Guest blogger Lisa Marie Porter, MA, CVA, empowered her volunteers to help her solve an unexpected problem. The results are pretty creative.

At the Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History, we take the practice of volunteer nametags one-step further than usual.

Even though our public engagement volunteers wear official credentials that designate them as ‘Volunteers,’ we still ask them to pin a special nametag to their uniform.

The idea behind it? To make personal connections with our visitors. The nametags share first names-only to make the volunteers more approachable, with the designation ‘Volunteer’ printed in the upper right-hand corner.

We thought our volunteers were perfectly happy with their nametags – until our museum went through a rebranding initiative. When we presented the volunteers with the new look of the nametags, we received some pretty vocal push-back.

The Problem

Our volunteers objected strongly to the use of the word ‘Volunteer’ on the nametag. They argued that the tags seem redundant and do not add anything to the volunteer’s or visitor’s experiences.

Even though the new nametags looked exactly the same as the old ones, introducing the revisions prompted the volunteers to tell us what they didn’t like about the nametags in the first place.

That left us with quite a problem to solve. We needed to make our volunteers happy with the new nametags and proud to wear then.

The Path to a Solution

I decided to do two things:

  1. Conduct some research and see how similar organizations approached the nametag question

I surveyed 20 Museums, both in and out of the Smithsonian network. I also read professional articles and publications.  The surveying and researching showed that ‘Volunteer’ was a common title on a name tag, or sometimes there was no title at all. To me, this information meant that we were doing the bare minimum of the industry standard. And our volunteers want, and deserve, more!

  1. Empower the volunteers to help me in this process by assembling a task force

When my research was complete, I assembled a task force to help me make decisions about a nametag redesign. My task force included eight volunteers representing each of the public engagement roles within the Museum, and two members of the Museum’s leadership staff.

At the Smithsonian Museum of Natural History, volunteers have the latitude to get creative in describing themselves

After a lively conversation, the task force members gave themselves some ‘homework’ and reached out to fellow volunteers for nametag ideas and feedback.  The respondents were asked to draw and/or describe their ideal nametag.

We received 88 responses representing roughly 16% of our 560+ public engagement volunteers. There were some very clear trends in the feedback when it came to volunteer preferences for nametags.  The volunteers wanted the nametags to include something that set them apart (such as a preferred name, skill level, length of service) or something of use to the visitor (such as languages spoken, conversation prompts, area of expertise).

With all of this helpful feedback, we had to figure out how to refine the nametags, keep them from looking busy with the added information, and stay within our institutional branding guidelines.  Whew – what a challenge!

The New Nametags

We decided to increase the logo size and added everyone’s start year (such as ‘Joined 2007’).  We selected the word ‘joined’ very intentionally, because it expresses the sense of community that volunteers have at the Museum with both visitors and staff. The year joined also conveys the expertise of the volunteer, in terms of ‘wow, you have been here for a long time!’

Another important change was to allow volunteers to list their name in whatever format they prefer. Pam and not Pamela? Thomas Smith? Dr. Samantha? Mrs. Fisher? All of these options are acceptable because we want the nametags to express the personality of the volunteer.

The change we’re proudest of is the options for volunteers in the upper right corner of the nametag, where the word ‘Volunteer’ would otherwise appear. Volunteers now have three choices for how they describe themselves on a nametag:

  1. They can associate themselves with the location where they volunteer, such as Human Origins or Visitor Experience
  2. They can substitute a catchy tagline, such as “Ask me about Dinosaurs” or “Ask me about DNA”
  3. They can let visitors know that they speak another language, such as “Je Parle Français”

If a volunteer has more than one volunteer role, they can request more than one nametag.  Some have asked to keep ‘Volunteer’ as they do not want to switch nametags between jobs, and that’s ok. We want them to have it their way.

The results are customizable nametags for every single volunteer. No two are identical. And you know what? Volunteers are happy and having fun with their nametags.  One of our volunteers, Dr. Samantha, shared, “I was surprised about the type of questions I was getting with the new nametags. The questions are much more thoughtful, such as how do you know how old these fossils are? versus where is the bathroom? …Honestly it has made coming to the Museum more fun, because visitors are more likely to engage and listen to what you are showing them.”

What’s in a name?  Quite a lot, it turns out. And a great opportunity for our volunteers to express their creativity and have fun with their valuable roles.


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.