9 tips for good volunteering

 1 March 2012

If you’re considering a route into a cultural heritage career, or are looking to recruit volunteers, here are nine things you should know about volunteering in the sector.

The National Maritime Museum in Cornwall currently has 175 volunteers, managed by HR Manager Linda Frost.
The National Maritime Museum in Cornwall currently has 175 volunteers, managed by HR Manager Linda Frost.

1. Volunteering is often the lifeblood of an organisation

The National Maritime Museum in Cornwall (NMMC) is a charity that relies solely on entrance fees and donations. It currently has 175 volunteers, managed by HR Manager Linda Frost.

"We’ve been open for nearly ten years and have used volunteers from the beginning. Over 50 percent of them have been with us for over five years and last year they donated 32,000 hours of their time.

"They take on varying roles from front-of-house, working in the reference library to curatorial work. We simply couldn’t exist without them."

"From front-of-house to curatorial work - we simply couldn’t exist without them."

Similarly, the Manchester Histories Festival (MHF) relies on the help of 50 volunteers over the ten-day festival period. It also requires a pool of volunteers to work prior to the event.

"I have several MA students in the office who have taken on responsibilities like marketing and one is the voluntary co-ordinator overseeing other volunteers.

"The initiative itself is a partnership between three organisations passionate about Manchester’s history. There is no funding so we rely on support. Not just from volunteers, but even speakers and experts taking part in their event donate their time for free."

2. Competition is as fierce as applying for paid work

Andrew Birley is Head of Excavations at The Vindolanda Trust (VT) in the North East. The trust look after two museums and an ancient Roman archaeological site, which has welcomed volunteers for over 41 years.

It’s one of the most popular places in the UK to undertake volunteering for anyone interested in history.

"All volunteering opportunities are booked up a year in advance. Applications are made via our website and open every year at midday on 1st November, with places being filled up in a couple of hours."

3. Volunteering is regarded as credible work experience

"You won’t truly know if you can handle this kind of work unless you try it for yourself."

Employers are more interested in what you achieved in particular roles, rather than whether it was paid.

Jess Ings moved to Manchester last year after graduating from the University of Sussex with a degree in International Relations. Working in cultural heritage appealed to her, but without a specific qualification in the field, she chose to volunteer to learn new skills.

"While volunteering at Manchester Beacon, a community engagement programme, I heard about the MHF.

"I volunteer there full time as the Festivals Co-ordinator and so far have learnt how to put projects together and am responsible for managing my own part of the overall project."

4. Use it as an opportunity to try out a career

Volunteering at the National Maritime Museum in Cornwall falls into specific roles that include the education team, marketing, admin, as well as more specialist curatorial roles.

For the Manchester Histories Festival, Claire is trying to pair volunteers up with events that interest them. If it’s a talk they can take part in discussions, or for a tour they can share local knowledge.

At The Vindolanda Trust, volunteers are expected to commit for two weeks and work full days. Andrew sees this as a good way to test out a career before committing. 

"We offer opportunities to work inside the museum but the majority of volunteers spend their time digging outdoors; whatever the weather. You won’t truly know if you can handle this kind of work unless you try it for yourself."

He believes you don’t need to wait until after you’ve graduated or left school. You can start these experiences while you are still at school, which is why the Trust offer placements from the age of 16. 

5. Use volunteering to broaden your network

Jess is aware that for a lot of positions, posts are not advertised.

"Often those who are volunteering are the first to learn about new job opportunities. It’s much easier to recruit from a pool of people who know the organisation than look externally.

"I want to meet as many people as possible so if I get an interview. I can tell them I’ve met them before – hopefully this will get me noticed."

"Be very clear about what you did and achieved. Potential employers want to know what responsibilities you had."

Claire agrees, "If someone has volunteered it proves their commitment to the job. I am more likely to recommend someone who has volunteered, than someone who hasn’t."

As well as getting to know other volunteers, volunteering allows you to meet potential employers – something Claire believes is an invaluable opportunity.

"I take volunteers along to meetings where they can network with influential people who may end up as their future employers."

6. You can expect training from volunteering

Because of the specialist nature of the work at The Vindolanda Trust, training is essential for all volunteers and the first two days are dedicated to it. Then everyone is paired up with a mentor for the duration of their placement.

Regular induction days are held at National Maritime Museum in Cornwall where participants are given a welcome pack and tour of the museum, It also gives Linda a chance to assess which roles they are best suited to.

Linda explains, "Volunteers tend to choose areas they have experience in so when we are setting up exhibitions they can build our exhibition cabinets if they are interested in woodwork.

"We’ve also recently taken on an official photographer who wants portfolio experience. But we don’t just use skills: we provide them too, by trying to give volunteers the same training as our staff.

"For example in curatorial and other specialist areas we run sessions on how to care for and clean an object."

7. Use the experience to your advantage.

The National Maritime Museum in Cornwall received an award for its volunteering programme, recognising its commitment to voluntary work.

"Because our volunteers carry out real work, you never know what they might discover. One year we had a couple who uncovered a Roman altar."

The enthusiasm and passion volunteers bring with them is also inspiring for permanent staff. Andrew explains, "It’s a pleasure to work with people who actually want to be there.

"Because our volunteers carry out real work, you never know what they might discover. One year we had a couple who uncovered a Roman altar, which changed the way we now view parts of Roman history."

As a volunteer, ask your host to provide you with a reference. If you’re on a short placement, and need it for job applications, try asking for this in advance.

If possible ask to get a credit on the projects you work on. The brochure for Manchester Histories Festival names volunteers, which is good for their portfolios.

8. Weighing up the benefits against the downsides

Volunteers get insights into jobs that other candidates don’t. This is something students are realising, and there has been a steady increase of graduates keen to volunteer at National Maritime Museum in Cornwall.

Linda puts this down to the current job climate. For many, volunteering is a person’s first true taste of working.

All employers are impressed by volunteering, so never view it as a waste of time. Andrew believes "it shows you’re a well-rounded person prepared to go that extra mile."

For Jess the financial side of volunteering is a challenge she works as a waitress to supplement it. She is willing to commit up to a year to volunteering and although this means she won’t be earning, it will prove to employers that she is serious about the job.

"Having solid experience gives you examples to talk about at interviews. At the moment I’m either underqualified or overqualified for jobs, so volunteering will help bridge that gap."

Claire recommends that you, "Be very clear about what you did and achieved, potential employers want to know what responsibilities you had."

9. How to get a volunteer placement

"At the moment I’m either underqualified or overqualified for jobs, so volunteering will help bridge that gap."

Specific information about volunteering will be available online. The NMMC, VT and MHF all post opportunities on their websites.

Speak to volunteers already doing the role – you can do this by visiting and meeting them. Be clear about what your objectives are and make sure the tasks you do will contribute to your skills base.

Have an idea of how much time you want to commit. Some places offer short-term positions, or you could commit to doing one day per week. Most organisations can be flexible and fit around other jobs.

Finally, be aware that a 'voluntary' position is exactly that. Giving up your time to gain experience and work in an area you love can be rewarding. But if an organisation is requiring enough of you to satisfy the legal definition of ‘worker’, then you are entitled to be paid.

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