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Volunteer Power!

Volunteer Power News — Number 47
Author: Thomas W. McKee
"Volunteer Power News" Monthly Newsletter

© 2007 Advantage Point Systems Publishing

Someone Doing It Right
Interview with Stephen Drew, Chief Curator for the California State Railroad Museum

Suggestions for getting the most out of this interview

Last month I visited Stephen Drew, the chief curator for the California State Railroad Museum in Sacramento. Stephen is such a wealth of volunteer management information that I was overwhelmed putting together this interview. Even though I trimmed and edited our one-hour interview, there is still a lot of information in this report.

So you might want to . . .

  • Scroll down to the topics that interest you most (see the outline below)
  • Or, get a cup of coffee and read the whole thing (really, there are some fantastic ideas and concepts in this interview).
  • Or, copy it and hand it out to your volunteer management staff for discussion, brainstorming, and application to your volunteer program.

These are some of the questions I asked Stephen about their volunteer program:

  • What is your background in volunteer management?
  • How many volunteers do you have?
  • What do your volunteers do?
  • Do you really get to drive a steam engine?
  • Do you really find your volunteers from the obituary page?
  • How do you interview and screen volunteers?
  • What do you do in the 80 hours of training?
  • What happens after the training?
  • How do you evaluate your volunteers?
  • What perks do you offer your volunteers?
  • What is the greatest motivation technique you use?
  • Have you ever fired a volunteer?
  • How do you keep professional volunteer project managers in line? And what projects do they lead?
  • Can you ever have too many volunteers?
  • What changes have you seen in volunteer management in the last ten years?


If you have never been in this Museum, it is incredible and you now have an excuse to stop by Old Sacramento on your next vacation to Sacramento, California. Visit the Capitol to try and see Arnold, the governator, and visit the Museum.

Tom: Steve, thank you for giving me this time to interview you. I always love to spend time with someone who is doing it right. My first question is about how you, a historian, got involved in volunteer management. You have a degree in history from The University of California in Berkeley. Now you work with volunteers. What experience did you have with volunteers that prepared you for your position at the museum?

Stephen: I think that my experience in working with volunteers has grown out of working in the church. I have been the organist at Fremont Presbyterian Church in Sacramento for the past 27 years. Prior to that I was organist at the Park Blvd. Presbyterian Church in Oakland and had the opportunity to lead the volunteer choir, to do the recruiting, and plan events. That is probably my first experience in recruiting and motivating volunteers, and that has translated into an enormously larger program at the museum.

Number of Volunteers

Tom: How many volunteers do you have here?

Stephen: We opened this museum on May 2, 1981, so we are now over 25 years old. In those 25 years we have trained over 1600 volunteers. The current roster is about 1300 volunteers, but the total active is about 875 volunteers who donate over 100,000 hours a year. Every year we have a banquet-kind of a recognition dinner--for every docent that has worked one-day-a month for a full year (that is 84 hours). We are having that banquet in April and are sending out over 500 invitations to docents who qualify.

Tom: What do your 875 volunteers so?

Stephen: We have two classes of volunteers. The first level of volunteers we call volunteers. I should say, just to make the clarification clear, a volunteer is someone who doesn't have contact with the public-they are the behind-the-scenes people. They might be working in the restoration shop or cataloguing in the library.

The second level is our docents. Docents are volunteers who have gone through a very specific 80-hour training in order to know the history of the railroads, the exhibits, information about our other venues such as Sutter's Fort and The Living History Museum and how to deal with the public. Not every volunteer is a docent, but every docent is a volunteer.

The docents are our largest labor force. The docents give the tours. They staff the major exhibits in the museum. When you visit the museum, you may see a uniformed California State Park paid staff person at the door, but once you enter the door you probably will never see another paid member of the staff. This museum is in the hands of our docents-they are the life blood of the museum. They make this institution.

You begin as a volunteer. Then you become a docent in the museum. That's our bread and butter. And if you are successful at being a docent in the museum, there are a number of programs in the next level up. Many of our programs are run totally by volunteers. We provide interpreters for Amtrak from here to Reno everyday. We run the interpretive hand-car program where kids go out and pump up and down on the tracks or ride motor cars or ride on the turn table. We have a living history museum staffed by our docents. Many of the museum programs are led, managed and staffed 100% by volunteers.

Driving the Steam Engine - the ultimate perk

Tom: Tell me about the rumor I have heard that you can work your way up to drive the steam engine. That sounds like a great perk.

Stephen: That's correct. The program that you are talking about is our Sacramento Southern Railroad excursion train program where we sell train rides on weekends from April through September for a seven mile round-trip train ride along the Sacramento River. And 125 volunteers run that entire program. You start as a car attendant. Then you can work your way up to a brakeman, to a conductor, a student fireman, a fireman, a student engineer and finally an engineer. The road foreman of engines, assistant general manager, general manager, all the track crews, and the signal maintainers are all volunteers. It is an incredible program.

Recruiting, Interviewing and Screening

Tom: Where do you find your volunteers?

Stephen: We recruit in a variety of ways. We have found that it is helpful to put a classified ad in the Sacramento Bee in the obituary page on the final week before the final sign up for classes.

Tom: Wait a minute. The obituary page???? I have heard of a lot of ways to advertise for volunteers, but never the obituary page.

Stephen: We have found that the people who have time to read the obituary page often have time to be a docent.

We also use the PBS station to advertise for docents. But obviously word of mouth is the most effective. With 626,000 visitors in the museum last year, we have a captive audience where we occasionally put up a sign,

We have docent training twice a year. Pick up a brochure to register for our next docent class.

Tom: For docents, you have the same requirement that you would have for a state employee?

Stephen: Absolutely. We have paid employees, and we have non-paid employees. Some of our unpaid employees have very responsible positions such as program managers. They sit at the staff table as equals when we all get together with our 22 program managers.

Tom: Do you screen applicants?

Stephen: Once they sign up, we do an interview process with a staff member and a couple of other docents so that they know what they are getting into. That seems to really cut down the attrition rate. We also do background checks, check with former employers and follow up on their references, but have not done fingerprinting, yet.

Tom: How long is that interview?

Stephen: It takes about half an hour to 45 minutes. The staff talks afterwards to evaluate and discuss how they think the person will make the commitment to the 80 hours of training. It is a pretty heavy commitment to go from a volunteer to a docent. If volunteers want to move to the next step and be with the public, they have to go through the docent training and get those additional skills, additional knowledge, and the background of the institution.


Tom: Eighty hours of training-that is a lot. Sounds like a couple of four-unit college courses.

Stephen: The docent handbook that we give out is about 250 pages. It covers the whole museum so they can answer the questions that come up from our visitors. It also covers how to deal with difficult audiences, folks that have language barriers, various hearing impairments, or how to deal with children. It also covers first aid and all of our policies and procedures.

During the training each student has to prepare three ten-minute talks and deliver them in front of the class. The last presentation we video tape and then play it back to give them feedback. It is all geared to try and get them to succeed.

Tom: After the 80 hours of training, then what happens?

Stephen: For the first six months the docent would be paired up with another docent-a mentor if you will. Actually every docent goes through the class with a mentor. Many of the docents specialize. Some are great at interpreting the facts. For example, we have some that love to work the mail car. They know 100 facts and figures about the routes (when did they start and what are the routes) and questions like, "Why is there a box for Billy Graham or for Sears and Roebucks?"

Others might be great facilitators who are able to get the visitors involved and extract questions from them during a tour. They are just wonderful. We ask them when they sign up to donate one day a month for a year.


Tom: Now you give evaluations, don't you?

Stephen: I don't, but the lead docents evaluate the docents. In fact, we really don't call them volunteers or docents. What we have here are employees in the museum. The only difference that we have are we have paid employees and we have unpaid employees. Every employee has a duty statement and every single employee, whether paid or not, has an evaluation in the course of the year. They get some feedback. So we have lead docents who go with them on tours and give them written feedback.

You know sometimes if you have been here a long time it is easy to embellish the story-tell history larger than it really is. So it is a good way to make sure that--not that you are sticking with the script because everybody has a lively talk to do--but it is a good way to keep every one honest and make sure that the quality is there. But I don't do those evaluations. I can't do that. There are only 45 paid staff and on any given day we will have 28 docents on the floor, so the lead docents do all of the docent evaluations.


Tom: What kind of perks, motivation if you will, do you have for your volunteers?

Stephen: They need their own space. They have their own lounge. They need information. I do a weekly newsletter for the docents called "Inside Tracks" which is sort of like Kiplinger Newsletter, a kind of three-dot journalism (Note from Tom: for those of you who are like me and don't have a clue what three-dot journalism is--Herb Caen, Pulitzer Prize-winning columnist working for the San Francisco Chronicle often referred to his column as "three-dot journalism" since it mostly consisted of short items broken up by ellipses.) Information is power. Very little of what we do is secretive, and the more we can let our non-paid staff know what is going on, it makes them feel a part of the inner circle. We have bulletin boards for them.

They need perks. All docents receive a complimentary annual Museum Membership which entitles them to discounts in the Museum Store, invitations to exhibit openings and behind-the-scene events. They have their own lockers, restrooms, and their scheduler is like their mother. When they are ill, she calls them up to see how they are doing. There is a social committee that follows up with flowers and cards. We have even seen marriages. If you look at our docents, they all have a badge, and we have a volunteer statistician that keeps track of all of their hours. We have one docent that has 28,000 hours. If you work 40 hours a week for 52 weeks a year, those 28,000 hours are equivalent of over 10 years full time. So we recognize those awards-the smallest one starts at 250 hours--and many of them have 8, 9 10 thousand hours of volunteering. We can't pay them, but there are a number of things that we can do to reward them for the invaluable hours that they invest here.

Tom: In addition to perks, do you do anything else to motivate your non-paid employees-your volunteers?

Stephen: Feedback is one of the most important motivators. We all have stationary, and we look for excuses to find someone doing something good. I try to get out a couple of cards a day to one of our volunteers. That is a good motivator for all of us. If I hear of someone giving a good tour, I let them know. If you give a good tour you hear from five our six people-if you give a bad tour your hear from nine or ten.


Tom: Do you ever have to let a volunteer go?

Stephen: There are times you have to let a paid-employee go, and there are times that you have to let a non-paid employee go.

Tom: Do you handle it the same way you let a paid employee go?

Stephen: No. The paid employee would be more difficult because they are a state employee and probably a member of a bargaining unit, so there is a progressive discipline process that you have to go through. But for a volunteer there will be one or two counseling sessions to see if there is an issue. Is it a lack of knowledge? Is there is a problem with the lack of time? Do they need to go on inactive status for a while? Are they not showing up for tours? Whatever the issue is we will attempt to talk with them one on one. Really only in a couple of rare occasions we had to cancel the volunteer service agreement and say, "Regrettably it doesn't seem that we're a good match," and we will terminate the volunteer service agreement.

Project management by volunteers

Tom: Give me an example of a volunteer led project that you have.

Stephen: Right now we have a person who was a project manger at Aerojet. He is the volunteer for a restoration project at the restoration shop. He is doing a wonderful job for us and a total volunteer team. It would cost us an arm and a leg to go out and buy those skills.

Tom: Sometimes when you let a professional run with a project, do they take off and run with it in a direction you don't want to go? In fact, sometimes a volunteer project manager who has been a high-powered project manager in the private sector has a hard time making the transition to not only a state agency, but a volunteer state agency. How do you keep that volunteer empowered without ending up in jail?

Stephen: Communication is the key. We meet on a weekly basis to make sure that he doesn't get too far ahead of us. And we are a little different than the aerospace industry-things aren't down to that level of precision when we are dealing with big old behemoths that are the size of dinosaurs. So I think that good effective communication is the best way to deal with that. We don't leave them out there by themselves for more than a week before we dial them up and get some feedback on the project.

Tom: What kind of projects would a team like that do?

Stephen: We put together volunteer project teams to do exhibits, to do the research, to work with an exhibit designer to do the planning, or to select the artifacts. We have volunteer curators who would curate a show. We use project managers for restoration projects at our shop.

Tom: Now would that be a total volunteer team, or would that include paid staff?

Stephen: The project manager is a volunteer. On the project manager's team is the head of the shop, who is paid staff, six paid employees, and then two dozen volunteers who all work together as a team to complete the project.

Tom: So you have a volunteer project manager who leads a team made up of volunteers and paid staff?

Stephen: We call them all employees-the only difference is that some don't get a pay check. We are all equals around the table, and it works very well.

Ratio of volunteers to staff

Tom: Of the 45 paid staff, how many are actually hands on with the volunteers?

Stephen: To get the 100,000 hours that are donated here, we have about 3 ½ that are just devoted to the caring, the nurturing, and the feeding of our docents and volunteers.

Tom: Can you ever have too many volunteers?

Stephen: I guess that we could always use more volunteers; however, there is a point of diminishing returns on just how many volunteers you can effectively supervise. The librarian has decided that in order for her to line the work out and review it afterward, she can effectively work with about half a dozen volunteers. I could get her 18, but it would not be effective. So six really good volunteers is what she needs.

Right now two of her volunteers are current librarians from Davis.

Tom: You would think that librarians would want to do something different after working in a library professionally.

Stephen: They deal with off the wall questions all day with the public, so when they come here they alphabetize cards, and it is a breath of fresh air to them.

Tom: So how many make up your complete library staff-non-paid and paid?

Stephen: We have four paid staff for the librarians, six volunteers and 12-15 docents in the library.

Changes in volunteer management

Tom: Have you seen a change in volunteers in the last ten years?

Steve: I think that there is a lot more competition for volunteers. So we need to have a good program for our volunteers. It is very competitive where people will choose to volunteer. Many people seem to assume that all of our volunteers are all railroad enthusiasts, but that is not the case. They might become enthusiasts as a result of volunteering here, but it is amazing how many come from all walks of life.

We have done surveys of our volunteers, and we have found that less than 5% are railroad buffs or historians or model railroad people. These are people who are sort of like, well, I think of them like candy stripers. They are philanthropically minded, they want to give back to their community and this is a great place to do it.

We are also getting a more sophisticated level of docent. Most of them are college graduates, and they are computer literate. We do a skills assessment early on, and we are finding people who are department managers, are attorneys, and are in very responsible positions either now or before they retired. And we are able to use them.

Tom: Thank you so much for your time. I know that our readers will appreciate your experience.

Stephen: Absolutely. And we can't wait for your book to come out. When is it coming out?

Tom: We have to have it to the publisher March 1st. They edit it and get it back to us for final revisions to get back to them by April 15. It is due for release in November 2007.

Key Note Presentation: Who Are The New Volunteers?
Consider something like this for your convention

Your volunteer managers are facing a whole new world of volunteers who are available to help you accomplish your mission. Do you know how to recruit them?

The New Volunteer
Seven seismic shifts in the last 50 years that have
changed the volunteer culture in the 21st Century

  • Marketing Your Organization: Interruption marketing vs. permission marketing
  • The emergence of the knowledge workers who want to do it their way
  • When I am 64 - the growing number of retiring boomers who don't want to stuff envelopes
  • Empowering the 21 year old professional - the growing number of Gen Yers who won't stuff envelopes
  • Individualism - why volunteerism is increasing in spite of Bowling Alone
  • Cyberspace - another huge untapped volunteer resource
  • The exponential increase of competition - volunteers have more options

Tom McKee is a leading volunteer management speaker, trainer and consultant. You can reach Tom at (916) 987-0359 or e-mail him at tom@advantagepoint.com. Other articles and free resources are available at www.volunteerpower.com.