John Kearns
Mia de Tarczynski
Narelle Tunks
Justine van Mourik
Maryanne Voyazis
Publication date: 
Thursday, 1 January, 2009

In 2006, 1.4% of the Australian population or about 207,000 people volunteered with cultural organisations. These cultural volunteers worked a total of 30.6 million hours in art galleries, museums, libraries, performing arts groups and festivals.

Volunteers in Australian cultural institutions give generously of their time in order to further the goals of the institution in which they choose to dedicate their resources. In turn, institutions provide staffing and structures to support their volunteers. Many of these programs have been running for decades, they have a high degree of support from senior management and enjoy very positive attraction and retention rates from volunteers.

It is for these reasons that the focus of this project is how to best maximise the benefits of volunteering for both volunteers and national cultural institutions.

The terms of reference for this project were to:

  • establish a better understanding of the expectations and responsibilities of volunteers and institutions with a view to increasing the effectiveness of the relationship;
  • analyse current policy and governance structures in cultural institutions and examine the relationship between volunteer programs and human resources.
  • use the research to develop content for inclusion in a best practice model that would guide the management of volunteers throughout the volunteer life cycle by encompassing recruitment, induction, performance management and retirement of volunteers.

Whilst it is clear that volunteer programs are valued by institutions, visitors and volunteers, it is important to acknowledge that these programs do not come without cost and that there may be times where the relationship between a volunteer and an institution may not evolve or continue as anticipated or can deteriorate. It is therefore recommended that a risk management approach be adopted in the management of volunteers in order to manage the risks associated with volunteer engagement and obtain the best result for both institution and volunteer.

A significant number of volunteers walk through the doors of each cultural institution every day to deliver visitor programs vital to the success of the institution. It can be argued that this investment of ‘free time’ requires a complementary outlay in people management structures and processes. The research undertaken provided insight into the issues surrounding people management activities when running a volunteer program and identified the following as needing attention:

  • the informal basis upon which many volunteers are engaged;
  • uncertainty surrounding duty statements and behavioural expectations and how they relate to performance appraisals;
  • lack of clarity around the expectations and management of fitness for duty issues; and
  • lack of clarity around the maximum size of the volunteer programs able to be supported by the institutions either through identified business needs or the level of program management resources.

The main findings from the research illustrate that all cultural institutions have strong policies, guidelines and procedures that govern the management of volunteers. However, no single policy comprehensively covers all issues that cultural institutions and their volunteer managers should be aware of, particularly in relation to human resource management issues.

Human Resource departments surveyed have indicated that they can play a vital role in providing advice on risk mitigation strategies for volunteer programs through the establishment of medical assessments to establish fitness for duty of new volunteers, a greater involvement in ensuring that volunteers adhere to the Australian Public Service (APS) Code of Conduct and maintaining active involvement in OH&S awareness and incident management where applicable.

Based on the results from the research, the project team has identified issues for further deliberation and also content for consideration in a best practice model. This report includes six recommendations for consideration when preparing volunteer policies, guidelines and procedures. These include the formation of a comprehensive policy document, aspects of governance, recruitment, induction, performance management and exit strategies. The project team recommends that institutions review the findings with a view to adopting some or all of the recommendations contained within this report in the next 12 months, or when policies, guidelines and procedures are next reviewed.