When you treat volunteer training like a strategic priority, everything falls into place

Last year at the National Museum of Natural History (NMNH), a group of Museum Educators and me, the Museum’s Volunteer Manager, came together to discuss how we provide high-quality, engaging, and personalized learning experiences for all visitors to NMNH.

Our museum is impact-focused, and within my department we track a great many indicators that guide our work and ensure that our activities are connected to the strategic priorities of the museum. In this particular meeting, we identified a key point of visitor engagement being their interactions with our volunteers.

Working backwards from that point, we realized that we needed to take a deep, hard look at our volunteer training. Ultimately, the nature of the visitor’s experience depends on the quality of the training that our volunteers receive.

We wanted to make sure that our trainings aligned with the museum’s strategic priorities. So we decided to inventory all of our trainings, with the ultimate goal of ensuring that our volunteers were equipped to enhance the visitor experience.

Here’s one example, connecting an introductory training module to one of the museum’s strategic priorities:

Impact Measure/Indicator Goal for Visitor Training Elements Training Module
Visitors show awareness of natural history as history of life on Earth Be aware of natural history (as history of life on Earth) Natural History Learning-general concept of the scope of Natural History What is Natural History? (module with science cards where volunteers explore our research and scientists)

What We Discovered

From our inventory, we identified over 40 training elements, or key points trainings should ideally cover, and over 20 existing training modules. Various combinations of these elements and modules are offered to over 600 volunteers in 12 public-facing roles. Fortunately, we found that existing training modules did indeed align with our impact measures, desired training elements, and visitor goals.

What we needed to do, though, was streamline the various versions of trainings and move towards instructing modules consistently throughout the entire public-facing volunteer corps. When faced with the scope and the variations among our trainings, it was clear that trainings offered to the different volunteer roles needed to be much more consistent across content areas and more clearly tied to desired impacts.

We determined that there are three different levels of training that we need to offer, depending on the nature of the volunteer role.

  • Level One — training that all volunteers receive

For our museum, this is a New Volunteer Orientation that public-facing and exhibit volunteers receive together.

  • Level Two – training that only public-facing volunteers receive

These trainings were being delivered inconsistently among the various public-facing roles roles.  Now, these volunteers uniformly receive training on subjects that are aligned to institutional impacts, such as Equity and Access, Natural History Learning, and Facilitation Skills.

  • Level Three – trainings specific to the content of a particular exhibit

Some of our exhibit volunteers require training that is very specific to the exhibits they support. For example, Q?rius volunteers need specialized training on collections management to address the more than 6,000 specimens in the space. Insect Zoo and Volunteer Pavilion volunteers need training on how to work with live animals.

Interestingly enough, the volunteers identified this need, too. When surveyed  and asked how we could improve future trainings, the number one response was “Activities”, meaning volunteers wanted more skills training around their unique exhibit content.

 Affirming the Big Picture for Volunteers

We also wanted our volunteers to consider the role they play in advancing the museum’s mission and become invested in their own impact measures. To accomplish this goal, we developed a new 30-minute training module called Introduction to Public Engagement and Informal Science Learning for all new public-facing volunteers to receive.

The training is highly interactive, requiring the volunteers to explore their role and their impact by discussing the big-picture questions: why do they think their role is important to the visitor and to the Museum?; what do they hope to achieve?; what is the goal of their training?; what is their impact to the Museum and our visitors?

Below is a slide from this new module. We show the volunteers how all of the training modules they participate in relate to larger goals, based in our Museum’s impacts and indicators.

Where We Go From Here

So what is next?  We will fully implement the training framework on all future new cohorts of public-facing volunteers.

This journey, though not over, has readjusted my thinking. I now see the need for aligning volunteer training to align more closely with visitor goals. The new frameworks also allows the Volunteer Program and Museum Educators to work closely together when developing volunteer trainings.

Even more important, I see volunteer training as a process that helps the volunteers understand their role as partners in achieving impact goals for the museum. Instead of working in silos, staff and volunteers are collaborators who elevate our visitor’s love and understanding of the natural world.

Lisa Marie Porter, MA, CVA, has been working in Museums in the public sector since 2001. In 2007, Lisa Marie graduated the George Washington University with her MA in Anthropology and Museum Studies and joined the staff at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of Natural History (NMNH) in Washington, DC.

Lisa is the Volunteer Manager for the NMNH Volunteer Program. The program hosts over 1,000 adult volunteers who work both behind-the-scenes to support 650 Museum staff and in public engagement to educate the over 7 million annual visitors to the Museum.