Volunteering: Free Advice for Free Laborers

March 7, 2012 by  
Filed under Careers

Jane Lattes at the inaugural Art and Antique Dealers League of America Spring Show NYC, a benefit for the ASPCA. (Photo: New York Social Diary)

Staying engaged in the world, it seems, can help us to stay alive. Last fall, an article on the website of the American Psychological Association, ”Volunteering to Help Others Could Lead to Better Health,” informed us that people who do volunteer work for the right reasons “may live longer than those who don’t.” 

That piece turned our attention to volunteerism, a subject we haven’t often addressed in Women’s Voices for Change. And so we have commissioned a series of articles exploring the ways in which our readers can put their intelligence, education, creativity, and wisdom to worthy use. For the first post we turned to Jane Lattes, Director of Volunteer Services at the Morgan Library & Museum in New York City, for her views on the psychic rewards of museum volunteering—and the degree of commitment these impressive institutions expect from their volunteers. —ED.

Like many people who become volunteer directors, I slipped into the process sideways.

Teaching high school English showed me that although I liked the process of education, I did not like working in a classroom.  I had always loved museums. I took a pottery class when I was pregnant—and was introduced not only to the recognition that I would never be a superb potter, but also to another pregnant ex-teacher; she had been hired as an educator at Historic Hudson Valley, which manages several historic properties along the Hudson River. I figured that if they hired her pregnant, they might hire me too, and they did: I went to work as a pregnant costumed interpreter at Philipsburg Manor. This job eventually led me back to graduate school, where I acquired a second master’s degree in Museum Education, and then I began working in education departments at cultural institutions in New York City

Photo: Alex Strada for Time Out

At my second job (at the New-York Historical Society in the late 1980s), I discovered that there was a huge pool of potential candidates in New York who wanted to become affiliated with a museum through the donation of their time.  Not all of them wanted to become docents—those who interpret collections in museums to the visiting public—and some who wished to perform this job did not have the requisite skills, but had other talents that a museum could utilize. Indeed, as Director of Volunteers for several institutions—the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, the American Museum of Natural History, the American Folk Art Museum, and the Morgan Library & Museum—I have been able to call on the help of many talented volunteers.

Two and a half years ago, the Morgan Library & Museum, one of the world’s greatest collections of artistic, musical, and literary works, hired me as Director of Volunteer Services; my role was to start a museum-wide, centralized volunteer program. Our program now uses volunteers in 18 departments. I can provide the Morgan with people who commit to at least one day a week for at least a year, and who bring with them whatever skills the staff person wants.

The volunteer jobs at a museum vary enormously. People with serious professional skills work in jobs that interface with the public as well as in many places behind the scenes. They might proofread for publications, help design marketing strategies, provide assistance in implementing education programs, edit manuals, use graphic design skills for retail sales merchandising efforts, sell merchandise in the shop, assist in cataloging in the library, and work in any number of capacities in curatorial departments. It is the job of the volunteer director to learn about staff needs, encourage the staff to think of needs at all levels, and then find the people and screen them for possible placement.

One of the Morgan's galleries. (Photo: Charles Haber, Architectural Record)

At the Morgan, we look for people with serious professional backgrounds; often an advanced degree is required. Although some training will be required, I search for people who come with the abilities needed to complement the work of the staff.

Though my interests have always led me to museum work, many of my observations, I believe, apply to volunteers anywhere. People in the military are familiar with the publications Jane’s Fighting Ships and Jane’s Weapon Systems. Here is this Jane’s Analysis of Volunteering.

You Must Have a Serious Interest

You may live around the corner, but that in itself is definitely not enough to secure a volunteer job here. As a potential candidate you would have to convince me that you bring the skills needed and have the time to do the required job, and that you also desire to learn about this museum and its collections.

Administrators often see volunteers as free help. I firmly believe that volunteers are much more than that. If they feel needed and valuable; if the bar for their acceptance is set high; if they are required to know about the institution for which they work, volunteers can become superb public-relations spokespeople in the community at large.  I truly believe that only if museums have high standards for the work asked of volunteers will they feel proud of their contribution and really committed to the mission of the organization. A volunteer who has never visited the Morgan, has no knowledge of what makes it special, and tells me in his cover letter that he wishes to “work for my company” is unlikely to be accepted.  The Morgan is not a “company,” and I want people who can convince me that they can identify with and be proud to be affiliated with this specific museum.

Look for a Well-Run Program 

A good volunteer program requires that the candidate be interviewed; in the best situations there will always be two levels of interviews—one by the manager of the program and one by the potential supervisor. Is there a carefully defined job description? Is there a definite place to work so that you come to feel that you are a real part of the organization? Will the job as described interest you?

Sharing the Museum’s Mission Isn’t Enough

It is a mistake to volunteer for an organization only because you like it and share its mission. You must look forward to going to the job on the day you are to perform it. It is possible to change volunteer positions or to persuade your supervisor to give you additional responsibilities after you have proven yourself, but don’t take a job only because you want that to happen. Occasionally volunteers move into paid positions, but it is dangerous for the organization or for the volunteer to expect that this will happen.

On Altruism

I am a skeptic about altruism. I certainly believe that volunteers donate their time in order “to give back,” but I also sincerely believe that the idea of giving back is too much a generalized feeling to have it lead to a successful placement. Success comes when you can do that giving in a place that fulfills your interests and provides stimulation, offers chances to continue learning, and often leads to friendships and connections to a world that interests you.

The Morgan Library & Museum is at this time the perfect job for me. I honor its mission, am impressed and fascinated by its collections, find the staff to be friendly, approachable, and extremely knowledgeable, and have a genuine desire to assist its growth. I am receiving a paycheck. If you are volunteering your time without a paycheck, there is all the more reason to affiliate with a place you can feel the same way about.

People volunteer for highly individualized—and what sound like conflicting—reasons. One person wants relief from the pressure of his paid work; another wants increased responsibility. One person wants additional social outlets among people with similar interests; another, who has an anthropology degree, is tired of crunching numbers for a brokerage firm.

I used to say that the one legitimate reason for volunteering that I could not satisfy was finding the volunteer a spouse. And then, while I was at the American Museum of Natural History, two of my volunteers met on the fossil collection floor and got married. I wish you the best of luck in finding the right volunteer position. It’s worth the search.