A Multi-generational Volunteer Family


I'm sharing my reflections on the volunteer program at Fort Nisqually, where I spent three years working as both an exhibit curator and event coordinator (that's me on the far left in the straw hat!) I welcome the feedback of Fort Folks.

How to Create a Multi-Generational Volunteer Family

At a time when many living history museums are struggling to recruit and maintain younger reenactors, Fort Nisqually Living History Museum has a multi-generational volunteer corps that is dedicated, knowledgeable, and enthusiastic about interpreting history to the public. They are also an affectionate and welcoming family.

During my three years at Fort Nisqually, I was captivated by the success of the volunteer program, and the warmth of the volunteers. In the years prior to arriving at the Fort, I had been the director of small history museums. I had attended workshops on volunteer management, written volunteer manuals, recruited and trained volunteers, and compared notes with fellow administrators. But nowhere had I seen anything like the Fort’s volunteers in terms of knowledge, commitment, and community. I wondered, was this phenomenon unique to living history museums? To the Fort? Could the success be reproduced at traditional museums?

I spent a good part of my three years trying to discern what created this amazing volunteer group characterized by age diversity, dedication, and conviviality. Slowly, I formulated a “recipe,” which I humbly offer here, and which I hope could be helpful to museums of all kinds. I welcome the review and critique of the Fort’s volunteers.

The Fort

Historically, Fort Nisqually was the first non-native settlement on Puget Sound. The Hudson’s Bay Company established the Fort as a fur trade post in the early 1830s. By 1855, the period the living history museum represents today, it was the center of a large agricultural operation — a manifestation of the Company’s effort to diversify as the fur trade waned.

In the early 1930s, two of the Fort’s original 1850s buildings were moved from DuPont, WA to Point Defiance Park in Tacoma when the then owner – DuPont Powder Works, manufacturers of explosives – donated the buildings to the community under the condition they be removed from company property. Community organizations, new deal programs such as the CCC and WPA, and eventually its current owner, Metro Parks Tacoma, restored the original buildings and reconstructed most of the rest of the fort, at least those portions that existed within the palisades. Reconstruction efforts continue today, increasingly directed at expanding the representation of the Fort’s original agricultural operations.

Fort Nisqually has approximately 20,000 (paid and member) visitors each year. It is the only living history museum in the state that is open year round and has full-time staff. That said, the staff is small — two full-time and about a dozen part-time. Part-time staff includes paid interpreters, of which there are always one or two on site. With this small staff, the fort relies on volunteer reenactors to inhabit the fort and bring it to life for visitors.

The Volunteers

Most of Fort Nisqually volunteers participate as reenactors. The current, active, re-enacting corps includes about 150 volunteers. Some volunteer during the week or weekends as their schedule permits, but the bulk of volunteering occurs during living history events. There are currently seven living history events per year. Anywhere from 30-130 reenactors participate at these events. While some volunteers participate at every or nearly every event, most participate in 1-3 events annually.

Volunteers range in age from infant to 80s. At the fort’s most popular event — Candlelight Tour — half of the re-enacting volunteers are in their 20s or younger. Fort volunteers include couples, whole families, and individuals. They are mostly, but not overwhelmingly, female.

All volunteers come to the fort with some interest in history — either history in general, or more specifically the history of the mid-19th century, the fur trade, or a desire to learn traditional skills. Most do not have prior re-enacting experience. Others do, primarily through the American Mountain Men, civil-war era organizations, or at nearby Fort Steilacoom (A mid-19th century U.S. Army post).

There is a core of volunteers who have been participating for more than 20 years. I believe the average number of years volunteering is somewhere between 5-10 years. Every year brings new recruits. Annually, about 30-40 people attend volunteer orientation. About one-third of orientation attendees become active volunteers. I believe that small number to become active is actually part of the program’s success, so let’s move onto the “recipe.”

The Recipe

It’s important to note that the Fort’s multi-generational volunteer family didn’t develop overnight. Time is an essential ingredient. Here is the rest of the recipe, with more below on each item:

  • A sequential education program, 6-17 years, linked to volunteering. This is nearly entirely responsible for the high number of the Fort’s youth volunteers.

  • Encourage volunteer ownership and responsibility. Provide support, but encourage (nearly require!) volunteers to be self-motivated and take responsibility for their own experience.

  • Show appreciation. Acknowledge and celebrate volunteer knowledge and dedication.

  • Create “family” traditions. This is the glue that binds.

Sequential Education Program linked to Volunteering

There were many hands that went into creating the Fort’s programs, but a lot of the credit for the Fort’s success goes to Lane Sample, who holds an M.A. in education. She built on existing programs to create a carefully constructed sequential education program.

Age 6-12 get their dose of learning through summer camps. At each age level, participants are gradually introduced to deeper historical knowledge and more challenging period skills (mission relevancy!).

Between ages 13 to 17, teens can apply to participate in the Apprentice Interpreter (AI) program. They go through an application and interview process that requires the teen to take responsibility for setting up their own interview time. Once accepted, teens meet once a month for lessons in history, period skills, and reenacting skills. AIs are asked to participate in special events, where they continue to learn from elders as well as educate the public. Teens are also invited to volunteer in the camp program, passing knowledge onto the next generation.

The participation of teens in special events is appreciated by the public. Visitor comments following Candlelight Tour included: “I enjoyed watching the dancing the most!! Those teens were really having fun! It was great to see!!” “It was a delight to see all of the young people that volunteered. I think that is so wonderful that they are interested first, in volunteering, and second, in the history of the Puget Sound area.”

The teen program has been in place for more than a decade now, and some of those former teens are now coming back as 20-somethings to volunteer, or even become staff. Sometimes, they bring their spouses and children with them. The family is growing.

I think the success of the teen program owes a lot to its design and implementation by a trained educator who understands the needs and abilities of this age group. The kids feel respected and appreciated, they are given opportunities and challenges that are age appropriate, they learn responsibility, and they have fun while doing it.

There are teens, and even younger children, who volunteer in addition to or outside of the education programs. The Fort has established guidelines that require youth under 17 who are not enrolled in the AI program to have their parent on-site when they volunteer (providing supervision). This often leads to parents and siblings becoming volunteers, too. Indeed, there are several home-school families whose children have participated in camps and/or the AI program, and then also volunteer as a family.

Volunteer Ownership and Responsibility

New adult and family volunteers are provided with a training session and a volunteer manual that introduce procedural information, the Fort’s history, and period-correct clothing. They are also told the Fort’s expectations. They are asked to always remember that their primary reason for being there is to serve/educate the public. We also ask them to take responsibility for defining their volunteer role. We don’t hand them a pre-packaged persona and a script. We expect them to explore the fort and its history to develop their own reenacting persona, to conduct their own research and to seek out volunteer mentors to gain knowledge and skills.

Fort staff does provide support: at first, giving them access to our clothing closet, matching them to volunteer mentors that may share their interests, and helping them access our extensive library to pursue their interests. The Fort also offers periodic workshops and training sessions on interpretation, first person persona development, and period skills. A sewing guild offers monthly lessons on period clothing knowledge and skills (and also helps build and repair the Fort’s collection of period clothing)

Needless to say, the prospect of taking on persona development and defining one’s role can be a bit of an overwhelming responsibility for some potential volunteers. I believe this accounts for the many that we don’t see after the initial orientation. At first I felt really bad about this, and wanted to offer more “traditional” support mechanisms – fully flushed out personas, scripts, and the like. But I came to realize that even though we lose some folks because we don’t provide this and they feel overwhelmed, those that stay take tremendous ownership in what they build. The trade-off is worth it. Volunteers take great pride in their research and in “getting it right.” I’ve seen some approach (and even exceed!) a level of research and scholarship of a trained curator. And when it comes to interpreting, these “researching volunteers” are much better equipped to answer and respond to visitor interests and inquiries than if they were handed a script. And experienced volunteers do an amazing job of kindly guiding – and correcting when necessary -- new volunteers. It’s like a family with older siblings teaching younger ones the family rules.

Show Appreciation

I think everyone who works in museums (or any not-for-profit) understands the importance of showing volunteers you appreciate their efforts. It lets them know that the time and effort they are giving is valued.

At the Fort, volunteer appreciation includes recognizing them for their research and acquired knowledge. This happens when the Fort asks them to mentor new volunteers, teach volunteer training sessions, and make presentations at special events. Volunteers who write blogs about their knowledge and experience are acknowledged when the Fort likes or shares those blogs on its social media sites. Volunteers are also invited to submit articles for publication in the Fort’s (award winning!) historical periodical. Sometimes, the Fort is able to hire volunteers for public demonstrations of their acquired craft through grant-funded public programs.

All these ways of showing appreciation have a dual benefit —the volunteer receives recognition for their acquired expertise, and their knowledge is passed on to the rest of the volunteer pool and the public.

Another way the fort expresses appreciation is by respecting volunteer time. For the most part, volunteers determine when, where, and how they volunteer. With a few exceptions (e.g. school tour help, fundraising events, and the annual candlelight tour) volunteers are not scheduled or assigned to specific times or tasks. Again, I know these flies in the face of what many small museums feel they must do – scheduling volunteers to fill needed posts or tasks. I know this can’t be avoided, but I suggest that museums have become over-dependent on using volunteers to fill (often low-skilled) staff positions, and unwittingly alienated volunteers. Volunteers don’t want to “punch a clock” and be unpaid staff. They want to do something they feel has value – for themselves and their organization. And they often need flexibility, especially if young children are involved. I can think of several instances where a volunteer’s participation has waxed and waned due to a whole variety of personal factors – job issues, health issues, etc. Because they know they can come and go according to their own needs and schedule, they have a habit of coming back.

All that said, there are some volunteers who prefer a schedule, and the Fort is delighted to have them self-schedule. The fort has a blacksmith who always volunteers on Wed. and Sat. And there is a group of volunteers who volunteer on the first Sunday of every month — though their number and who actually participates varies.

There are other ways the Fort expresses appreciation to volunteers: in writing in the volunteer newsletter, by providing donuts at every special event (a worthy $30 expense!), and an annual volunteer appreciation event. These last two items — donuts and the annual event — take me to the final ingredient of the “recipe,” which is creating family traditions.

Family Traditions

During my first year at the Fort, I regularly asked volunteers, what is it that creates this sense of family? Often, the first word out of their mouths was “It’s the donuts.” (At the morning of every special event, staff delivers several dozen donuts to the volunteer center.) I said, “really?” and they said, “it makes us feel like you care.” Okay, I thought, that sounds right. But as time progressed I realized that “feeling appreciated” was not the only thing happening. I became aware that the donuts were one of numerous long-standing and expanding traditions. These traditions help to reinforce the Fort’s “family” bonds, in the same way that traditions do in our own families.

Some of the Fort’s traditions have been staff created — like the donuts — and others have been volunteer generated, such as the potluck dinners on First Sundays and several holiday parties in volunteer’s homes.

The annual volunteer appreciation event is both a recognition event and an opportunity for more traditions. The traditions include the “piping in” of the haggis (It’s a Robert Burns dinner), a slide show of the year’s volunteer activities, and the presentation of the annual volunteer awards. These awards are sometimes funny, such as cone-head caps for the parking lot volunteers. All recognize the importance of volunteer contributions, and most are made personally by staff.

There are also traditions imbedded in living history events, during the event or after hours. For example, there is a contract signing activity during the annual Brigade Encampment that is part of the public program. Volunteers, in their personas, debate their annual contract with Hudson’s Bay Company managers, also portrayed by volunteers. The activity gives the public a glimpse of the company’s business model (mission relevance!). And the tradition? Volunteers returning year after year, decades in some cases, with the seal of each year fixed to their contract. And after hours there is another tradition of Brigade, a huge potluck dinner.

The sense of family that permeates the fort, nurtured by these traditions, is an important part of volunteer recruitment, retention, and dedication. It was, in part, this feeling of family that permeates the fort that attracted me to it in the first place, and I’m not alone. As for retention and dedication, there are numerous examples of volunteers who donate more than 200 hours per year — some who have been volunteering for more than a decade. They will say, pretty much universally, it is the sense of family that keeps them coming back. The bond runs so deep, volunteers have chosen the fort for their weddings and memorials.

Quirks and Room for Improvement

Like all families, the Fort has its share of crazy uncles and eccentric aunts. To coin the phrase of another former staff member, “It’s a quirky bunch.” And, like most families, there is an amazing (though not unlimited) amount of patience and forbearance. And the program does still have room for further improvement. While the Fort has amazing age diversity, it still lacks ethnic diversity. I believe that will only be achieved through a development plan that is broader than volunteers – it’s a staffing, programming, and interpretive shortcoming too.

In Closing

In summary, these four ingredients — a sequential education program linked to volunteering, volunteer ownership and responsibility, showing appreciation, and creating and supporting family traditions —evolved over time to create the Fort’s successful multi-generation volunteer family. It is an honor to be part of it.


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