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Introduction to museum volunteers


Volunteers are the lifeblood of museums. They are often the first representative of a museum that people will see. Knowing how to work with your volunteers is, therefore, essential to the success of the museum.

That's why we wrote the Volunteers Toolkit in association with Heritage Volunteer Organisers Scotland (HVOS).

This is a huge topic and the guide you are reading right now is just an introduction. Dig into the tool kit for checklists, tables and samples of everything you might need when working with volunteers, whether your organisation is large or small. It's an invaluable resource, so keep using it at every stage of the volunteering process!

Getting started

Devise an action plan

Plan from the very start how you will manage volunteers. This will help you assess your specific needs and your capacity for volunteers. An action plan should also be reviewed over time, so these questions are important if you already have a volunteer programme.

The questions you need to ask yourself as your museum progresses. We've outlined key questions at different stages.

Where are you now?

  • Is there support in your group for involving volunteers?
  • What sorts of tasks will volunteers undertake?
  • How many volunteers do you think you will need to deliver new activities?
  • What resources are available to organise volunteers?
  • Will volunteers be offered training and development opportunities? What kind?
  • How many people currently volunteer with you? Who are they?
  • What tasks do they undertake?
  • What systems do you have in place for training and recruiting?
  • Do you have too many or too few volunteers?

Where do you want to be?

  • What information do you need to collect to help you decide future actions?
  • Who needs to be involved in deciding on the way forwards?
  • How much time can you allow for this?
  • How will you get people to buy into the vision for the future?
  • What are your timescales? Are there any other organisation plans or timescales you need to fit with?

How are you going to get there?

  • Which people can help you move forward?
  • What sort of tasks do they need to undertake?
  • What systems and process, if any, will you need to move forward?
  • What additional resources, if any, do you need to move forward?
  • Are there new training, development and support needs to be met?

How will you know when you've arrived?

  • What kind of information do you need to collect to show progress?
  • What kind of things will you measure to show success such as visitor numbers and volunteer satisfaction?
  • What kind of tools will you use to measure success?
  • What will success look like?
  • Who can help?


A useful way to keep track of your volunteers is to use the SWOT acronym. Ask yourself about your volunteering plan's Strengths, Weaknesses, Opportunities and Threats.

Assess both your organisation as a whole and individuals in organising workplaces using this metric. The full Volunteer Toolkit offers tables for working this out.

Planning for the future

Ask yourself what you would like volunteering in your organisation to look like, what you want people to say about your museum and how you will get there. Then plan according to these aims.

The full Volunteer Toolkit features tools and checklists that will help you outline your vision. One of which is to set SMART objectives.

Set SMART objectives

SMART is a useful acronym which describes the different elements that are required in useful objectives.


The more specific you can be the more likely that you will find ways to meet the objectives. If you want to increase your volunteering numbers, by how many and over what time period?


Make sure the objective can be measured in some way. This could be by checking volunteer satisfaction with their volunteering. Count the numbers of volunteers retained or recruited in an agreed period of time.


Although having a vision is important when it comes to planning ahead it’s important to keep objectives manageable. Large objectives can be broken down into smaller ones.

Achieving objectives needs to take into account things like the capacity of people to work on a project and the time they have to allocate to it.


Check that the objectives you come up with reflect what is needed by your organisation and that they match the expectations of the people who will be carrying them out.


Is there a time frame in place? This should include, for example, the date by which work should have been done and when it will be reviewed.

Developing a policy

Policies and procedures help support your volunteer programme and ensure clarity between all parties involved.

Volunteering policies should be developed by involving as many key people as possible. They are a good way to document the aims and values of your organisation and to emphasise the role of volunteers.

Policies can vary in length depending on your organisation’s needs. You can use a policy to cover everything relating to volunteering or have a short introductory document and refer within it to any policies, procedures and guidelines your organisation has that affect volunteering.

Your policy should include:

  • The role and benefits of volunteers to your organisation
  • Recruitment and selection
  • Induction, support, training and development
  • Out-of-pocket expenses
  • Insurance
  • How information is stored/data protection
  • Rights and responsibilities/codes of conduct for volunteers
  • Any time commitments
  • What your organisation expects of volunteers
  • What volunteers can expect from your organisation
  • Working relationships between volunteers and with any paid staff
  • How any decisions affecting volunteers are made
  • How complaints and problems are solved
  • Equality and diversity
  • Health and safety, including the protection of children and vulnerable adults, where appropriate
  • Monitoring, evaluation and review of your programme
  • Who has responsibility for volunteering policies, procedures, guidance and how often it will be reviewed

There are a number of sample policy documents and templates to help develop policies and procedures for your volunteering programme in the full toolkit.

Stages of volunteering

Recruitment and selection

Effective recruitment is about attracting the right number volunteers with the skills and qualities you need in ways that match up with volunteers’ motivations and interests. Think about the voluntary roles that you are offering and who they are likely to appeal to.

Having simple introductory information helps people work out whether they want to offer their services as a volunteer for you. Spreading the word through your existing volunteers is a good way to attract new people too.

Develop a selection process to get the right people volunteering, which could include:

  • Volunteer position or role, along with task description
  • Application or registration forms
  • Simple introductory information on your organisation and volunteering
  • Initial meetings and interviews, which could be a formal or informal chat to provide information and to discuss potential volunteers' areas of interest
  • Hosting open days at the museum
  • Taking up references and checking criminal records if required

Once you have selected your volunteers, plan an induction day that welcomes them in and conduct a risk assessment to ensure that your team are kept safe. Many volunteers will require training, either in formal or informal, to be most effective in the museum.

The full volunteer toolkit has further advice on recruiting and selecting volunteers.

Retaining, recognising and supporting

People have different reasons for volunteering. To retain volunteers you need to understand their motivations for volunteering and how you can embrace them.

Ongoing training and regular support meetings are good ways of retaining volunteers. Some volunteers enjoy being given development responsibilities or being recognised for their impact on the organisation’s work.

Ending a volunteer placement

Having clear policies and procedures help offset a lot of issues that can arise with volunteers. However, occasionally there are situations where it becomes clear that a volunteer placement should not continue. This can be challenging for everyone involved and usually will be when all other options have been tried, such as a change of role, the provision of additional support or training.

Often ending volunteering placements are to do with a volunteer is no longer capable of carrying out their role or due to gross misconduct. In these cases it’s important to take a planned and caring approach.

When deciding to end a placement it’s important to be able to describe what the issues are clearly. Communicating clearly and being able to refer to specific examples is crucial. Refer back to written records, any existing guidelines and information, such as a code of conduct, to allow you to be clear and specific about what the problem is.

The legal stuff

The full guide covers insurance, equality and diversity - which we also covered in our The New Museum Tool Kit and data protection.

This introduction to the law surrounding volunteer covers some basic information.

Who can volunteer with you?

The good news is that lots of people can volunteer for your organisation. People from within the European Union (EU) or European Economic Areas (EEAs) can become volunteers in Scotland.

Those outside of the EU and EEAs need the right kind of visa to volunteer in Scotland. For exceptions and special rules, contact UK Visa and Immigration or read the full volunteer guide.

Take special considerations when accepting volunteers aged 16 or below, including:

  • Checking your insurance covers younger volunteers
  • Ensuring that you have support systems in place for under-16s
  • The right kinds of opportunities for children volunteering
  • Written consent from parents or guardians
  • Appropriate child protection

Do not create a contract with volunteers, so you can distinguish between volunteers and employees. Policies should demonstrate the unique role of a volunteer and documents should be named agreements, roles and responsibilities rather than contracts.

Don't pay your volunteers as that risks creating a contract. It is good practice to pay out-of-pocket costs, although you should only refund exact expenses.

The benefits system

It is perfectly acceptable for people to be volunteering whilst receiving state benefits of any kind. Indeed it is recognised that volunteering can enhance people’s skills, knowledge and all round health as well as improve job prospects and career pathways.

People must continue to meet any conditions that come with the particular benefits they receive. It is the individual person’s responsibility to be aware of any rules affecting the amount or type of volunteering they can do.

It is good practice to reimburse volunteers for expenses incurred as a result of their volunteering but important to ensure that you are not accidentally creating a contract of employment in any way. This can happen if volunteers are, for example, give a flat rate for some regular activity that does not mirror the actual costs they incur as volunteers. This could be viewed as contravention of minimum wage legislation.

Reimbursing volunteers for anything other than the actual expenses incurred whilst volunteering may also place a volunteers benefits at risk.

Legitimate expenses include:

  • Travel to and from the volunteering venue, as well as travel that is part of the placement
  • Meals during volunteering
  • Postage and telephone costs
  • Care of children and other dependants during the period of voluntary work
  • The cost of protective or special clothing

Child and adult protection

Your organisation has a responsibility to ensure that children and vulnerable adults are protected from harm and abuse. From February 2011, the Scottish Government introduced a new membership scheme to replace and improve upon existing disclosure arrangements for people who work with vulnerable groups (children and adults).

Make sure all volunteers are fully cleared with Disclosure Scotland's PVG scheme.

The PVG legislation identifies areas of activity that are classed as regulated work and common areas are as follows:

  • Caring for children and adults
  • Teaching, instructing, training or supervising children
  • Being in sole charge of children
  • Unsupervised contact with children
  • Providing advice or guidance to children

Health and safety

Organisations have a duty of care towards their volunteers which includes taking reasonable steps to avoid harm coming to volunteers. As well as assessing and addressing risks there are a number of areas you should address. The Health and Safety Executive (HSE) has lots of information about ways to ensure health and safety is a priority with robust structures supporting it.

Things to cover include:

  • Having a health and safety policy
  • Having a nominated person responsible for health and safety
  • Providing suitable training and support for volunteers
  • Reviewing health and safety in relation to volunteers regularly