Digging deeper: volunteer satisfaction at The MERL and Reading Museum in 2022

Written by Sheila Fisher and Stéphanie Mitchell

At Reading Museum and The MERL (which together form Museums Partnership Reading), it’s important to us that our volunteers are happy and content. Without our volunteers’ amazing support, we wouldn’t be able to deliver the extent of the work that we do.  Volunteers greatly enhance a wide range of our programmes, making our collections and events more accessible to more people. They help us undertake projects and reach audiences that would otherwise not be possible, expanding and enriching our offer. And they help inform and shape how we operate, develop our programmes, and engage audiences.

Volunteers at Museums On Wheels.
A costumed interpreter dressed as Empress Matilda visits five Museums on Wheels volunteers at our roadshow at Reading Mela in August 2022.

People volunteer for many different reasons, whether as a personal journey, professional work experience, or to contribute to the local community.  But ultimately, each volunteer is giving their time to support the delivery of our programmes and support the work of our organisations. They have chosen us, and that’s something we feel enormously grateful for.

For us at MPR’s Volunteering HQ, it’s critical to understand how our volunteers feel about the volunteering they do, where we succeed in supporting them, and where we could support them better. This not only ensures we fulfil our duty of care, but also enables us to make any necessary changes so that our volunteering programmes can continue to thrive. So, when September came around again, it was time to invite our volunteers to complete our Annual Volunteer Satisfaction Survey. And when we received the results, they made for wonderful reading!

The results of our 2022 Volunteer Satisfaction Survey

From our regular team of over 140 volunteers, over half responded to the survey. We were delighted to see that 85% of respondents indicated that they were either very or extremely satisfied with their experience (rating their year as 8, 9 or 10 out of 10), with 42% of all respondents rating their experience 10 out of 10!

This chart shows that 42% of volunteers rated their experience 10 out of 10, 22% 9 out of 10, 21% 8 out of 10, 6% 7 out of 10, 1% 6 out of 10, 6% 5 out of 10, and 1% 0 out of 10.
This chart shows that 42% of volunteers rated their experience 10 out of 10, 22% 9 out of 10, 21% 8 out of 10, 6% 7 out of 10, 1% 6 out of 10, 6% 5 out of 10, and 1% 0 out of 10.

Did this translate to day-to-day satisfaction? Happily so! Our volunteers log hours by clocking in and out of a timeclock directly into our Better Impact volunteering platform on a tablet at reception, or on the app if they are volunteering virtually. When they have finished their activity for the day, volunteers are invited to rate their shift from 1-4, where 1 is ‘I loved it’. A summary of 743 of these Instant Feedback reports between April and September 2022 indicates that 97% of our volunteers are happy with their day-to-day volunteering experience.

  • 80% of volunteers told us they loved their shift.
  • 17% said they liked it
  • Just 3% were ambivalent about their shift, relating to 25 out of 743 shifts
This chart shows that 80% of volunteers Loved their shift, 17% liked it, 3% thought it was OK and no-one disliked their shift.
This chart shows that 80% of volunteers Loved their shift, 17% liked it, 3% thought it was OK and no-one disliked their shift.

Undertaking this review prompted us to dig a little deeper into the wider concept of volunteer satisfaction. We discovered J. Willems’ 2013 article focussing on a Practical Framework for a Volunteer Satisfaction Model, which identified the following types of volunteer satisfaction:

  • Aspiration satisfaction
  • Learning satisfaction
  • Recognition satisfaction
  • Social satisfaction
  • Task satisfaction

The article summarises how volunteer programmes that meet aspiration and learning goals can ‘enhance and boost commitment’ but that it ‘is important that organisations develop a broad portfolio of volunteer management practices that deal with all satisfaction types simultaneously’.

Task satisfaction

A significant contributor to high volunteer satisfaction in our museums centres around the work carried out by our amazing colleagues, who facilitate the day-to-day volunteering programme. Volunteers are supervised by at least 25 members of staff with whom there is regular contact, who identify interesting and varied tasks for volunteers to undertake. These range from providing additional layers of information for researchers and students, to keeping on top of weeds in The MERL garden, and bringing historic characters from Reading’s past to life. In 2022 alone, our volunteers have participated in 30 unique volunteer roles across The MERL and Reading Museum.

Three costumed interpreters are holding up pieces of paper which spell out ‘We Love Volunteering’. From left to right: Queen Elizabeth I, King Henry I and Empress Matilda.
Three costumed interpreters are holding up pieces of paper which spell out ‘We Love Volunteering’. From left to right: Queen Elizabeth I, King Henry I and Empress Matilda. (Credit: Chris Forsey)

Two volunteers scoured the WHSmith archives in the University of Reading Special Collections for a research project on behalf of the National Railway Museum. NRM are restoring a genuine Waterloo Station bookstall to its former glory as part of the Vision 2025 redevelopment of the Station Hall display in York. NRM conservators needed to know more about the materials and finishes used for WHSmith bookstalls that were once seen everywhere at railway stations and about the people who interacted with them.  The volunteers’ meticulous detective work was greatly appreciated by the conservators.  Along the way, the volunteers discovered that the very bookstall was exactly 100 years old this year.

You can read summaries of the volunteers’ favourite findings in their own words in these two blogs sharing what a fascinating experience it was for them. Discover the story of an extraordinary railway bookstall that will feature in the redeveloped Station Hall and explore the life of infamous WHSmith bookstall manager Mr Olney.

In this photo the Special Collections volunteers are looking through the WHSmith archives for evidence of the Waterloo Loop railway station bookstall.
In this photo the Special Collections volunteers are looking through the WHSmith archives for evidence of the Waterloo Loop railway station bookstall.

Recognition & Social Satisfaction

The opportunity to socialise and make friends is a key motivator for many of our volunteers. For the past four years, we set aside some of our budget each year to thank our volunteers by hosting at least two large catered gatherings during the year with a relaxed, convivial atmosphere. We also invite volunteers to coffee mornings and more tailored small gatherings for particular volunteer roles.

Museums Partnership Reading's spring garden party at The MERL.
Groups of volunteers enjoying the garden party in 2022.
The Special Collections' Modernist Archives Publishing Project Archivist hosted an in-person gathering with 100 envelope-shaped biscuits to celebrate volunteers' transcription of 100 different letters!
The Special Collections' Modernist Archives Publishing Project Archivist hosted an in-person gathering with 100 envelope-shaped biscuits to celebrate volunteers' transcription of 100 different letters!

Here is the project supervisor hosting an in-person gathering in which she baked 100 envelope-shaped biscuits to celebrate the first 100 letters transcribed for the Modernist Archives Publishing Project by our transcription volunteers. Sadly, our North American virtual contributors were not able to sample them.

Learning and aspiration satisfaction

Within our mission statement for volunteering, we state that:

One of the major aims of the partnership between The Museum of English Rural Life (The MERL) and Reading Museum is to offer volunteering opportunities to the local community to improve wellbeing, connect people to their personal histories and identities, and get to know more about Reading’s rich cultural heritage.

In the Volunteer Satisfaction Survey, we asked volunteers to tell us about the skills and knowledge they have gained while volunteering with us. The most frequently mentioned were:

  • 31% gained local knowledge of local history/heritage
  • 14% improved their confidence
  • 13% appreciated understanding how Museums work ‘backstage’
  • 11% developed interpersonal/communication skills
  • 10% gained archive and documentation skills
  • 35% of respondents agreed that ‘Volunteering with MPR has improved my employability.’

We’re delighted that volunteers confirmed that they have gained skills in these areas, and that we have been able to continue meeting our mission statement through the opportunities we facilitate.

Motivations vs Enjoyment

To dig deeper, we asked our volunteers to tell us about why they originally joined the programme, and what they most enjoyed. There was strong correlation between original motivations for joining the volunteering programme and the aspects that volunteers most enjoy, particularly in the top three categories: Specific interest in the field; gaining skills and experience; and socialising/ making new friends.

The top five categories were:

Motivation (count) Aspect most enjoyed (count)
Specific interest in the field 33 31
Gain skills or work experience 17 17
Socialise and make new friends 15 18
Giving back to my community in some way 15 13
Improved confidence 6 9

Where volunteers selected just one ‘Motivation on joining’ and one ‘Aspect most enjoyed’, 30% of the ‘Aspects most enjoyed’ exactly matched that person’s selected motivation. Where volunteers gave multiple answers for both, 61% of the ‘Aspects most enjoyed’ matched that person’s selected motivations. These responses strongly confirm that our MPR Volunteering Programme is fulfilling a wide range of types of satisfaction as outlined in Willems’ article, but in particular meeting the aforementioned (and harder to attain) goals of learning and aspiration.

Wellbeing

37% of respondents agreed that they began volunteering to improve their wellbeing, of whom 92% agreed that volunteering with us had improved their wellbeing. Inspired by fellow volunteer managers who include clear reference to the New Economics Foundation’s ‘Five Ways to Wellbeing’ in project evaluation, we now ask our volunteers additional questions about the Five Ways to Wellbeing in our Annual Survey. The survey results revealed very clear positive agreement that volunteering with us aligns with the five ways to wellbeing:

  • Connect: 80% agree they enjoy the company of other people when volunteering with Museums Partnership Reading; and 94% agree they enjoy meeting new people when volunteering with Museums Partnership Reading
  • Be Active: 28% agree volunteering with Museums Partnership Reading has increased their physical activity
  • Take Notice: 85% agree they enjoy engaging with local heritage when volunteering with Museums Partnership Reading
  • Keep Learning: 92% agree they have learned new things through volunteering with Museums Partnership Reading
  • Give: 94% agree they feel they make a worthwhile contribution to society through volunteering with Museums Partnership Reading

The NEF report’s conclusion concedes that ‘It is almost certainly the case that people will, to some extent, already be involved in specific activities under the overarching themes of connecting, being active, learning etc. Rather than encouraging a completely novel set of behaviours, the outcomes of a campaign of this kind are, therefore, more concerned with increasing the time people spend in activities known to enhance well-being’. It is strongly evident from our volunteer survey that individuals agree that participation in our volunteering programme provides access to a mix of activities that contribute to enhancing their wellbeing. It seems that in addition to meeting aspirational and learning goals, the icing on the cake is the maintenance of good wellbeing.

Volunteer voice

Finally, an ongoing source of satisfaction comes from the opportunity to contribute to the two museums’ forward development. We provide opportunities to ensure volunteers are a body who are consulted during the planning stages of projects.

A group of eight MPR volunteers participate in a focus group in a meeting room to advise staff.
A group of eight MPR volunteers participate in a focus group in a meeting room to advise staff.

Volunteers are invited to contribute to visitor surveys when we are planning significant changes to displays. During the lockdowns, 13 ‘Building Connections’ volunteers carried out deep-dive research into many of the objects in the themed galleries at The MERL. A number of QR codes are now in place throughout The MERL galleries which lead to written, audio and visual content of objects in the collections, developed through volunteer research. Eight volunteers attended a focus group in April 2022 to advise on the future of the volunteering programme, with a particular focus on diversity and environmental strategy. Seven volunteers attended a focus group in July, sharing invaluable feedback on improving the content for the interactive table exhibit at The MERL.

Four volunteers are playing the existing interactive table game to advise on its functionality.

The Volunteer Coordinator shared a summary of the Volunteer Satisfaction results with colleagues and volunteers through the MPR Volunteer Newsletter. As we enter 2023, we will continue to stay close to volunteer feedback to continue to build on these very encouraging results to ensure our volunteering opportunities remain interesting, fun and relevant to the local community!

To find out more about volunteering at The MERL or Reading Museum, please head to our volunteering page or contact our team if you have any queries.

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