Question from a Reader: What are your thoughts on having a volunteer in a role that would typically be held by an employee?Museum Tips

Answer: Thanks for the question. Typically, the argument for using a volunteer in a key museum role is something along the lines of ‘we will save money.’ While this seems like a good idea theoretically, I’m going to advise you only to do this if you have no other options.

First, let’s make a necessary clarification. I’m speaking of decision making roles within the organization. I think it’s fine to use volunteers in processing functions like admissions and gift shop. We are discussing decision making roles such as marketing director, curator, education director, accountant, purchasing manager, etc.

While it seems like a good idea to take advantage of having a volunteer with a professional skillset by allowing them to be a de facto part of the museum staff, it often creates uncomfortable and difficult to navigate situations.

Most of the problems that arise have to do with how to manage the volunteer’s position. It’s difficult to hold the volunteer responsible for organizational rules. While the Director is still technically in charge, it’s not a typically boss/employee relationship. There is not really a hierarchy because you can’t discipline a volunteer. Cultural issues within the organization often arise, as well as the interactions between the volunteer and actual employees can be challenging and lead to difficult informal ‘status/power’ frameworks. Also, as you have a person doing a job for free, any discussion of large expenditures has an added uncomfortable element. One museum in Iowa (USA) that attempted to have a volunteer in a position that would typically be held by an employee ultimately had the arrangement end due to a money issue. The volunteer felt that other employees should not be getting raises while she was doing a job for free.

Most of the time, experiments with having volunteers in decision making roles don’t end well. The experiment often does not last very long. In the end, the museum usually has to deal with an awkward transition from volunteer back to an employee, which inevitably includes some hurt feelings.

Especially during financially difficult times, expanding the roles of volunteers is a topic that comes up in discussion, before moving forward, consider the short and long term potential downfalls. Lastly, if you are going to try this type of arrangement within your museum, please check with your legal counsel. Some US states have restrictions on volunteer roles.

Article written by Frank Bennett, originally posted at

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