What it looks like when your co-workers do the volunteering

Here’s one thing I’ve learned from my five years of blogging:

A volunteer manager who does one thing well does many things well. When we excel at leading volunteers, it expresses itself in all kinds of innovations.

That’s why I sometimes return to the same colleagues for new posts. Our interview for that first post reveals other accomplishments too good not to share.

Rachel Sanchez, who manages volunteers for the Baltimore Museum of Art (BMA), is one of these creative colleagues. I interviewed Rachel earlier this year because she built a thriving and diverse volunteer program from the ground up.

If you look at Rachel’s title, though, you’ll see that she’s responsible for something else, too.

Rachel is the Assistant Director of Employee Engagement, Internships, & Volunteer Programs for the BMA. She brings volunteers and interns into the museum – and she creates opportunities for staff to volunteer in the community. The BMA so values the staff volunteer role that it’s included in Rachel’s title.

There are other nonprofits with a culture of staff service to the community. That’s a growing trend with traditional charitable organizations.

But museums are a bit different – it’s rare to see a staff volunteer initiative. In fact, it may be the only comprehensive museum-based program anywhere.

“I don’t know of another museum with a program of this scope. And I’ve done a lot of research,” Rachel says.

BMA staff paint a mural as volunteers

The inspiration for the BMA’s employee engagement program originated in the charitable nonprofit world. Rachel and her supervisor, Kim Bountress, the Senior Director of Human Resources, both came to the BMA from the Living Classrooms Foundation, where there was an established culture of community service to underserved populations.

The two wanted to give employees the opportunity to get out of their offices and feel more connected to the city.

Even more important, employee engagement fits rights into the BMA’s mission, which is committed to social equity in every decision, with the goal of creating a museum welcoming to all.

“We wanted to remove the bubble of isolation that is often part of the museum experience,” Rachel explained. “We wanted to shift from the traditional perception of a museum as being a hallowed institution, apart from the rest of the community.  We want to be engaged, diverse, and inclusive. The museum should reflect the community that we serve.”

The BMA’s employee engagement program operates year-round, offering volunteer opportunities to 180 staff members in every role, from curatorial and exhibitions, to security and facilities teams, to IT and administration.

So what accounts for the popularity of the BMA’s employee engagement program? Rachel named three key elements that she encourages others to adopt:

  1. Do your homework

Rachel researched a variety of employee engagement programs. She focused on corporate social responsibility programs, reaching out to area companies for advice and suggestions on what might be the best model for the BMA.

For example, Rachel considered hosting an annual community service day but concluded that the model would not work for a museum, which cannot shut down for an entire day. Instead, she chose a year-round approach to give employees multiple opportunities to help build community and teamwork for the staff.

 

  1. Give staff ownership of the process

Rachel made certain that staff drove the program from the very beginning.  When she was ready to launch, she held an all-staff information meeting to kick things off.

Then, Rachel formed a Social Action Committee. The committee includes members from all sectors of the museum — representation from every department is considered essential. They established a formal mission which helps keep them on track with whom they are working with and why.

“Anyone is welcome to join the committee – we’re always getting new people.” Rachel stressed. “There is no cap to the number of staff who can participate. Sometimes members take a break when they are busy and come back. On average, the committee runs between 12 – 15 members at any given time.”

The committee brings forward ideas of places to volunteer. Rachel explained, “We really listen to staff when they tell us what they would be most interested in volunteering for. If people aren’t interested in the opportunities, then we won’t be successful. We need to make sure that it’s a positive experience for everyone involved.”

 

  1. Champion the most feasible opportunities

Once the committee has recommended a nonprofit Rachel will reach out to the organization and get information on what the volunteer opportunity looks like. She brings that information back to the committee, to see if the options sound feasible.

Not every recommendation turns into a volunteer activity.  Museum staff work on varying schedules that include weekends on and weekdays off. For that reason, the volunteer opportunities typically fall between Wednesday and Friday, when staff numbers are at their highest to make the opportunities equitable. No matter what day or time the opportunity occurs, staff are never required to take personal time, stay late, come in early, etc. The opportunities are a way for the staff to step away from the Museum without worrying about their leave time.

Sometimes it takes a while to align an opportunity with staff interests.

“This year,” Rachel shared, “we were excited to start monthly reading sessions with a local elementary school. It’s something many colleagues and the committee has wanted to do for a long time. It was a challenge, though, to find a reading program that could accommodate our needs. Most literacy programs require a high commitment from their volunteers.

“After a lot of searching, we were approached by a local elementary school who operate a casual, monthly reading session. Their principal learned about our Program and made the connection for us! It’s a great fit because it’s a quick five-minute drive from the museum, we are there for a 45 minute session, and we get to read to the same class every time and get to know the children. It works for everyone, even if they have a busy schedule.”

Every lunch bag for the homeless gets a personal touch

Fortunately, the opportunity matching is becoming easier. “Now that we’re established, Rachel continued, “organizations are approaching us to volunteer for them. It’s making it a lot easier to make community connections the more we are out and about in the community. We did a small project for Meals on Wheels this past Fall and they reached out to us to work with them more closely so we’re looking forward to starting that partnership in early 2020.”

Rachel reflected, “Some staff members were hesitant about starting this program, thinking that it’s not the museum’s place to serve the community in this manner. It’s a completely new concept, at least to the museum field, to be volunteering for another organization so we expected there to be some reservations. We’re a nonprofit and are more accustomed to being on the receiving end of that type of assistance, but if anything, I feel that justifies the need for us to volunteer. If every museum had a similar program, we could really make a strong impact in our communities.

“Once people saw how much fun we were having and the importance of the work we were doing, they slowly came around.  The strong, positive response from staff has shifted our work culture and how we view community services. Now staff excitedly ask what we’re doing next!”