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Knowing What’s Expected: Position Descriptions & Volunteer Agreements for Docents

As a docent program grows, how can changes in training and touring, expectations be incorporated without confusion or conflict? How can a docent program effectively clarify docent responsibilities and privileges and at the same time avoid misconceptions? If there are changes in staff, as well as changes in docent and staff roles, are they clear to all? In 1994, the Docent Coordinator and Docent Council at the Freer Gallery of Art and the Arthur M. Sackler Gallery, the two national museums of Asian art at the Smithsonian Institution, addressed these issues. The Docent Coordinator and Docent Council came up with an answer— create a position description and volunteer agreement for docents.

The docents position description would contain some elements of a typical job description, clarifying the qualifications and responsibilities required for the job of volunteer docent, as well as listing the institutional privileges and staff support that docents would be able to expect. There would also be a separate voluntary agreement form, effective for one year, that both staff and docents would sign. Unlike a typical job description, this document would reflect the special relationship volunteers have with a museum. (We were aware that this could raise sensitive issues of roles and responsibilities both for staff and docents, since there had never been anything like it in the history of the docent program or the museum.)

A 9-Step Process

Working together from October 1994 through June 1995, the Docent Coordinator and Docent Council created a position description and volunteer agreement in the following way:

  1. Defining the problem is a crucial first step in developing a position description. What are the issues the document needs to address? If there are difficulties and sources of confusion affecting your organization, analyze how these came about and what the solutions might be. For example, our Freer and Sackler docent corps had grown tremendously over the years, and so had the needs and expectations of an expanded docent program. Problems seemed to stem from:
    1. training differences of new docent classes that led to differing expectations;
    2. change from a volunteer docent supervisor to a professional education department;
    3. growth in size of the group, mandating different management techniques;
    4. inequalities due to lack of clarity with respect to touring and training;
    5. lack of specifically expressed guidelines that would apply to everyone.
  2. Informing and discussing the idea Of a position description with supervisors and, if appropriate, members of the administration can circumvent misunderstanding later. Leaving supervisory staff in the dark can be a political minefield. By involving the administration, you gain their support and prevent future problems.
  3. Reviewing docent job descriptions from other institutions can be a source of good ideas. After carefully examining materials from Smithsonian and non-Smithsonian organizations, we developed a clearer idea of what would work best for our program.
  4. Developing ideas about what is needed and wanted helped us clarify our goals.
    1. We thought a position description should clarify expectations and define both staff and docent roles so that problems would be less likely to occur.
    2. We decided the ability to review and revise on an annual basis was critical, since changes in leadership, finances, and programming can occur.
    3. We wanted the position description and volunteer agreement to be sent to each docent annually., and to have a signed volunteer agreement form on an annual basis.
    4. We wanted position descriptions for both Active and Emeritus docent status.
    5. We needed to include a section that described docent benefits or privileges.
  5. Involving docents, either the Docent Council or a leadership committee representing the docent body, can be tremendously helpful. In our case, the nine members of the 1994-95 Docent Council took on a leadership role in working with the Docent Coordinator, offering sound advice, resolving sensitive issues, and informing the docent corps of the progress of this project. At several docent meetings during the year, the position description and volunteer agreement were discussed, providing every docent the opportunity for questions, comments, and suggestions. Also a series of status letters was mailed to docents. Throughout the entire process, the docent corps felt they were being informed and their ideas solicited. This created strong support for the project, and there were no surprises when docents received the final document.
  6. Revising and modifying the original draft as a result of discussions, comments, and editing by a docent leadership group is critical. Having a group such as the Docent Council reviewing the draft can help prevent problems later on. For example, two council members objected to the tone of our draft. One considered the draft to be like a “military manual;” the other objected to words that said “docents must …” and thought it should be “docents have the right…” Basing the draft on a typical job description, in which an employer tells an employee what to do, had resulted in a document that was too authoritarian. Museums and docents have a different relationship, a special relationship based on volunteerism. The draft position description was revised, using warmer language and a warmer tone to reflect this special relationship. The ability of a museum staff member to see both sides of an issue can result in mutual respect and cooperation and fewer problems in the fixture.
  7. Sending the document for departmental, administrative, and legal review is important at this point. Supervisors should be given the opportunity for review and the addition of comments. Legal counsel is advised. Our legal counsel suggested we use the term privileges, rather than benefits. He felt a docent job description is a valuable document and that every organization using volunteers should have one. This is especially important nowadays when lawsuits can be brought against an institution by a disgruntled volunteer. Also, without a job description on hand, it is very difficult to “separate” a problem volunteer from the institution.
  8. Final revisions and a cover letter are needed before sending out the document. In addition to final revisions, it is important to compose a cover letter, written in a warm and positive tone, to explain the rationale, process, and benefits of having the position description and volunteer agreement.
  9. Giving the position description and volunteer agreement to docents for signature is the last step. In September 1995, each docent received a copy of the 1996 fiscal year position description and volunteer agreement for signature. Docents returned the signed volunteer agreements, which were placed in their files; a copy was given to each docent. There were no problems and no complaints. A number of docents wrote complimentary letters praising the position description and volunteer agreement.

Lessons Learned

One of the most crucial lessons we learned was how valuable it was for docents and staff to work together. Working together made docents a part of the change, and gave them the opportunity to express concerns and include points felt to be of importance. The Docent Council, representing the docent corps, suggested ideas that the staff had not considered, provided editorial comments, discussed and came to a consensus on sensitive items, and learned of the problems the staff faced in managing the program. The result was greater openness and less hostility. When the position description was finally presented to the entire docent corps, it did not appear as an authoritarian directive from above, but was accepted as a reasonable document that had benefited from docent input right from the beginning.

Among the important points addressed by the position description was the setting of touring and training requirements. For the first time in the history of the program, yearly touring minimums were set, subject to annual revision by the Docent Coordinator. No longer would a docent be able to give one tour a year and still be considered an active docent! There is flexibility as far as the minimum touring hours are concerned. Inclement weather, leave of absence, personal issues, and other unexpected problems are taken into consideration. It a docent has come to the museum for a scheduled group tour and the group does not show up, the docent still gets touring credit. Training requirements were also stated clearly, allowing a docent to miss 1/4 of the sessions without penalty and to make-up missed training by listening to audio tapes. The Docent Coordinator can modify items without formal docent input. For example, attendance for training on safety evacuation procedures was added to the position description.

Many programs have different status categories to accommodate a variety of situations. We added an Emeritus Docent position description for docents who have served a long time, but could no longer give tours, and yet want to retain some affiliation with the museum. As Emeritus Docents, they may attend most training sessions and are invited to participate in all docent social and enrichment activities. This status is not reversible. Another status category was added a year later, that of Adjunct Docent. This position description is based on the format of the Active Docent position description, but training and touring requirements are reduced by half. Only a small number of docents are granted this status. This category accommodates the special circumstances (health problems, family issues, change in employment status) of valuable docents. These circumstances can be limited in time and may change, and Adjunct Docents can request active status again.

Evaluation and Conclusions

So was the development of a position description agreement for docents worth the effort? Would we recommend it to others? Has it made a difference? The answer is an unqualified YES! In the long run it is better for docents and staff to know what they can expect and what is expected of them. Providing a written document, one that must be signed annually, does away with rumors, word of mouth inaccuracies, and ideas that come from the past that are no longer suitable. It establishes a professional standard.

Does a position description and volunteer agreement mean greater conformity, organizational rigidity, more “big government” regulations? NO!!! — it definitely does not. A document such as the one we have developed is only a tool — a tool that helps provide a framework and serves as a guide for docents trying to do their best.

Like so many other institutions, the Freer and Sackler Galleries have experienced changes in organizational leadership, personnel, finances, and exhibitions over a period of more than ten years. In the growth and structure of the docent program, we have moved from a rather informal and autonomous docent corps to one that is on a very professional level. The position description and volunteer agreement is a reflection of the changing role of docents in our museums, and has helped to clarify a number of issues. Nowadays, in so many organizations, volunteers are considered to be no different from other employees. With our position description and volunteer agreement, our organization — docent corps and education department together— runs more smoothly than before, and allows us to concentrate on more substantive matters. What we have developed is a flexible tool that we can adapt over time to accommodate future growth and change. We view the position description and volunteer agreement positively and feel it works for us. Confusion about docent and staff roles and responsibilities has become a thing of the past.

Roca L. Harding has been Docent Coordinator for the Freer Gallery of Art and the Arthur M. Sackler Gallery of the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, DC since 1992. Lois S. Raphling has been a docent at the Freer Gallery of Art and the Arthur M. Sackler Gallery since 1989. She was Chairman of the 1994-95 Docent Council. The authors gave a presentation Of this topic at the 1997 National Docent Symposium, which was held in Seattle.

Harding, Roca L. and Lois S. Raphling. “Knowing What’s Expected: Position Descriptions & Voluntary Agreements for Docents,” The Docent Educator 7.2 (Winter 1997-98): 8-10.

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