‘Search for the Stars’ aims to transfer all of The Food Museum’s collection data over from paper record cards onto an online collections management system, creating a free public catalogue of the museum’s collection of c.40,000 objects, accessible through our website.
We began this project in 2018 thanks to funding from the Esmée Fairbairn Collections Fund and the Headley Trust. We choose to use a cloud-based collections management system called eHive as it gave us the ability to work with remote volunteers. This has meant lots of different people can feed into our collections work. To date, we’ve worked with over 550 volunteers from over 25 different countries, including people based all across the UK. Over 75% of our volunteers are aged 20–34, which hugely differs to our usual volunteer demographic which tends to be more retirement age. So far 38,000 records have been transferred over and we’re set to complete this work this year thanks to all our volunteer’s contributions.
It’s also given us a wonderful opportunity to work with people from across the world and have lots of new voices in our collections work.
2.1 Write a really clear role profile
Similar to a job description but for volunteers, clearly stating it is not legally binding or an employment contract. Make sure to make it clear that this role is remote and what the requirements are for it – for example access to a laptop/computer and the internet. The one I created explains the project, gives the potential volunteer an idea of the skills they will learn and develop, as well as what kind of experience the role requires. Think about what skills you want people to have already and how the role would benefit them.
2.2 Consider who might be interested in your role
Think about what the role offers people and who it might appeal to. For example, with our role the online nature of it means it can be done at any time of the day meaning it’s possible for people to fit around their commitments such as work, studying and childcare. Who the role suits will determine where is best to recruit.
2.3 Registration and monitoring
Although it may take a little while to get lots of possible participants, you may end up with an influx of volunteers so it’s good to put processes in place to deal with this. I have a spreadsheet database I update when new volunteers contact me which monitors where they are in the recruitment process, recording dates such as ‘first contact’, ‘interview date’ and ‘registration documents received’.
When it comes to registering volunteer details, make it as simple as possible. I have found online tools the easiest and most time efficient for both parties to use. I use SurveyMonkey but Google Forms is a really good cost-free alternative. Both of these allow you to download a report so you can keep track of volunteer data and not waste time copying and pasting information over.
Depending on your project, there are certain permission documents you will want to ask digital volunteers to complete upon registration, such as data protection and secure storage of data. I send these as separate forms but for ease these could be included in the online survey.
Here is a list of places I have used to recruit digital volunteers which I have had success with:
University of Leicester Museum Studies Jobs Desk
University of Leicester Museum Studies Jobs Desk ― this had to be first on my list because this is the best platform I’ve found so far. I’ve not only recruited most of our remote volunteers through here but this is also where we have been able to get an international reach, as well as national. It’s really easy and free to add a role to and it is updated every Thursday (just make sure to get the role in before 12 noon the Thursday before). I’ve also found that many volunteers through this forum are current or past students in Museum Studies or similar and have already got basic skills in collections management, which makes training a bit quicker.
Depending on the platform used social media has helped us to reach people nationally as well as locally. We’ve found Facebook and Twitter are the best but we always put recruitment posts on Instagram as well, as that has a slightly younger audience. We haven’t tried TikTok yet but I want to try this next.
Screenshots of Instagram stories to promote the volunteer role at The Food Museum (formerly Museum of East Anglian Life). Images courtesy of The Food Museum©
Volunteer recruitment sites
Do-it and Reach Volunteering are countrywide recruitment sites specifically for volunteering and they are free to use. Volunteer Suffolk is specific to our county but there would be similar organisations for other regions. We use Volunteer Suffolk to advertise for all our voluntary roles so I’ve had to ensure it’s really clear that this role is looking for people specifically who want to work from home.
Universities and Colleges
If like us you’d like to recruit a younger demographic then I’ve found this to be a good option. I’ve reached out to local universities and colleges and they have posted about the role to their students and alumni. This has gained volunteers who are usually interested in getting sector experience for their CV, some of whom already have relevant experience.
Next Door App
Next Door App ― this is similar to a village noticeboard but it’s all online and anyone from your locality can put posts up. I used this to recruit local people who wanted to work remotely. I’ve found this opportunity appealed to people who had wanted to volunteer at the museum for years but couldn’t due to working full-time. It’s also free to use.
Meet Up ― This website helps online groups organise online or in person meet-ups. We used this to run introductory sessions with groups of people and found that some did sign-up to become volunteers after doing this. There is more of a focus on the social side, but it is a good way in to your project for people who are new to it ― just be aware there is a subscription fee to use it.
Don’t forget the volunteers you already have at your organisation, they can be trained up with digital skills. Because we’d stopped in-person volunteering for this project many of my onsite volunteers were happy to move over onto the digital realm and have got on brilliantly. It won’t be for everyone, of course, but don’t write anyone off.
I wanted to ensure I didn’t just have email communications back and forth with volunteers as I felt I couldn’t build rapport without actually speaking to them. Therefore every new volunteer will get a phone call (or video call) so that we can speak to them about the project in more depth, and find out about their motivations for volunteering and their skills. I can then determine how much guidance they might need when it comes to the training as it’s more difficult to support someone based remotely.
Although I can’t give my online volunteers the same induction as those coming on site would receive I make sure to still send them over our volunteer handbook, various policies and a staff chart so they know who the museum team are. I also explain how the registration and training process works and tell them about the monthly newsletters I will be sending to them with updates on the museum and the project to ensure they feel in the loop and part of the team.
When sending out work to volunteers we scan or photograph record cards and allocate a set amount to each volunteer using Dropbox – this is a great tool because you can choose to give only certain people permission and access is super easy to grant through a link. It also means people don’t have to download the photographs to their own computers so it helps with storage issues.
When volunteers contact me to ask for another batch of records it gives me a good opportunity to check-in with them to ask how they are finding the project.
To keep track of progress I ask my volunteers to tell me the number of hours spent volunteering and the number of records they’ve worked on at the end of each month within a monthly newsletter. This was originally done with time consuming Word documents sent over via emails, but I soon changed this to an online Google Sheets so volunteers could input the information themselves. This helped me during particularly busy periods but isn’t without fault, as volunteers could easily erase other people’s data (luckily this hasn’t happened but it’s good to check on the spreadsheet and take back-ups).
I write monthly e-newsletters to all my volunteers to give them an update of the project, ask them for their stats for the month and also give them more general museum updates. You do need to consider how different the experience is for a volunteer not working at the museum and try and find ways to integrate them into the team. In the past, we’ve done things like creating videos of the museum with staff members thanking them for their work, running online workshops asking for feedback about our collection, and delivering our briefings online instead of in-person. Some good examples from other museums are running regular online ‘tea breaks’ to get groups of volunteers together or have something like a Facebook group where volunteers can share what they are working on and interact with each other.
I’ve been collecting testimonials from volunteers throughout the project and I would highly recommend you do the same. Not only is it helpful for showing stakeholders the impact of the project, it’s also a brilliant way to find out how volunteers find the project. I have used these for many things including; to help with recruitment and to share the project with other organisations.
For more information download ‘Search for the Stars’ case study report which explains in more detail how the The Food Museum (formerly know as Museum of East Anglian Life) tackled its digitisation backlog.
Please attribute as: "How to find digital volunteers to help you carry out your digital activities (2022) by Kate Knowlden supported by The Heritage Fund, licensed under CC BY 4.0