A Succession Strategy for Museum Volunteers

Diminishing volunteer support is an evergreen museum management issue that requires constant attention. In my opinion, the debate has overlooked how marketing and brand development can help museums acquire volunteers.

Volunteers rule. The strong flow of volunteers into a nonprofit is a barometer of good health, and indicates its success at engaging its community. With a reliable cadre of volunteers, the cost of programs can be kept low and nonprofits can stay alive. According to the Canadian Museums Association and Statistics Canada, 46,400 volunteers engaged in museums and related heritage institutions make up 65% of the total work force of Canadian museums. Without them, the stability of our institutions would be seriously undermined.

This makes volunteers priceless—clearly not a category to be trifled with. So why, as existing volunteers retire, move on to other commitments or pass away, is new volunteer acquisition left to chance? Museums need a volunteer succession strategy that communicates brand attributes, key messages, and organizational expertise to secure new generations of potential volunteers.

The solution begins with making volunteers one of your key marketing targets. In the same way museums market—or should be marketing—to establish deep, emotional connections between themselves and their donors and visitors, they also need to connect with potential volunteers. There is a great general interest in helping others and in doing good, but it’s usually latent. The trick is to lure this magnanimity out of hiding.

Your brand is an essential tool for laying the foundations for relationships. It shapes the expectations people have about what you do, and defines the benefits your organization provides. The simplest, easiest, most direct way to achieve quality perception in the mind is to communicate your expertise. Make strategic decisions about who you are and where your expertise lies and wrap your stories around these elements.

This way, you’ll attract the community you need. Once a prospect knows what makes your museum attractive, you can begin encouraging him or her to consider why volunteering would be relevant to their lives and a source of satisfaction.

Making brand choices and courting the right people requires some internal fortitude, but it’s the right way. Volunteers—who are essentially time philanthropists—want to associate with interesting, visionary and like-minded people. When the right stories are told, volunteers—not to mention donors and other targets—can react like a light has been switched on. A strong, well-communicated brand identity that describes the organization’s values and purpose will get people interested, draw them into your community, and influence their behavior.

Clarifying corporate identity and marketing your expertise and building brand awareness works to get people in the door; it also has an impact on the bottom line. By providing a common denominator, a common language and a spirit of shared responsibility, brands help organizations work toward a common cause. It means everyone—from visitors to volunteers to staff—knows the answer to the question “what does this organization do?” It is, in short, a sign of good management.

It’s not easy marketing to shadowy targets like prospective volunteers. Building brand awareness about your organization creates favourable conditions for you to grow a community from which the next generation of volunteers will emerge. Telling your stories—creating the tools that support your brand—will be the heart of an effective succession strategy that keeps your volunteer arsenal at full strength.

(Originally published in Muse (Canadian Museum Association), March 2003)

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