For Arts Nonprofits, What’s the Value of a Volunteer?


When I was a kid, my mother was invited to join the Junior Women’s Committee of the Art Gallery of Ontario. It was a social group, but they were very helpful to the AGO, most notably because they started and ran an excellent program whereby members could rent paintings from the collection. I can’t imagine such a group running such a program these days, but I’ve been thinking about volunteers and volunteerism in the arts and how often it does not work so well.

A couple of years ago my firm was hired to develop a strategic plan for the Metropolitan Opera Guild. It was formed in 1935 under the leadership of Eleanor Robson Belmont as the original philanthropic arm of the Met, to attract support for it.

Why do organizations, agencies and government engage volunteers?

By the time we were hired, the Guild’s annual fundraising proceeds satisfied a small fraction of the organization’s overall funding needs, representing the lowest level of Metropolitan Opera membership and still doing many of the same things in the same ways — running backstage tours, hosting special events, organizing talks. Through the leadership of Stewart Pearce, it was also doing some new things that were much more progressive, from publishing Opera News magazine to the design and delivery of a very good set of education and outreach programs. Still, the relationship between the Met and the Guild was very tense, especially after a couple of critical reviews of Met productions in the magazine. Though the Guild was formed by and for the Met, there was a surprising level of confusion amongst Guild staff and board members as to whether their primary mission was to serve the Met or the field of opera as a whole.

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It’s amazing how often we see strained relations and bad behavior between arts organizations and the volunteer groups they’ve formed. We were working in Carmel, CA, a few years ago, where the Sunset Center for the Arts had formed a volunteer group to manage concessions and ushering in their 800-seat theater. The deal was that the group would annually deliver (with great fanfare) the proceeds of their activities back to the operating entity. But when we arrived, the group claimed it had the right to donate those proceeds to other nonprofits, despite the fact that all the money collected came from activities in the theater.

Virtually every time we are hired by a city to undertake some form of cultural planning, a city staffer informs us on the first day of the assignment that we’ll have to figure out how to get rid of the “Cultural Arts Committee” or the Arts Council or whatever they call the private-sector volunteer leadership group that was formed to advance the arts in their community.

What’s going on? First of all, the formation of these groups — whether by arts organizations or by local government — is often flawed in that their mandate is far too vague; there are typically few mechanisms for monitoring and evaluating the group and its activities.

Some groups, left to their own devices, will become a cauldron of intrigue and battles for power and control, while others will simply run out of gas.

There is also often an attitude coming from the sponsoring organization that because volunteers aren’t paid, there is limited ability to ask for much and low expectations about what they can and will do for the organization, either individually or within a volunteer-based group. So let’s change that.

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We have to stop talking about money and start talking about value. Although volunteers are not being paid, there receive value from the sponsoring organization in return for the value they deliver. Too often volunteers don’t feel valued by the organization benefiting from their time and energy.

Why do people volunteer in the arts?

Lots of people have time on their hands and want to fill their days and nights with interesting activities and people. Many people want to be around the arts, to see the performances, to hang out with artistic people, to be a part of something good. Sometimes volunteer programs can be great ways to network, to build new business or social relationships. Sometimes the motivation can be purely altruistic. But even here there is value in that the organization provides a way to satisfy that basic need to act unselfishly.

And on the other side: why do organizations, agencies and government engage volunteers? Most often it’s because there are things that need to be done, from stuffing envelopes to ushering audiences, and a sense that volunteers might be willing and able to do that work. Arts groups are attracted to the idea that volunteers become fans and effective marketers of their work. And government works better when there is civic engagement in the development and execution of cultural policy and programs.

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Now let’s try to put these two pieces together. Let’s pretend we’re a small dance company. What is our value proposition to prospective volunteers?

  • Seeing our wonderful performances;
  • Watching or attending rehearsals or classes;
  • Coming to fabulous fundraisers with our dancers;
  • Meeting choreographers, designers and other creative souls;
  • Hanging out with other like-minded dance fans;
  • Participating in the effort to improve lives through our outreach and education programs.

What value could volunteers deliver to our organization?

  • Ushering, ticket taking and other services at performances;
  • Administrative support in the office;
  • Organizing and executing fundraising events;
  • Helping with education and outreach programs;
  • Running and/or supporting our social media programs;
  • Promoting our shows and programs to their friends.

If the value I’m offering is close to the value I’m receiving, there should be the basis for a relationship. As the lists above show, there are easy ways to match what we might need with what volunteers might want. Now the challenge is to invest in that relationship to ensure, on an ongoing basis, that we’re each get what we want and need. Simply put, volunteers must be trained, supervised and evaluated as if they were employees.

I’ll pick this up again next month, looking specifically at great volunteer programs and how the basic relationship between volunteer and organization can be improved to provide more value to the sector. Needless to say, I’d love to hear from anyone who has some ideas on this.