By Carolyn Belardo
Lois Kuter makes her living by helping people help other people. She is president of the American Association for Museum Volunteers and manager of volunteer services at the Academy.
Volunteers are an essential part of tourism, whether they are imparting information to out-of-towners at a visitor center, giving directions at a sporting mega-event, or greeting passengers as an airport ambassador. And volunteers are indispensable to running a museum.
At the Academy, Kuter coordinates a dedicated group of nearly 300 volunteers who put in 35,000 hours of their time each year. They range in age from 14 to 80 and come from all walks of life.
We asked Lois about her job and trends in the industry.
Q. What does your job entail?
A. My job is to get the volunteers on board. I don’t actually see them that much once they become active here. I keep them in the information loop and make sure they get recognition. I serve as the point person to help them solve any problems, to answer their questions. I support the staff by helping them find the right volunteer for the job.
Q. Has the profile of Academy volunteers changed over last decade?
A. There are a lot more teenagers volunteering. We’ve strengthened their training and are offering them expanded opportunities. Now high school students can volunteer throughout the museum, whereas before their opportunities were limited to just a few options. We’ve also done better in terms of expanding diversity, both economic and ethnic, especially among the younger set.
Q. Why are young people drawn to the Academy?
A. They want to learn, and they like science and tend to be passionate about it. Also, a lot of them are looking for career skills that help them when they go looking for a job.
Q. How does Philly rank in terms of museum volunteerism?
A. With so many types of museums, there’s something for everyone. I think all museums love having volunteers. We compete a little with each other, but not a lot because volunteers choose to do what they’re interested in, whether it’s art or science or something else.
Q. Where is Academy volunteerism headed?
A. There’s always more quality you can build into the program in terms of standards of excellence we can reach for. We’re seeking out more enrichment programs to inspire our volunteers and keep them happy. We’re increasing the use of volunteers in new and different exhibit spaces, such as the Science Now station and the gallery carts. There are endless places where we can expand; it’s just a matter of staff time to work with the volunteers.
Q. What are some challenges facing museums across the country?
A. Turnover is one. Baby boomers are said to be project-based, not staying long term in one place. There’s a lot more competition for their spare time now. Retirees are the busiest of them all. Also, young people aren’t going to stay beyond high school. They go off to college and start a career.
Another is opening doors to a demographic that might not be able to afford the time, nor the travel and parking expenses, to volunteer. And there are liability issues as well.
Q. What are the top reasons people should volunteer at the Academy?
A. Because they have the opportunity to contribute directly to the Academy’s mission and to enhance what the Academy does both behind the scenes and in the museum exhibits. It’s fun and interesting work, and the learning opportunities are endless. The staff is truly appreciative of the contributions volunteers make, and they show it.
Q. Do you volunteer?
A. I volunteer with the International Committee for the Defense of the Breton Language and with a group that provides small grants for Native American initiatives.
Q. I hear you play an instrument?
A. I play the bagpipes, but only among friends.
Q. Your 25th anniversary at the Academy is this year. How does it feel?
A. It never gets old. There are new challenges every day. There’s always more to do.
To learn more about volunteering at the Academy, click here for the Volunteer page of our website.