The Five Components of a Great Museum Volunteer Program

Interview with Fran Mast, Research & Evaluation Associate at Shedd Aquarium

As a museum professional, I’m always looking for opportunities to expand my horizons and I’ve found that volunteering is a great way to gain experience outside of my job. One of my volunteer gigs is at the Shedd Aquarium, where I collect and analyze data for the Research and Evaluation (R&E) department. I have found my work at the Shedd to be an incredibly enriching experience.

I wanted to learn more about how the Shedd’s R&E team developed such a great volunteer program, so I sat down with Fran Mast, R&E Associate, to get the inside scoop.

R&E Team at the Shedd Holiday Party

Fran has worked at the Shedd for nine years. During that time, she has published her research in Exhibitionist and Curator. Devoted to helping her colleagues, Fran is on the board of the Chicago Museum Exhibitors Group and speaks regularly at the Visitor Studies Association and the Association of Zoos and Aquariums conferences. At the Shedd, Fran works closely with Emily Grover, the R&E Coordinator, Casey Solomon-Filer, a R&E Associate, and Dr. Lindsay Maldonado, the Director of R&E. Fran also loves gardening, writing in her bullet journal, and hanging out with her cats.

Fran and I sat down in a Starbucks on a blustery Chicago day for an intimate conversation, volunteer to manager, about the Shedd’s R&E volunteer program. Below are five best practices for strengthening a volunteer program that I gleaned from out chat:

1. Give volunteers work that actively contributes to the organization.

I volunteer during my precious and limited free time because I believe in the organization’s mission. When I know that my efforts contribute to that mission, I am happy to keep working.

Nickel, the Shedd’s sea turtle and informal mascot, arrived at the Shedd after a former volunteer suggested the Aquarium would make a great home.

I feel a sense of pride knowing that the Shedd depends on my data collection and analysis to improve visitor experiences. The R&E team’s findings are integral to many aspects of the aquarium, especially education and exhibit development. As Fran told me, “we are the voice of the visitor.”

2. Make the volunteer experience educational.

In exchange for my time, I expect to learn new skills. By teaching volunteers, institutions not only give volunteers a concrete personal reason to keep helping out, but also improve the work they perform.  

The Shedd’s R&E online volunteer training program, much of which Fran authored, helps volunteers develop their technical skills. Coming from an education background, Fran knew she “needed a clear plan and activities” in order to effectively train people. The R&E training program employs a gradual release model. It starts with the onus on staff and seasoned volunteers and the newbie gradually builds up skill by conducting exercises and observing others.

Me at a volunteer post collecting data on the Shedd’s 4-D Experiences

As a volunteer, I have found Fran’s training program invaluable to beefing up my data skills. Fran has observed that many volunteers share my experience. “The trainings made a significant difference in terms of data quality,” she related. “People have a better idea of baseline expectations. Before the training, there were occasional sampling issues. With interviews, we’d get one or two word answers and volunteers would not ask probes. Now our sampling is very reliable and volunteers are great at following up in interviews.”

3. Tailor the volunteer experience to the needs of each volunteer.

When I know an organization is personally invested in my growth, I become personally invested in the wellbeing of the institution.

At the Shedd, Fran and the whole of the R&E team actively look for opportunities to tailor the program to volunteers’ interests. For instance, while most volunteers do not conduct data analysis and qualitative coding, there are trainings available for coding and the team hopes to build out more robust trainings quantitative analysis and data visualization in the year to come. These trainings will allow more volunteers to help with these areas if it interests them.

4. Treat volunteers as a part of your team.

According to Fran, finding, “a sense of community” is a main reason why people volunteer. Therefore, it is vital to ensure volunteers “feel like they’re included.”

The belugas are a favorite at the Shedd, especially right now because the beluga Mauyak is pregnant!

I love that Shedd R&E volunteers are central not only to the team’s work, but also to the team’s social fabric. Fran, Emily, Casey, and Lindsay plan quarterly social events where there is no social distinction between volunteers, part time staff, and full time staff. At the Shedd holiday party, we all took a lovely team picture together. When I asked Fran how the R&E team cultivated the department’s inclusive culture, she told me, “I think it was just that we really enjoyed all of our volunteers as people. They brought interesting things to the table and they were interesting individuals who we wanted to cultivate relationships with. We’re people who love people by the nature of our work.”

5. Have fun!

Most volunteers are people with day jobs. We don’t volunteer to repeat our 9-5 experience. When I have fun while volunteering, I am motivated to keep spending my free time doing it.

As Fran related, “we do serious work and we want to do it well and we also want to have some fun while we’re doing it.”

* All views expressed in this article are my own and do not represent the opinions of the Shedd Aquarium or of any entity which I am now, have been, or will be affiliated


2 thoughts on “The Five Components of a Great Museum Volunteer Program

Add yours

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

Blog at

Up ↑

%d bloggers like this: