Most heritage attractions work hard to increase the diversity and reach of their visitor offer. These efforts can also provide an opportunity to reach a more diverse group of potential volunteers.  For example, outreach programmes provide an opportunity to raise awareness and potentially draw volunteers from community groups into the museum or heritage site itself.

This experience of Anneli Connold, Volunteer Co-ordinator at The Bishop’s Palace illustrates how a development project to make the site more accessible to visitors is also helping to attract a wider range of volunteers.

The Bishop’s Palace is a medieval palace and historic ruins in Wells, Somerset, surrounded by a moat and with 14 acres of gardens. Volunteers have long been involved, but as with many such heritage sites it has, until recent years, tended to attract fairly traditional middle class volunteers and visitors.

As part of an HLF funded project to develop the site, to improve the visitor offer and make it more accessible, The Palace Trust, the registered charity which manages the site, has developed a community garden. This project includes elements such as a sensory trail around the gardens. It provided an ideal springboard for opening up volunteering opportunities, and Anneli shares her learning from the project.

Consider the involvement of volunteers from the outset

Anneli’s long term vision would be to see an established organisational mindset where it’s perfectly normal to have a cross section of people volunteering: “For me, lots of positive examples are important – if it’s happening and it works, the staff and trustees will get absorbed and it becomes the norm.”

The project aimed from the outset to involve volunteers from all walks of life in the new community garden. This included practical steps such as building raised beds at wheelchair heights. By considering the involvement of volunteers with support needs within the wider remit of the project aims, Anneli has seen attitudes and awareness start to change: “It wasn’t on the agenda before.”

Volunteers with special needs, e.g. visual impairment, have been involved in consultation and their ideas taken on board.

For Community Gardener Amanda Clay, it is about volunteers joining in as equals: “I don’t want people to feel they’re really different, they join in with what others are doing.”

Ask “What can we do?”

The project has helped with challenging stereotypes and questioning assumptions that people with physical or other disabilities can’t contribute.

Anneli suggests looking at things on a case by case basis, looking positively at what each volunteer could bring, and also asking what’s within the organisation’s capacity: “It’s about having an open mind to see what we can do… but also about accepting that some roles won’t work for some people. If you can’t answer yes, that’s ok.”

Be flexible

Anneli points out that people may approach an organisation in to volunteer in one role, but even if that proves difficult to accommodate, another position might work.

She suggests looking across the whole organisation and speaking with staff in different departments: What projects are coming up? Can someone work from home? Could you use a different work space? For example, it may be that public areas are accessible but volunteers and staff do back of house work on an upper floor. Could a work station be moved?

Help volunteers support each other

The Bishop’s Palace have involved visitor service volunteers with learning disabilities who steward and the solution was to buddy them up with another visitor service volunteer.

The community garden project actively recruited some volunteers with the skills to mentor other, less able volunteers.

Refund expenses

Volunteer expenses are very important for accessibility. Payment of expenses not only allows those not in employment or on low incomes to participate, but can also bolster self esteem and show how people are valued.

This may include making additional concessions, for example a partially sighted community gardener at The Bishop’s Palace was only able to attend a volunteer social event if his mother was able to drive him in, so she was invited to attend the event free of charge.

It works both ways

It is not only the case that working to build a more diverse visitor profile strengthens access to volunteering.  The Bishop’s Palace has been working to engage more younger volunteers and experience is showing that young volunteers tend to be able to offer something to visitors in a same age bracket.  So one reinforces the other.

What can you do to encourage a positive spiral of engagement within your visitor and your volunteer base?

What do you think?