Two years ago, I wrote a post about what were my experiences to date with the volunteer culture so inherent in the arts. It’s a rant against the frustrations of a system in which passion and knowledge didn’t seem to matter as much as ticking the box by working for free to prove commitment.
Two years later, and my fundamental opinion that it’s a shitty situation to force those who can least afford it into is unchanged. It’s allowing exploitation to become the new normal, where even the biggest and best-funded organisations think its fine to ask people to do a JOB for FREE (remember the V&A ‘volunteer curator‘ pisstake?). And yet because of the barriers to entering the sector in other way, there’s no shortage of willing – though perhaps not always strictly financially able – people to step into these roles.
I went in for volunteering because I was taking Major Life Decisions and wasn’t sure exactly where to go, and it gave me the headspace to work out what that was. I got a better understanding of what museum life actually was before settling into a path. I can still be negative – it’d be better if these were paid entry-level positions.
I’d never contest the fact that I was in a lucky position going in – I had some savings and a job where working part-time paid me (just about) enough to live on. But I’ve managed to entirely transition career – something which barely seemed possible 18 months ago – partially as a direct consequence as volunteering. Is it weird that there’s part of me that slightly annoyed that working within an unfair system has turned out for the best? At the very least, feeling some responsibility coming with my good fortune, I’d like to share with you some of my thoughts on what worked and what didn’t. If you’re going to volunteer, make it time spent wisely – avoid dead ends.
When I look back on the last two years, here’s the things that I became more bloody-minded about sticking to. Maybe there’s something here to learn from. Maybe not. As ever, let me know what you think.
1. Do you need to volunteer?
Are you working on projects outside of the museum system that your time would be better be spent developing into the biggest and best things they can be? If so, you’re probably better off sticking with those. Like I said, I wasn’t sure exactly what I wanted to get out of the whole thing when I started, so it suited me. If you have big ideas, there might be other ways of making your dreams a reality.
2. Make sure everyone knows why you’re doing it…
If you’re doing it for the CV, tell the organisation you’re with exactly what that is. I really should say that that most of the people who will have responsibility for you as a volunteer recognise that the system is unfair, and are willing to help you out as much as they can. Be open with what it is you want so you both get the best out of it.
3. …and that they care.
This isn’t actually my experience, but I’ve met people who have spent time volunteer with various organisations and have much worse experiences than mine with organisations who take their volunteers for granted, as bodies or dogsbodies. Unless you’re fitting into a role you can get something out of, think very carefully about whether you need to stick around somewhere like this.
4. Set your boundaries.
If an organisation has a pool of free labour, it’s tempting for them to tap into it for a whole range of jobs, from litter picking to running the Instagram. Before you jump in to any of these, ask yourself who benefits. Is it an experience you can put to good use or put on a CV in the future? If you’re doing regular shifts anyway, do you get brownie points – and do they matter?
5. Have fun..!
Let me end by sticking to my 2019 resolution to be more positive positive. I met loads of fun, talented people who came with a range of motivations, interests and life experiences. You’re in it together: help build each other up. Share ideas, plan projects, ask for help and give advice where you can. Everything I’ve said is about making the most of what can be a frustrating situation, and the people you meet are one of the best ways of getting the most out of of it.