and appreciation of the natural world.” Was the Docent Council helping to achieve this mission? Much of what they did was superfluous to our mission. They simply created another bureaucratic layer, working to support their own organization.

Committee meetings ate away at the time volunteers could give to the zoo. Instead of touring, docents were meeting to select uniforms, meeting to plan and decorate for our Christmas party, or meeting to develop and conduct docent graduation ceremonies. There was a real misdirection of energy toward the peripheral things and away from the reasons for being a docent in the first place.

My decision to disband the Docent Council was not an easy one. The Docent Council was an organization that I helped found 15 years earlier and for which I had served as first president! However, I slowly came to realize that the Docent Council was not needed in an institution that has paid staff to coordinate its volunteer program.

I have to admit that I was slightly naive to think that all, or at least a majority of docents, would welcome such a change. But the idea of doing away with “their” organization was shocking to many of our volunteers. There were various reactions to my initial proposal letter. Some found it a relief and were not threatened in the least. Some were puzzled about the need for change. Many were angry and outraged, and had no qualms about expressing their feelings to me or the zoo’s director.

One of the major factors in my ability to remain strong through all the transition was that I had the complete. unwavering support of my supervisor, the zoo director. The “battering” went on for weeks and weeks, but I did not back down as I felt it was best for our institution. We answered questions over and over but some of the docents were never able to accept our answers. We were threatened with the loss of at least half of the docents, but in the end no one resigned. Although it was an incredibly stressful time, I knew, in the long run, managing the Education Department and its activities would be much easier and more efficient. That has proven to be true.

Looking back over the past 10 years, I know that I was right to disband the Docent Council. Now, we operate with only one layer between staff and individual volunteers. That layer consists of day captains, one for each day of the week and one for each Saturday and Sunday of the month. This group works directly with the education coordinator to make certain that our programs and activities are accomplished.

We still do all of the things that the Docent Council once did, but getting there isn’t such an elaborate ordeal. Instead of being embroiled in meetings that seemingly went on forever, docents now spend their volunteer hours doing all of the activities that directly affect the Education Department. They care for the collection of animals that we maintain for programming, they provide tours, they visit schools and do other outreach programs in the community, they teach classes, they assist with our special events, and do a million and one other jobs that support our MISSION. Whenever we need special help, there is always a docent willing to step forward.

We communicate in a variety of ways. Our general curator sends zoo animal updates via e-mail to docents and staff who have this computer capability. We make this same information available on the docent bulletin board. We have sign-up sheets for all up-coming activities. We ask for help developing programs, and docents often accept this greater level of responsibility. We always try to use the docents’ special skills and talents, and, in a group of 175 volunteers, their range of skills and talents is vast and numerous.

We continue to host appreciation and recognition events for our docents. Docents are always invited to zoo parties and special events. They receive discounts at the food and gift concessions. We try in every way we can to let docents know that we consider them the most valuable part of the Education Department. In other words, we treat them with respect, but they also know that we have high standards and high expectations. When we get letters from teachers and other people using words like “fabulous,” “outstanding,” or “the best program we ever had,” we know that the docents live up to our expectations.

One important consideration must also be providing volunteers with a venue for their concerns. We have always had an open-door policy, from the zoo director on down, and we make it clear that volunteers are welcome to come to us with their concerns; however, we also make it clear that they need to go through the appropriate “chain of command.” It has been 10 years since we made this major modification. If you asked me if I had any regrets, I would answer absolutely not. The transition time was rough as most transitions are, but now we run so smoothly and efficiently that it’s hard to remember when we operated any other way. I have had many organizations talk with me about the process we went through, and my bottom line is always the same. If you have paid staff to coordinate a volunteer program, you should not need the bureaucracy of another set of rules and regulations. Keep your life as simple as you can, and keep your eyes on your mission.

Carol Eames is the education curator of the Tulsa Zoo, in Tulsa, OK. Ms. Eames began her work with the Tulsa Zoo 28 years ago as a volunteer, helping to start the docent program and serving as its first president. In 1975, she was hired by the zoo. Her department has grown from a staff of one, with 25 volunteer docents, to a staff of four with 175 docents. Ms. Eames earned her B.A. degree with a double major in anthropology and biology from Kent State Univ. in Kent, Ohio.

Illustrations provided by David Eames, graphics illustrator for the Kansas City Star.

Eames, Carol. “Disbanding the Docent Council,” The Docent Educator 9.3 (Spring 2000): 10-11.


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