Running a strong docent program is like conducting an orchestra. With the right practices, everyone harmonizes.

If you’ve been reading this blog for a while, you may recall a post about Life Purpose Statements. The statements are a great exercise for reconnecting with what brought you to your job in the first place.

Sometimes, when the day-to-day starts to drag you down, all you need is a reminder that you chose your work for reasons much bigger reasons. You are playing a valuable part within a larger vision.

One of my favorite statements came from Geoffrey Cohrs, the Docent Coordinator for the Smithsonian American Art Museum and Renwick Gallery.

Geoffrey wrote:

I teach docents the skills they need to meaningfully engage the public in the issues of our time so the public may better understand their place in American society and what they can do to effect positive change.

Clearly, this leader of volunteers understands the power of his docents to not just educate the public, but to create a positive impact on our culture.

The challenge is to translate this kind of vision into an effective team.

The answer, according to Geoffrey, is to keep standards high, train thoroughly, foster collaboration, and allow a high degree of self-direction.

Geoffrey inherited an effective docent program from his predecessor, Carol Wilson.  Now, he and his Assistant Docent Coordinator, Colleen Brown, have refined and expanded on those practices. The current program might stand as a model for other museums to follow.

Here are seven guidelines that contribute to the program’s success.

  1. Docent Coordinator Geoffrey Cohrs leads a new cohort through the Smithsonian American Art Museum

    Stay selective and front load expectations

Only a small percentage of prospective volunteers are accepted into docent training. In the most recent class, that translated into 19% of those who initially expressed interest. Geoffrey lets prospective volunteers know up front about the selective nature of the program, the extent of training, and how much work they will take on.  That way, those who enter the program are clear on expectations and those who can’t make the commitment often self-select out.

  1. Train in theory and in practice

Docent training is extensive. Cohorts take part in a 6-month curriculum that Geoffrey calls “a graduate class in the content area of the museum and pedagogical techniques.” But training does not end in the classroom. “We do a lot of modeling while we’re training them, take them on a lot of tours, and show them how these techniques are used.”

  1. Emphasize interpersonal skills

Being a docent for a Smithsonian museum brings extra responsibility.  Docents are selected for their ability to communicate with energy – and diplomacy.

“When you work with the public and with an institution that serves the entire nation and international visitors,” Geoffrey observes,  “you have to be mindful of your interpersonal skills.”

“We want the tours to be a special experience for visitors because they represent the Smithsonian. We want to be welcoming of everyone. We want to engage the visitor in the art work and respect their intellect. You have to be careful in how to phrase things. You don’t want to hide things but also don’t want to use inflammatory language. You have to walk a fine line when you are talking about art that came out of a particular historical period.”

  1. Allow for collaborative decision-making

The corps of docents operate as a team. For example, several docents may cover a day of school tours with 50 or 100 children. The volunteers must work together to map out which groups are going to look at which pieces of art work and when – they need to make sure that multiple groups are not converging on any particular piece or room at the same time.

“We don’t make these kinds of decision for them,” Geoffrey explained. “They are empowered to do that for themselves.”

  1. Foster creativity

Volunteers are valued for the creativity that they bring to the docent program. Rather than scripting them, docents design their own tours.

“People attracted to being docents are story-tellers. They are given the space to tell the story of the collection in their own unique way. We don’t give them a script, only some basic parameters to work within. We love for them to design their own tours and come up with their own themes.”

  1. Carefully match new docents and mentors

New docents are matched with active corps members. Geoffrey and Colleen think very carefully about the parings. The look for personalities that will mesh and balance each other out.

Docents and mentors work closely together and often develop a strong bond which leads to stronger performance. Geoffrey credits one mentee’s very professional “checkout tour” to the relationship formed between her and her mentor. The mentee even emailed Geoffrey to thank him for finding her the perfect match. The mentor knew when to push her and when to back off.

  1. Work as a team to enhance the program

Seasoned docents are invited to join a Docent Advisory Council. The staff presents ideas and solicits feedback from the council. For example, the docent policy and procedures manual gets updated every several years with input from the council. They also get the council’s feedback on new parts of training or new programs.”

“We always want their buy-in. We want them to work well with us and vice versa. We are all about consensus building.”

Different type of volunteer roles requires different approaches, different standards – and different kinds of volunteers.  We are not a “one size fits all” kind of profession.

But one thing that we all have in common is our respect for the individuals who shine with the structure and support that we provide them.  As Geoffrey puts it, “I can’t say enough good things about our docents. They are professional, dedicated, and passionate.”

“I sit in awe of them every day.”


Influence your volunteers without ruffling feathers! My Six Principles of Buy-In will boost your leadership skills in any situation. Email me for the handout and worksheet.  – Elisa