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Volunteer Program Mechanics

The Brookfield Zoo’s 270 docents contribute around 43,000 hours each year. Docents work every day of the year interpreting the collections, teaching classes to thousands of students, assisting with animal observations and special events, and attending refresher courses. We have no difficulty recruiting enough qualified enthusiastic candidates for the annual docent training class. So. what’s the problem?

Checking Under the Hood

When we began to look more closely at our program and how docents work in the zoo, three main questions emerged. The first centered around customer service — could we be serving our guests better? We defined better to mean with more personal contact to insure a quality visit and perhaps result in return visits. The second question was how can we attract docent candidates that are more representative of the diversity we enjoy in our 2 million annual visitors? The third question was how could we get volunteers on the job faster?

Customer Service. After meeting with front line staff, both paid and volunteer, front line staff managers, and visitors, we found the most urgent customer service needs fell into “the wayfinding” category. The zoo is 214 acres with two main gates, a centrally located fountain and many twisting paths. Experienced zoo goers sometimes get turned around while making their way to favorite exhibits. Navigating through the park for first-time guests can be downright frustrating. We don’t want our guests tired and frustrated because they spent more time getting lost than enjoying the zoo. Determining how docents could assist with wayfinding became a new program goal.

Diversity. It was clear that while we are able to attract enough docent to the program, we weren’t reaching all our neighbors with our call to action. We looked at census figures for the communities surrounding the zoo and compared these figures with visitor demographic studies and docent corps demographics, and we found that our numbers did not add up. We believe guests need to see themselves reflected in front line volunteer staff in order for the zoo to be a truly welcoming setting. A second goal would be to get the recruitment message out to all our neighbors in hopes of building a more representative docent corps.

Better Late than Never? We recruit docent candidates in late spring and summer for the annual docent training program scheduled to begin the first weekend in October. Once training class begins, recruitment is closed until the next spring. So, if someone calls in November interested in the docent program, we must tell them they will have to wait until the next summer to become involved in the program. Many candidates remain interested in the program and do return the following year to participate; however, we also lose potential volunteers due to the lengthy wait to become involved. So, our third program goal evolved into finding a way to provide more immediate volunteer opportunities.

Tinker, Tune, or Overhaul

Ironically, the program elements that make our docent program solid and appealing to so many candidates turn out to be the precise elements that create roadblocks to volunteering to others. For example, docent training is now a 20 – week, college-level biology and zoology course with an emphasis on interactive teaching and communication skill building. Many potential docents seek out this type of adult education opportunity. Others find the academic load unappealing and even an obstacle to volunteering. Other program elements such as annual hourly commitment, training schedule, program intensity, and course fees also turned out to be a welcome mat for some and a major roadblock for others.

We faced a dilemma. Do we tinker with a pre-existing, successful program with a long tradition to try to make it meet developing needs or do we invent a new program designed to complement the existing program? Front line staff managers, animal collections managers, and senior staff met to discuss how to proceed. We acknowledged that change is often difficult and upsetting, so we proceeded cautiously when we attempted to incorporate new goals. We needed a vehicle that could attract more of our neighbors to volunteer at the zoo, which was more inclusive and flexible, that provided immediate opportunities to volunteer, and that could meet the wayfinding and informational needs of our guests.

The Right Vehicle

Rather than retrofitting a successful program, and perhaps risk damaging the esprit de corps among docents, we decided on a new model designed to handle the changing needs of volunteers and guests at the Brookfield Zoo. The Guest Guide volunteer program debuted in October, 1993. A Guest Guide is a well-trained volunteer who warmly welcomes guests to the zoo, assists with wayfinding and orientation to the park and its offerings, makes recommendations for a more satisfying visit, addresses guests’ concerns and questions or directs guests to someone who will be able to help.

We finally had a concept. The challenge was to design a program around the concept that would attempt to respond to the three main questions raised during the planning stage.

Customer service needs of wayfinding and orientation to the park could indeed be met with the new program. Guest Guides are scheduled at both main entrances to welcome guests as they enter and to offer assistance in finding attractions and exhibits. Guides also walk around the park assisting guests throughout the day. For example, a Guest Guide might work at the North Gate for an hour after the park opens then, for variety, roam a beat in the park assisting guests as they enjoy their visit. And whenever possible. Guest Guides are available at the exits to thank guests for visiting the zoo. We also noted that special events attract many first-time visitors, so, Guides will be mobilized to assist with wayfinding during special events.

We needed to design this program to open up volunteer opportunities at the zoo. Guest Guide training is designed to be short and intensive and therefore may be offered several times a year rather than just once a year as is the case with docent program training. Someone excited about giving time to the zoo will be able to become involved in the new program soon after the initial contact rather than having to wait several months for the next training session, perhaps losing interest in volunteering all together. The Guest Guide program is designed to require a smaller time commitment in both training and service than the docent program and therefore may be attractive to individuals with heavy work or family commitments who would still like to give the zoo some time.

The toughest of the three questions, by far, was how to create a volunteer program that is welcoming, attractive, and meaningful to more of our neighbors in surrounding communities. We needed to make changes in job design, scheduling, recruitment, and recognition practices in order to open the door to volunteering wider.

The Guest Guide program requires a minimum annual hourly commitment from each volunteer; however, the job is designed so a volunteer may choose to spread the hours out over the year or bunch them up into a shorter period when they have more free time available — like a student or teacher on break. A flexible training schedule accommodates a broad array of needs. Recruitment information is provided to local community newspapers and libraries, in addition to in-house publications in order to broaden the audience hearing about the new program. Recognition practices emphasize job performance with reduced emphasis on number of hours worked or years in the program. Hours and retention with a program are indeed valuable things; however, we recognize that in today’s world this is not always possible. We want to have the person who is able to give a couple of weekends a year feel as welcome, connected, and committed to Brookfield Zoo’s mission as the person who is able to donate several hours a week.

The Road Test

We developed the Guest Guide job description, scheduled training dates, sent out recruitment announcements and waited for the phone to ring. We didn’t wait long. Within two weeks the Guest Guide program attracted enough qualified candidates to fill the first training session.

Guides attended training on two Saturdays and one weekday evening for a total of 17 hours of formal training. Our curriculum content centered on the philosophy that if a Guest Guide had to describe it, recommend it, or direct someone to it, they needed to experience it in training. So, training consisted of visiting all the exhibits, attending all the attractions, eating in the restaurants, riding the tram, and using the maps to navigate through the zoo. Training also included discussions, visitor observations, and role playing.

We scheduled a reunion for all Guest Guides approximately seven weeks after training ended. The reason was to share stories, tips, and suggestions for making training as relevant as possible to the actual job. Information gathered at this session will be applied to future program planning.

Next Year’s Model

The reunion provided the Guest Guides the opportunity to help shape next year’s program. The Guides reported that the enjoyed the experiential training they received and recommended including an opportunity to practice being a guide sometime during the formal training. So, the next Guest Guide training session will include on-the-job practice. Ideally, experienced Guides will oversee this portion of the training. Additionally, Guides suggested ways to improve their visibility in the park and designed a tote bag for carrying information, maps, and membership brochures.

Now that the basic program was up and running, the challenge became to build a more diverse volunteer corps. First we had to decide what diversity means for us. Variety in age, ethnicity, geography, economic status, employment status, in addition to race and gender, will need to be cultivated if we are to build a volunteer corps truly representative of our community.


Instinctively, we attempted to meet newly defined institutional needs by tinkering with our existing, successful docent program. We soon realized that we were attempting to fix a program that wasn’t really broken. The docent program works well, is appealing, and serves many institutional needs. But not all of them. So, rather than dilute the docent program, we chose to design a new volunteer position that complements the docent program. With the invention of the Guest Guide volunteer program, we have expanded our ability to meet the wayfinding needs of visitors, to provide satisfying experiences for more volunteers, and to be more responsive to people who seek volunteer work at the zoo.

Jean Linsner manages the Docent and Guest Guide volunteer programs at the Brookfield Zoo. She is Program Co-Chair for the Association of Volunteer Administrators – Metropolitan Chicago. She earned her M.S. in Education at Indiana University. Prior to joining the Brookfield Zoo staff, Ms. Linsner produced special events and public programs at the Chicago Academy of Sciences museum and performed science comedy as a member of C.H.A.O.S.

Linsner, Jean. “Volunteer Program Mechanics,” The Docent Educator 3.3 (Spring 1994): 16-17+.


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