Picture shpwing a mixed group of people posing for a photograph in front of a building

Case Study: Volunteering

The Courtauld’s Digitisation Volunteer Project 

We spoke to Tom Bilson, Head of Digital Media at The Courtauld, about the Digitisation Volunteer Project – the largest and most diverse public inclusion project The Courtauld has ever run. 

For some time, The Courtauld had wanted to make their full photographic collections available online to the public. This ambitious project would involve cataloguing over 60,000 negatives and nearly one million mounted photographs – but rather than simply hand it over to a contractor, the team saw an opportunity to do something a bit different. With the help of a £9.4m grant from The National Lottery Heritage Fund for the wider Courtauld Connects project, work started on the Digitisation Volunteer project in 2017.

Nearly 6 years later, the project has engaged more than 2,000 volunteers, who have collectively given over 25 years of time to the project. Every time new shifts are released, they are booked within a few hours and there is now a waiting list to join as a volunteer. 

Volunteers range in age from 18 to 86, and one in five volunteers have a disability or long-term health condition and a further 11% have caring responsibilities. 22% describe their ethnicity as Black, Asian, Mixed or another ethnic group other than white. The project has been nominated for two awards, featured in numerous exhibitions, publications and talks, and has created employment, work experience and internship opportunities at The Courtauld and elsewhere.

But what were the keys to its success?

Creative partnerships and no barriers to taking part

The team wanted to attract a truly diverse range of volunteers and placed partnerships at the heart of volunteer recruitment. Working closely with organisations like Terrence Higgins Trust, CoolTan Arts, The One Housing Foundation and Beyond Autism helped the team to engage with some of the most vulnerable people in society, many of whom had historically been excluded from these kinds of opportunities in the heritage sector.

The Courtauld team took the time to sell the project to potential volunteers, showing how they would benefit from getting involved. The result is that 35% of volunteers had not heard of The Courtauld before they started volunteering – reverence for the organisation is not a requirement. In fact for volunteers, there are no minimum requirements either in terms of time or skills, and the team has never turned away anyone. 

Reflecting The Courtauld’s position as a university, the team took on the challenge of training all volunteers to:

  • accession, transcribe and photograph the material
  • write biographies for over 1,700 of the photographers represented in the collection
  • carry out copyright audits and conservation tasks

An empowered staff team and buy in at the top

With support from the senior leadership team underpinning the project, a small team of three staff were brought together to run and manage it. As the project has grown and changed, this team has adapted to different challenges and requirements, and haven’t hesitated to muck in when required. They were given the freedom to be creative with project delivery, including bringing in new software from outside the sector to help manage registration of new volunteers and shift booking.

Clear packages of work, tested and refined

The nature of the digitisation process meant that it was possible to define a set of clear work packages for volunteers. But the team were meticulous in ensuring that these were well documented and rigorously tested to ensure they were easy to pick up on a half day shift. They created training materials and help sheets to ensure that every volunteer is totally clear what is expected of them and can get the most out of their experience. Volunteers with experience have also always been happy to pass on their knowledge and skills to newcomers.

Although developing this approach required an initial investment of time, it now means that 8000 – 9000 photographs are catalogued each week, and volunteer satisfaction is extremely high. It also means that the team can easily run weekly corporate volunteer sessions, hosting teams from organisations including the Bank of England, Facebook and LexisNexis, as well as offering work experience and paid internships to students and recent graduates.

A sense of community and belonging

Picture of a group of people sitting at desks facing each other and looking at the camera

There can be up to 12 volunteers working on the project at a time, and up to 36 volunteers are coming in each day. The team were keen to ensure that there was a real sense of community among the volunteers, knowing this was key to volunteer retention. The volunteer cafe launched at the start of the project, and that space for volunteers to spend time with each other and with The Courtauld staff has been a social lifeline for many. 

In 2020, whilst the in-person aspects of the project were put on hold, volunteers were able to engage digitally throughout the pandemic. But the team knew how important the in-person sessions were to so many volunteers, and the project returned to the library as soon as it was safe to do so.

The strength of the connections made between volunteers and the organisation is clear. Four former volunteers have gone on to work in paid roles at The Courtauld, whilst others have been empowered to start working in roles in similar organisations.

Top tips for a successful volunteering project

What are the key things we can learn from The Courtauld’s approach? 

  1. Support staff to deliver your volunteer projects: Ensure your senior team supports and empowers staff to run the volunteer programmes with the flexibility and resources required. 
  2. Remember that inclusivity doesn’t start at home: You have to go out into the community to recruit volunteers and actively encourage them to participate. If barriers exist, do everything in your power to remove them.
  3. Partnerships are vital: Partner with organisations who can help with recruitment and be clear about the benefit to the volunteer as well as your organisation.
  4. Develop a range of work packages: Not all activities suit everyone, especially when it comes to computer-based work so it is good to have hands-on alternatives. Keep reinventing the tasks on offer and develop new ones constantly, whilst ensuring they are  clear and well-rehearsed.
  5. Build a sense of community among your volunteers: Invest time in your volunteers and facilitate a social environment. They will be your strongest advocates if you can get this right. 
  6. Always try to say ‘yes’: whatever the challenge.

What next for The Courtauld?
As the Digitisation project draws to a close over the next few months, the team are looking for new funding and support to kick start their next project.

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