What it looks like to start a volunteer program from the ground up

Volunteer managers: did you step into an existing volunteer program?

Most of us do. In general, we inherit our volunteer programs and must improve what we’re given.

That might mean we ramp up staff engagement, set higher expectations for volunteers, or do lots of clean-up to outdated policies that no longer support our programs.

If only we had a clean slate when we started out.

Rachel Sanchez had had almost clean slate when she started out.  As the Volunteer and Employee Engagement Manager for the Baltimore Museum of Art (BMA), she inherited a program with 10 volunteers and was tasked building it into a museum-wide initiative.

Now, six years later, over 150 volunteers serve the museum in almost every department, from Curatorial to Accounting. Rachel was so successful with her mandate that she speaks regularly now conferences and on panels about best practices for volunteer recruitment, management, and retention.

So, how did she do it? The short answer is, Rachel approached her project proactively, heading off issues before they become big problems. Before she jumped into recruitment, she did plenty of research, planned out her next steps, and made collaboration a priority.

That’s the short answer, but there’s more to take away from Rachel’s experience. She credits her success to five factors that she’s sharing with us here.

1.  Do Your Research

Rachel began her project by doing her homework. She talked with as many museums as possible to understand their structure and approach. She also checked with the museum world’s professional association, AAM, to ensure that her new program employed best practices.

Rachel explains: “Making sure we had the basic components to start with was really important, so I made a checklist of ‘must-haves’ that I gathered from various sources, reviewing solid policies and procedures, handbooks, orientation layouts, and necessary legal documents (background checks, waivers, release forms, etc.)

“Without those basics, you can’t really have a formalized program.  I was grateful to everyone who shared their information with me so I could determine what would work best for us!”

2.  Buy-In is Essential

Rachel knew that she needed her staff and existing volunteers on board before she launched the program.

The Baltimore Museum of Art’s Rachel Sanchez started with 10 volunteers. She now managers a diverse corps of 150 and growing

“I wanted to make sure that everyone was happy and comfortable with our plans for volunteers,” Rachel shared. “I spent a lot of time meeting with colleagues throughout the museum.”

Rachel spoke with the existing volunteers first, to reassure them that they were a valuable part of the new program.  These volunteers turned out to be great allies. They had all worked within Visitor Services and were excited about having new volunteer opportunities that would expand their skills and expose them to other parts of the museum. They were eager to jump in and were just waiting for someone to advocate for them and recognize their talents.

3.  Address Concerns Before You Create Positions

For the staff, the buy-in process involved conversations with every department within the museum.

Rachel explained: “I knew that the volunteer program would help meet the needs of staff, but first we needed to recognize their reservations and be proactive about addressing them.”

The various departments had very different concerns.  The Registrars were concerned about volunteers handling the art work. Installation needed to address the risk to volunteers and liability. The Development office was cautious about volunteer access to donor records.

In practice, that meant starting with the easiest tasks. For example, volunteers who assisted with membership mailings and became comfortable with our Advancement Department’s materials, might move on to assist with updating donor records or filing important documents (i.e. grants).  They may also assist with special events such as Member Openings since they’ll be more familiar working with this constituency.

“Because we addressed these issues early on, the departments are now comfortable with giving more responsibility to the volunteers they trust. A recent installation required building a dropped ceiling. The process was laborious, but easy to teach to volunteers. Because Installation had already been working with certain volunteers, they were comfortable inviting their core group to assist and take that task off of the Installation Team so they could focus on bigger, more skill-based projects in the exhibition.”

4.  Consider a Home in Human Resources

Rachel considers it a plus that the volunteer program resides in Human Resources. “From the very start, our volunteers were treated as colleagues, with many of the same policies and procedures that govern our staff. Our Volunteer Handbook is partly adapted from the Employee Handbook.

“This approach has allowed us to be very efficient: background checks, waivers, confidentiality agreements, were all in place from the start. We didn’t need to backtrack and create a policy after a problem arose.

“Overseeing all of the onboarding has eliminated lag time, too. We don’t need to wait to hear back from anyone to make sure they ran the background check or that all the paperwork has been signed; I am able to do all of that myself without depending on anyone else.”

5.  Make Diversity a Priority

BMA’s volunteer program is incredibly diverse. Volunteers represent all ages, genders, and nationalities. While this level of diversity is often a challenge for existing programs, Rachel found it easy to build in from the ground up.

“We didn’t have an obligation to recruit from certain areas or pools, because we were starting from scratch, Rachel observed. “I reached out to every part of the community I could think of.  I wanted all groups to know that they had a place in our Museum.”

Rachel reached out to art schools, colleges and universities, retirement homes, and teachers associations. She also met with groups that cater to ESL populations and organizations that work with individuals on the autism spectrum.

“We work quite a lot with individuals with disabilities, including those on the autism spectrum,” Rachel added. “I believe it sends a positive message to have volunteers with any sort of disability seen in our public spaces assisting visitors or working at our events.”

Building in diversity required a huge amount of outreach on Rachel’s part – a responsibility she now considers essential to her role.

“The outreach is the most important part of my position. I’m always looking for new organizations to partner with.  Each new collaboration brings something new and valuable to the museum.”

Perhaps that’s the point. Rachel views volunteering as an expression of community-building – and that’s central to BMA’s mission of engaging diverse audiences through exhibitions and community outreach.

“We want to see the community reflected here and volunteers are our best advocates for making that happen. 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 Staff Volunteer, Too

Rachel has continued the community-building philosophy by founding another program – one where museum staff volunteer in the community.  For nonprofits, this type of program is uncommon enough that you’ll be hearing more in another post later this year.

Stay tuned.



Old or new, volunteer programs rely on staff engagement.  My Six Principles of Buy-In will help you ramp up trust and willingness to work with volunteers.  Email me to receive a handout about the principles and a next steps worksheet – and I’ll add you to the Twenty Hats mailing list.