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Volunteers in Education and Interpretation - The American Experience

Number 18 - July 1999
I. Darwin Edwards

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In the summer of 1998 I spent six weeks on the west coast of United States and Canada visiting a variety of public organisations where volunteers were actively involved in environmental education or interpretation. The trip was made possible through the generous support of a Winston Churchill Travelling Fellowship. The aim was to learn from the American experience in recruiting, training and managing education volunteers. The idea was prompted by a proposed plan to increase the number of education volunteers at the Royal Botanic Garden Edinburgh (RBGE) - an idea which has since become a reality.

My American itinerary covered six cities - San Francisco, Santa Barbara, Portland (Oregon), Seattle, Vancouver and Victoria and included nineteen top class zoos, botanic gardens, museums, marine aquaria and national parks. There were, of course, similarities in the way volunteers were managed at various organisations but there were also many differences, which provided the study with interesting comparisons.

What do Volunteers do in America?

The above question could be answered quite simply with two words: "Virtually everything!" During my discussions with volunteer organisers I found volunteers doing a wide variety of jobs from serving in bookshops to servicing the plumbing! I encountered educational volunteers (usually called docents in America) welcoming visitors, leading guided tours, giving talks, providing demonstrations and working with school groups. Although they most often operated on site, some docents were also involved in outreach programmes. One of the most attractive volunteer jobs I encountered was campsite host with the National Parks Service in California’s Kings Canyon. Retired people with their own recreational vehicles spend up to two months each summer living rent free on campgrounds helping other campers enjoy their visit . This is a voluntary job I want to do in my retirement!

Some places with very large numbers of visitors have found that guided tours are impractical and have opted instead for static interpretative stations. The docents often use visual aids, artifacts or "biofacts" (bits of living organisms, such as skulls, bones, pelts or seed pods) to help tell a story relevant to the exhibit or area. At Monterey Bay Aquarium (MBA) the 2 million people who visit each year can experience a dialogue between a docent and volunteer diver. The docent takes questions from visitors which are answered in turn, via an intercom system, by the diver who is hand-feeding fish and sharks inside a huge glass tank.

Who Volunteers and Why?

In North America, and especially on the Pacific coast of the USA and Canada, the tradition of volunteering in the community is deeply ingrained within society. Volunteers are from all walks of life and ages. The youngest volunteer I met was 13 years old and the oldest in her eighties. There is no such thing as a typical volunteer but it is possible to divide most people into one of four broad groups:

  1. older, retired people or non-working partners in single income families
  2. younger people looking for work experience
  3. community service volunteers (from the scouts, clubs, companies, etc)
  4. teenage volunteers and student interns.

The first group includes many people who having moved to the west coast in retirement  have looked to volunteering to fill a space in their lives formerly filled by work or family. The latter group includes high school students who receive a basic training before helping other students on class visits. This novel mentoring system works well at Washington Park Zoo (WPZ), Portland, where teenagers run science stations as part of the Zoo Watch programme.

How are Volunteers Managed Within an Organisation?

Roger Yerke of WPZ told me "Without volunteers we would be dead in the water" and most of the education directors I met expressed a similar sentiment. Clearly volunteers are very much appreciated by core staff who they may outnumber by as much as 3:1. How the two groups interact with each other is crucial.

At MBA volunteers have similar terms and conditions as employees. Elsewhere, eg Santa Barbara Botanic Garden (SBBG), volunteers have been encouraged to form a more or less autonomous organisation with its own elected council, committees, constitution and programme. Former education director at SBBG, Mary Carroll, explained that she could offer professional advice and use her persuasive charm to influence the volunteer council but ultimately it is the elected representatives and not the staff who have the final word.

Partly the difference is historical. The volunteer scheme at SBBG started with only 16 volunteers ten years ago but now there are 75 docents and other volunteers working in positions throughout the Garden. As the volunteer organisation has grown it has gained more autonomy to limit the administration load on Sally Isaacson, the paid volunteer manager. A similar system of devolved management is found in the majority of organisations I visited.

In the case of MBA the volunteers came before the organisation. The Aquarium was financed by the Packard family (of Hewlett-Packard computers) and Mrs Packard was an active volunteer in a number of local institutions. She wanted the volunteers integrated into the structure from the beginning and so training the initial group of volunteers began two years before the doors of the MBA opened to the public.

Van Dusen Botanic Garden (VDBG) in Vancouver dates from 1966 when local people came up with a plan for a botanic garden to block property developers from building condominiums on the green field site. This group of residents eventually formed the VDBG Association which manages the Garden along with City of Vancouver Park Board. Both the organisations have offices and paid staff on site but despite potential problems the sharing of responsibilities between volunteers, paid staff, the City and the Association seems to work well.

What are Some of the Costs of a Volunteer Programme?

Although volunteers are, by definition, unpaid I was constantly reminded that they are not free. Some of the volunteer costs include:

  • staff time - recruiting, training and administering volunteers
  • materials, eg volunteer handbooks
  • uniforms
  • incentives - social functions, long service awards, free admission
  • insurance
  • travel expenses

In order to be effective the benefits accrued from using volunteers must outweigh the costs to an organisation. Only two of the organisations I visited have carried out a financial analysis. MBA calculate the cost at $5.80/hour, while at WPZ it is a modest $0.90/day. Despite the big difference both organisations feel this represents good value for money.

What Has Happened Since I Arrived Home?

North America and Britain are culturally very different and while volunteering is clearly very successful in the western United States and Canada I couldn't assume that it would be as successful in Scotland. However, in the seven months since my American trip I have been working with colleagues in the Public Education Department of the RBGE to recruit and train a team of volunteers to work in the Garden's busy exhibition hall. Volunteers now provide an interface between the Garden and the public by greeting visitors with a friendly welcome, answering questions, helping people get the most from the hands-on exhibits and carrying out routine maintenance. The current team of 35 exhibition hall volunteers are already proving to be every bit as valuable as their American counterparts. I suspect it will not be very long until we wonder how we ever managed without their willing and generous support.

For those of you already making use of volunteers in education and interpretation what I have written above will not come as a revelation. However, I believe everyone benefits from seeing how things happen in other parts of the world and I wonder if you know volunteers who would like to exchange ideas with the new and enthusiastic recruits at Edinburgh? Suggestions for setting up links with education volunteers in other places would be very welcome. For an immediate response contact me on email at i.edwards@rbge.org.uk

Volontaires en Education et Interprétation : l’Expérience Américaine.

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Aux USA les volontaires travaillent aux côtés du personnel permanent dans les jardins botaniques et autres institutions publiques. Les volontaires dans le domaine de l’éducation appelés docents (guides qualifiés) s’occupent des visites guidées, se rendent dans les écoles, et aident le personnel permanent à monter des expositions ou des panneaux d’interprétation. Le recrutement, la formation et la gestion de larges équipes de volontaires est pris en charge de façon professionnelle en prenant en considération les divers aspects suivants : satisfaction du travail, reconnaissance personnelle, et problèmes d’hygiène et sécurité.

Aux USA les volontaires travaillent aux côtés du personnel permanent dans les jardins botaniques et autres institutions publiques. Les volontaires dans le domaine de l’éducation appelés docents (guides qualifiés) s’occupent des visites guidées, se rendent dans les écoles, et aident le personnel permanent à monter des expositions ou des panneaux d’interprétation. Le recrutement, la formation et la gestion de larges équipes de volontaires est pris en charge de façon professionnelle en prenant en considération les divers aspects suivants : satisfaction du travail, reconnaissance personnelle, et problèmes d’hygiène et sécurité.

Un volontaire s’implique pour différentes raisons et il est important de comprendre ce qu’il attend de cette expérience et de voir ce qu’à son tour il peut offrir. Toutes les organisations consultées aux USA pensent que l’emploi de volontaires est intéressant financièrement mais pas entièrement dénué de charges financières et que ces charges doivent être correctement évaluées avant de s’engager plus avant.



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