Has your museum debated the merits of paid staff over volunteers? And if the answer is yes, are you basing your decision on the presumption that a paid position is the better option, depending on the budget?

If you have had this conversation in one variation or another and found yourself struggling over how to make a final decision, consider reframing the question.

Knowing when to hire employees and when to engage volunteers is not about the budget. Even though a great many museums evolve from volunteer-led organizations to employee-driven ones, the two roles are not interchangeable – we’ll discuss the distinctions in a moment.

Instead, knowing when to hire employees or engage volunteers requires a decision-making methodology that is:

  • Rooted in strategic goals
  • Designed to foster greater community engagement,
  • Clear on what’s reasonable to expect of volunteers, and;
  • Compliant with the laws


Volunteer Engagement, Community Engagement

Volunteering is a powerful point of entry for an individual into a museum. In addition to the value of the volunteer contribution, which must not be minimized, volunteers are likely to become your biggest supporters, both financially and in terms of community engagement. Capacity-focused leaders recognize this potential and make strategic decisions to leverage it.

The Baltimore Museum of Art (BMA), for example, prioritized diversity and community engagement in its strategic plan – and its volunteer program reflects this focus.

The BMA engages a broad cross-section of the community as volunteers, representing all ages, genders, and nationalities.

“We want to see the community reflected here and volunteers are our best advocates for making that happen,” explained Rachel Sanchez, the BMA’s Assistant Director of Employee Engagement, Internships, & Volunteer Program. “People like to see themselves represented when they walk through our doors. We have groups and individuals who have been inspired to volunteer themselves because they saw someone like them volunteering!”

The BMA also leverages its volunteers as capacity-builders, extending the reach of almost every department, often in non-traditional way. The installation department, an area often off-limits to volunteers, engages experienced volunteers to assist with specific tasks. Volunteers who assisted with membership mailings now update donor records or file important documents.

Legislation and the Staff/Volunteer Question

The Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA) and many state and local laws are quite specific about the roles of paid staff and volunteers. Many of these regulations are there to protect employees from working overtime, or from seeing their positions eliminated in favor of “free” volunteer labor. As a result, organizations need to take a hard look at what responsibilities must be performed by employees, and what services may be assumed by volunteers.

State laws were the motivator for The Corning Museum of Glass to clarify its process for engaging staff and volunteers.

“About five years ago, the state of New York passed legislation detailing what volunteers can and cannot do,” says Jessica Trump, the museum’s Volunteer and Internships Programs Supervisor.

Among other things, the legislation specifies that volunteers cannot “replace or augment staff to do the work of paid staff.” Up until then, there was often some overlap in employee and volunteer roles. For example, employees and volunteers worked in the admissions lobby. “We contacted other museums to do some benchmarking,” Jessica continued, “We found that this was a common situation. There was little difference between some paid staff and volunteer roles.”

The museum resolved the issue with these two guidelines:

  1. Employees fill all essential roles, meaning the museum could not operate without these positions, and;
  2. Volunteers are value-added, meaning their roles enhance the visitor experience but are not a necessity.

From there, the museum reviewed the position descriptions for staff and volunteer roles, separating out the essential and non-essential functions. For example, in the admissions lobby, staff sell tickets and handle the money, while volunteers greet guests and answer questions.

Volunteers may also carry out non-essential functions within staff positions. For example, in the museum’s research library, volunteers work on vertical file projects that staff don’t have the time to get to.

Having clarity between paid staff and volunteer roles has benefitted the Museum by empowering the volunteers and by giving staff more time to focus on things like cross-departmental work and strategic planning.


Roles that Straddle the Line

Depending on your interpretation, there are some traditional volunteer roles that straddle the line between “essential” and “non-essential.” Docents and tour guides fall within this category. While not essential in the strictest sense – museums are able to operate without these roles –, the presence of docents and tour guides is often considered vital to the visitor experience.

Even so, a great many museums succeed with thriving volunteer docent programs, while other institutions have moved to a paid model.

In this situation, museums may wish to follow the lead of a charitable nonprofit, the Calgary Food Bank. The Food Bank’s President & CEO, James McAra, engages volunteers first, moving to paid staff positions only when it’s demonstrated that volunteers cannot get the job done.

What factors might indicate that it’s time to shift? Here are five considerations:

  • Time: while volunteers often make long-term, time-intensive commitments to training or the volunteer role, your museum will never be their first priority.  Complex training requirements may preclude the use of volunteers, just as long shifts or multiple weekly shifts might not be possible.
  • Scale: as a museum grows, roles and responsibilities evolve and demands increase. What may have once been an appropriate volunteer position may no longer be feasible.
  • Availability: high commitment, highly specialized volunteer roles are often difficult to fill.  On average, Americans spend less than three hours per day volunteering, and the national volunteer rate experienced a notable decline in 2015. In some cases, the investment in time and marketing needed to recruit qualified volunteers may be greater than the costs of hiring paid staff.
  • Risk Level: Safety is also a factor in the paid staff/volunteer question, as was the level of training. At The Corning Museum of Glass, all of the museum’s glassblowers are paid because of the risk involved and the amount of training needed to excel in the position

Sometimes, a museum’s evolution requires the use of paid staff over volunteers. Castle in the Clouds, a historic estate in Moultonborough, New Hampshire, transitioned from volunteer-operated to staff-operated programming over a period of several years, as the organization experienced significant growth. All three of these factors played into the decision.

“Our public programming used to be entirely volunteer-led,” says Chuck Clark, Executive Director of Castle in the Clouds. “Over time, the volunteers started aging out. It became difficult to find new volunteers willing to devote that much time to programming.

We began our shift by hiring a part-time staff person to cover community programming. Eventually, that role has become full-time.” hire

The move to paid staffing allowed Castle in the Clouds to better align programming with organizational priorities.  Chuck shared: “The volunteers really enjoyed the programming that they offered, but we needed to revisit the content. Having staff in charge of programming allowed us to create more mission-driven options.

“In particular, having a full-time employee focused on programming has allowed us to increase our work with partner organizations and expand our offerings to the community. This is a strategic priority for the organization.”

Want to Revisit Your Staff/Volunteer Engagement Practices? Ask Yourself these Questions

If you are ready to establish or revise standards for engaging volunteers, use these questions as your guide:


Staff/Volunteer Engagement Policies

Have you conducted a review of staff and volunteer functions?

Are staff and volunteers doubling up on the same roles?

Are volunteers performing essential functions?

Have you considered the risk factor within the functions?

Are there non-essential staff responsibilities that might be fulfilled by volunteers?


Community Engagement

Is Community Engagement a key part of your mission?

Have you created a volunteer recruitment plan with includes diversity as a strategic priority?

Have you created a diverse range of volunteer roles to appeal to volunteers with limited time or availability for training?



Are volunteers engaged throughout the museum, and not limited to Visitor Services or Education?

If not, have you conducted a Volunteer Needs Assessment to identity new volunteer roles?

Do your development and volunteer staff collaborate to build relationships that lead to all forms of support (volunteer, financial, and in-kind)?

One last thing: developing a staff/volunteer engagement policy is a team process. It requires input from your Visitor Services, Education and Human Resources, certainly. It also requires the involvement of leadership, to ensure that volunteer roles are aligned with your museum’s strategic direction. It’s this larger conversation that ensures that staff are supported, volunteers are valued, and your museum forges new community connections.